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Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald
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Audra McDonald Interview

Six Tony Awards

December 8, 2012
Washington, D.C.

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  Audra McDonald

You've had such a great career as a musical theater performer. But you're also a concert artist, a recording artist, and a dramatic actress on stage and films and television. Is there one medium that you prefer? How are they different for you?

Audra McDonald: I think in the end there is one ultimate goal with all of them, and that is, as a performing artist, you want to explore the deepest, most truthful way to express a point of view, or whatever the character is thinking, or whatever emotion you're trying to convey. I think with the different media it's just about what muscles you use to express that.

Obviously, if you're doing something in the theater, what you're doing has to be on a large enough scale that everybody in the theater can experience it. You have to hit the back wall, as they say. You have to be able to make sure, if you're experiencing some incredible thing on stage but no one can hear you, then you might as well not be on stage. However, if you were to be that big on television or in film, you'd look grotesque. It would look odd and weird, because the camera is right in your face, so you just have to learn how to exercise different muscles, but still going for the same goal, which is the most truthful way that you can express a character or an emotion. So for me it's just about staying within that truth, and then learning about the different techniques. And then the same thing with concertizing too. You have no script. You've got no fourth wall. There's nothing, really, no character to hide behind. So for me it was about learning how to communicate with the audience, and be comfortable with who I am is enough, and then slip into character for each song. But in between each song, you have to be honest and be comfortable with who you are. So that was also another sort of thing for me to learn. It's trial by error. I fell on my face many times, figuratively and literally. I have fallen on my face in concert. But someone said to me once -- a lady I was doing my first national tour with, Mary Fogarty. She had done a million plays by this point. She was about 70 years old, she's passed away now. But I said, "Where did you study acting?" She said, "The stage, honey. I learned on the stage." I said, "You didn't go to college? "She said, "No, no, no, no. I had to get on stage to figure out what I was doing wrong, and the stage will teach you." And I've never forgotten that either.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

This year you starred in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess on Broadway. In some ways, this production is a departure from previous performances of Porgy and Bess. How would you describe it?

Audra McDonald Interview Photo
Audra McDonald: I've seen many productions of Porgy and Bess, and there have been so many different interpretations over the years, even within the few years that George Gershwin was alive, from the time that he first wrote it until the time he passed away, and then again in Ira Gershwin's lifetime too. Many different permutations. One that everybody talks about is the uncut version that was brought back in the '70s by Houston Grand Opera and made very popular. How our production differed from that is we cut out a good deal of the repetitive stuff within, like repetitive choruses, or instead of five verses of something we would do maybe three verses of something. And we added a little more dialogue. We weren't the first ones to do that. That was done right after Gershwin died, when it was brought back to Broadway, the first revival by Cheryl Crawford, with Ira Gershwin's blessing. He actually did some of the work on that as well.

Because we were doing it on a Broadway stage, we were not doing the big operatic version that you usually see at the Met, or many opera houses across the world. We wanted to make ours a more intimate experience, so we looked at it more like a play or a piece of musical theater than necessarily an opera. I guess that's the main difference. But I think the other difference is, usually, when you see productions of Porgy and Bess done in an opera house, they'll do about 15 performances total. We did over 250, 260 performances of that. No, 300! We made it to 300, because we were doing it eight times a week. So there's a chance to really get into those characters and explore in a way that you might not necessarily get a chance to do, you meet up with a company, you work for a couple of months. You do 15 performances and then everybody goes off to do maybe another version of Porgy and Bess or whatever, but you don't get that cohesive sort of day in and day out, month in and month out, I think, that we were lucky enough to get with that long, long run.

Did you try to approach anything differently in the character of Bess?

Audra McDonald: My goal wasn't to approach anything. My goal in taking the role wasn't, "I'm going to do something completely different than what everyone else has done." That wasn't it. For me it was, "I know this piece. I love this piece. I've seen it and I've memorized it. I want to understand Bess. I want to understand why she makes the choices she makes. What is her history that has led her to these choices?" You don't just all of a sudden appear somewhere. You've got to have history that takes you there. What has happened in her life that has led her to this point? And even with every time I've seen the production, I think, "Oh, gosh. Why does she... ...he's so wonderful." And I think the whole audience thinks that. It's part of the tragedy of it. Why does she go away at the end. Look at what a great guy Porgy is. Why does she leave that? Why does she succumb? So I really, really wanted to understand. I wanted to get as deep inside her head as I possibly could. So I went back to the original book -- because that's the wellspring, that's where these characters were first born -- to DuBose Heyward. I wanted to see. Because obviously you can't put everything that's in the book in an opera.

Fascinatingly enough, a lot of the book is in the opera. DuBose Heyward wrote many more lyrics than I think he's perhaps credited with. A lot of the lyrics are credited to Ira Gershwin, but if you read it, they're lifted right out of the book, right into the score. Many, many of the passages.

So I went back to the book, which has a little more detail about Bess, and then I studied women of that era. I studied African American women of that era. I studied cocaine usage. I studied the effect it has on the body. I studied opportunities that would have been available to women of that time if you didn't have a job or a husband, and you were addicted to drugs. You don't have many choices nowadays, but certainly not then. And all that helped me just to understand her a little better. I also wanted to get down to the core of her, which for me was she's an addict. Once I understood this is someone who is an addict, I was able to understand her choices a little better. She goes from being addicted to Crown to being addicted to Porgy, and then gets sucked in by Crown again, and then once Porgy and Crown are both gone, she gets addicted to some sort of comfort again, which is the cocaine. But that addictive personality helped me make more sense of who Bess was. That's something that probably hadn't really occurred to me before. Everybody else used to say, "Oh, what. She just loves life. She's a fast woman, that's all. She's just a fast woman who loves life." Well, that's not true. That's surely what she projects, but that's not what's going on underneath. And that's what I wanted to get to, what's going on underneath.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

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