Audience members at Sidney Harman Hall at Shakespeare Theatre Company were in for quite a treat on the night of Monday, May 20, 2013. 5-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, one of Broadway’s most highly regarded performers, sat down in conversation with Michael Kahn as part of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Classic Conversations” series, to discuss her classical and musical roles, and how their challenges intersect.
It was a very comfortable, casual event – very much a conversation. Yet even with that casual tone, it was a very informative night. McDonald has great charisma, and a gift for drawing the audience in. Among anecdotes she told was her difficult time at Juilliard as she was coping with her desire to work in musical theatre, while being trained only classically, McDonald told the story of one great teacher that really helped her to connect with her classical voice. He picked out an aria for her to sing and told her to act it – to not think about it. She was able to truly sing and connect with the aria, because she was allowed to act it. He helped her to find her classical voice by not looking for it. Acting – the craft of acting – is clearly paramount for McDonald. In response to a later question, she explained that she is more comfortable acting and singing, rather than just acting, because singing is like her “first language.”
McDonald also shared an anecdote about how, during the run of Carousel, in which she played Carrie, she had a friend who was kind enough (and blunt enough) to tell her that she needed to have “more going on” in her acting – more subtext – rather than simply being “sad.” She credits this as one of the pivotal moments in her career that truly helped her to become a better actor.
This discussion of having “more going on” in acting continued as the conversation moved on to The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in which McDonald played Bess. While making some quips about the controversy stirred up by that particular production (she mentioned specifically how some audience members would come to the show with the vitriolic Sondheim letter “in their pockets!”), she talked about how Porgy and Bess was always something she connected with, even back at Juilliard when she was still fighting against her classical voice, and how very important it was for her to really get into who Bess was, and to become the character.
She read the book, and even created her own backstory for Bess, which she was nice enough to share with the audience: to her, Bess was the mother of the character Clara. When McDonald shared that bit of information, there was an audible gasp throughout the theater, as people familiar with the opera thought about what that might mean for the character. Kahn especially seemed to appreciate that, commenting a few moments later that he enjoyed the production and that classics ought to be reinterpreted all the time – “because they can stand it.”
During the last part of the conversation, when questions from Facebook were asked, Audra was able to share some pieces of advice for other actors. She said that when auditioning, actors shouldn’t go in hoping desperately to be liked and to be chosen, but to “go in as the solution” — to go in thinking and acting as if they are indeed exactly who is needed. And in doing so, they will be less nervous and able to give a better audition and be that solution.
She was also asked her thoughts about race in theatre. McDonald’s reply was eloquent and succinct: “You are you first, and then your race.”
It was indeed a fun, entertaining, and informative night with one of Broadway’s brightest stars.The best piece of information? From McDonald herself: she will be back on Broadway in a play in 2014. I can hardly wait.
Classic Conversations: Featuring Audra McDonald was on Monday, May 20, 2013, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall- 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC.
Tickets to Classic Conversations: Featuring Christopher Plummer on June 3, 2013. Purchase tickets online.