Devin Ellis: It Matters

My Story

A love for theater is not the usual path to a career in international conflict management – but it happened to me. Growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley, I was a long way from the gruesome wars that wracked many parts of the world, but it intrigued me to understand why instability happened and how to respond to it and prepare for it. Hearing about the fall of Mobutu’s government in Zaire and the wars in the Balkans on National Public Radio growing up, ignited my interest in a career in foreign policy. I would eventually decide to move to the DC area for college and eight years later I’m on the other side of a graduate degree in international security policy.

But that’s only half the story. My development as an adolescent and young adult was profoundly shaped by my involvement in theater – both in school, taking college acting classes and helping to produce shows, and during the summers through the improv theater camp I attended religiously from the age of ten until… well, now my friends run it and I am waiting for my own daughter to be old enough to go.

The power of theater – acting, writing, directing, etc. – for young people can’t be overstated. It speaks to almost every aspect of development we go through as human beings. Theater can teach you to express yourself by becoming someone else, to articulate your own vision of what’s right and wrong with the world, to create something meaningful to everyone out of your own most personal experiences, to explore the realm of imagination. By opening windows into all kinds of experiences, it helps us grow as young people – imparting life lessons in a creative instead of stultifying way. In my own case, it helped me understand that I could draw together my impressions, ideas and dreams into a unique narrative which would not only hold people’s interest, but could genuinely affect their attitudes and ideas.

I started writing scenes and then whole productions for my friends, and discovered things I had never know about myself before. I could tell a joke. I was able to look at situations and understand people’s motivation. Theater helped me understand how people interact with each other. That helped me understand politics. It also taught me about narrative and how to make people suspend their disbelief and accept the truth you were showing them, whether it was real or not.

Today I still work in theater, but my plays are for the Brookings Institution and the Agency for International Development, the Department of Homeland Security and Ford Motor Company. I spend about a third of my time in a suit and tie, talking to clients about the value of using simulations to teach about crisis management and negotiation, and test hypotheses about policy questions in international security and instability in the business world. The other two thirds – to the envy of most of my colleagues – I am leaning back in my office, feet propped on my desk, imagining what MIGHT happen in a million different situations, and then turning my ideas and research into a simulation that will help two peoples resolve a conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, or a big company decide on a crisis communications strategy.

And yes, when I recently designed a simulation about how Somali pirates negotiate ransom for their hostages, I couldn’t help but put a little quote at the top of the introduction…

“Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valor, and in the grapple I boarded them. On the instant they got clear of our ship; so I alone became their prisoner.”

~ Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 6

Click here to learn how you can help keep the arts alive in DC schools.

Devin Ellis

Devin Ellis
YPT Community Member

Devin Ellis is a Simulation Developer at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management.

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