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Embracing the unexpected

Queen’s is reserving its honorary degrees in 2016 for alumni in celebration of the university’s 175th anniversary. Throughout fall convocation, the Gazette will profile the four honorary degree recipients and explore how Queen’s has impacted their life and career.

Raised in Kingston, the daughter of two Queen’s professors, luminary playwright Judith Thompson’s (Artsci’77) return to campus brought back a slew of memories of her time as an undergraduate theatre student. On Nov. 17, she accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws – the latest honour in a highly-lauded career in the dramatic arts.

Judith Thompson (Artsci'77) received an honorary Doctor of Laws at the Nov. 17 convocation ceremony - the latest honour in a distinguished career in the dramatic arts. (Photo Credit: Bernard Clark)

“It’s a huge honour, obviously,” Dr. Thompson said of receiving the honorary degree from her alma mater. “I’m humbled and amazed and delighted.  Going to meet (Dan School of Drama and Music Director) Craig (Walker) in Theological Hall, I was suddenly 18 again – going in that front door in my first year in Theatre Studies. That’s where my mother taught for about six years.”

Dr. Thompson’s first play, The Crackwalker, was inspired by time spent working with a social worker amongst some of Kingston’s most disadvantaged residents. In the nearly 26 years since it premiered, she has written numerous works for the stage, screen and radio – many of which explore darker and lesser discussed elements of society and humanity as a whole. She has been awarded the Governor General's Award for drama twice, has been invested in the Order of Canada and has received countless other award including the Dora Mavor Moore Award, the Chalmers Award for Creativity and Excellence in the Arts, and the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award.

In her speech to the graduating class, Dr. Thompson again touched on a number of topics not traditionally heard in a convocation address. Touching on her experiences of being bullied as a child and the untimely passing of a loved one, as well as the birth of her children and the success she has experienced in her career, Dr. Thompson implored the graduates to address the unexpected and the impossible. She reminded the graduates that both positive and negative events can impact our present, but that we have the capacity to utilize the lessons of those events to shape the present and the future.

“The past is always with us, and the future is not something that happens to us but something we make happen by acting now,” she says. “We are all creating our futures now, at this moment, and each of us will play a role in the future of the world. You even more than me, for it is your world now.”

Dr. Thompson reiterated that, regardless of the tools at one’s disposal, we all have an obligation to act to make the world a better place in our own lives and the lives of others. Regardless of the goal, it is the action we take that makes the difference.

“At first you might feel like I felt in that doctor’s office,” she said, recounting the feeling she had before the birth of her first child.  “‘No, not me, it is impossible that I could have that beautiful baby, make this card, write this letter, start a foundation, tutor this child, write a book, make graffiti like Banksy. I can’t do this.’ But you can. It’s the doing that counts and then the doing again and again. The privilege of doing. Because the impossibly terrible either has happened or will happen to you, as well as the impossibly wonderful. Learn to expect the unexpected.”