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Actress speaks at SMC

Meaghan Daly | Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Saint Mary’s welcomed Tony and Grammy Award winner Audra McDonald on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Gillespie Center at the Hilton Garden Inn. She took the stage among students, professors, faculty members and other members from the South Bend community.

McDonald was brought to Saint Mary’s as this year’s Margaret Hill Endowed Visiting Artist. This is an annual event made possible by the generous gift from Hill, a Saint Mary’s  alumna and a Broadway producer. The event offers students an entire day to spend with an artist of especially high quality.

McDonald is most recently recognized for her performance on four seasons of ABC’s “Private Practice” and a nine-month run of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” winning her fifth Tony Award over the summer for her portrayal of Bess. She is also the first person under 30 to win five Tony Awards.

The theatre, film, television and recording studio artist was introduced by Saint Mary’s President Carol Ann Mooney and received an overwhelming round of applause welcoming McDonald as she took the stage.

She attributes all the training she still calls upon in her work today to the first theatre she was a part of, from age nine until she graduated high school.

She shared her first on-stage experience in “The King and I” where she had never seen the final run-thru until the night of the dress rehearsal. When the king died at the end, McDonald immediately was shocked and began crying. Lesson learned: Read the script, she said.

When it came time to apply to college, McDonald said she applied to UCLA, USC, NYU and Carnegie Mellon. After hearing a fellow classmate had auditioned at Juilliard, she decided to audition as well, confident she could do it.

“I loved acting and knew I wanted to be on Broadway, but I thought I better [audition] with my strongest talent, which was singing. … [Juilliard] laughed at me during my audition and my call back,” she said.

Despite facing ridicule during her audition, McDonald was accepted to Juilliard.

“I thought, ‘Juilliard accepted me, I have to go,’” McDonald said.

McDonald was accepted to Juilliard’s voice program, however, to her dismay, it turned out to be only voice and music while her peers had the opportunity to explore acting and opera, she said.

 “I do not regret my time at Julliard for one minute. At the time, I thought I was so far away from my road I would never get back to it,” McDonald said.

McDonald said this was more than just disappointing to the eager student she was at the time. During her lecture, she explained how she had attempted suicide during her time at Juilliard.  

McDonald said that after being admitted to a mental hospital and taking some time off, she auditioned for summer performances and began belting out songs in English, something rare among her peers.  

While she was there she met a young woman from Boston. This woman went on to work for a casting director. She called McDonald and got her into an audition for her first major role in “The Secret Garden.”

Following that performance, she finished up her in the show and graduated from Julliard in May 1993. She was then cast in”Carousel,” which opened on Broadway in the fall of 1994.

“[Carousel] is one of the most special memories I have of any show I’ve ever done because it was the first one,” McDonald said. “This Broadway debut was conveniently located at the Lincoln Center, across the street from Juilliard where I felt untalented and struggled during my time there. It was the first of everything for me. It holds a really special place in my heart.”

McDonald explained that her drive to continue improving led her to spend four years as Naomi on “Private Practice.”

“With film and television, up until that point I was very afraid of the camera and fully letting myself go in front of the camera. I thought, ‘I need to get over that. Let me do a television show,’” she said.

As for what comes next, McDonald said she is getting ready to record another album in three weeks, host “Live from the Lincoln Center,” and also begin another Broadway show either this fall or next spring.

“I continue to be curious … my motto is I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” McDonald said.

As the evening concluded, McDonald advised the young artists in the room to continue pushing themselves.

 “Aside from not putting limitations on yourself, get on stage. Anywhere. You learn something every single time you step on stage,” she said.

Contact Meaghan Daly at mdaly01@saintmarys.edu