At a young age, Robert Galinsky decided his life would be about doing social good, full-time. A playwright, actor, poet, father, and teacher, Robert shares with MindMeet his philosophy on maintaining a symbiotic relationship with the spaces we inhabit, paying it forward, and his phenomenal new solo theater piece, The Bench.
KS: What gives you energy to create so much?
RG: I think a lot about the idea of “rent.” Paying rent on earth – for being here and being able to take a breath every day. I do that by trying to inspire people who are considered outside the margins.
Also, I live in a city-owned building and my rent has been so low for so many years, and that’s really shaped my life. Once I was able to stop chasing rent so hard, I was able to start paying it forward – to go out and do good in the world.
KS: Can you tell me about the play you’re working on right now? What led you towards creating The Bench?
RG: I started getting to know some homeless people. I was really drawn to them; they looked, from a distance, like alien creatures with no roots or relatable histories. Quite quickly, I realized how wrong those assumptions were. It really intrigued me, so I dove in. I started taking notes, writing and rewriting, feeling like it could be a cool window into a world that people don’t often peer at.
Next, I’m excited to find people to turn it into a binge-worthy television show, so that the world can see the crusty people, the people outside the mainstream, are real – they have needs, they have wisdom, they have relationships. And there’s love in everybody. The Bench will be an awesome opportunity for viewers, as well as writers and actors, to really explore humanity.
KS: How do you define love?
RG: Love is the human condition. It’s what we’re born with. It’s the natural foundation of life: non-judgmental acceptance and cooperation. We make mistakes but when things fall apart, if our first question is how to make things right, then we’re operating out of love.
A man named Mark Schoenfeld completely changed the trajectory of my life a few years ago when he encouraged me to go and ask for investment in my projects. He shifted my thinking, showing me that asking someone for something is not a weight on them, but a compliment – the first step toward cooperation. When someone asks me for something it actually boosts my self-esteem; I know I’m needed. Asking someone for something is honoring them.
KS: You deal with tough subjects every day. What keeps you motivated in the face of that?
RG: The moment that some kid in jail I’m working with says, “Are you coming back? When are you coming back?” – that, for me, is the simplest affirmation that I’m doing the right thing, that I’m having an effect. That keeps me going.
As a white, male American my aspirations are supposed to be – based on what the media says – a really nice car, lots of beer, great sneakers, cigars, vacations, a white picket fence lining my property, and a great looking woman with cleavage. I’ve got to be faster, stronger, sexier, and smarter than everyone else. Those aspirations destroy people. Everybody’s self-esteem gets bottomed out because not everybody is going to excel in every single area. And what they’re asking us to excel in isn’t helpful for society at large.
Social capital is what I’m interested in, but nobody’s telling me to care about that. I was the headteacher of a primary school for two years, one of only two men on the faculty. That, to me, was a reflection of what men are being told to do. To go out and do the “manly” things. Usually, that’s not connected to social good.
KS: At the moment, there’s a lot of attention on the portrayal of female aspirations in the media and how these need a serious revamp. I think the conversation about male aspirations that we’re having right now probably needs to be had more often, too.
RG: Totally. The grooming of men to be less concerned with the world outside their door is so powerful; we, men, aren’t nurtured to be nurturers and I think we could solve a lot of problems if we could shift that.
KS: What advice would you give to your five-year-old self right now, if you could?
RG: Listen to everyone. Especially those who have not been formally educated. I’ve learned more from people on street corners, from those who’ve traveled and interacted with many different types of people, than from those who’ve been confined to a classroom for too long.
KS: Are there any mantras you have? Anything you remind yourself of every day to keep you focused and productive?
I love “Motto” by Langston Hughes. It’s such a beautiful poem.
Also, the improv creative credo. That’s three things: never deny, always reply, never ask why (taught to me by the late Jerry Diner). That’s saying yes to as much as possible; live in the yes mindset. Always reply, so acknowledge everything-good, bad, whatever. It’ll be useful for something. And never ask why in the middle of a process. Just keep the process moving and when it’s finished, the why will appear. Just keep the action going.
I see time as a human concoction. Everything I’m “missing out on” is mythological. I’m not missing out on anything. I’m putting my best foot forward. Sometimes I stub my toe or twist my ankle, and sometimes I leap over the puddle and don’t get a drop of water on me. I think it’s about knowing that everything I’m in the middle of right now is happening. It’s not happening next week; it’s not happening next year. It’s happening right now. I don’t look at it like there’s going to be a particular moment where everything falls into place. It’s falling into place every single day, even if it’s falling apart.
Robert’s charity is Literacy for Incarcerated Teens, the only non-profit organization of its kind working to end illiteracy among New York’s incarcerated young people by inspiring them to read. Robert tells us it was founded by the toughest type of people in the world – school librarians. According to him, “books allow these kids to escape the place they’re in right now, discover new worlds and improve themselves.”