Things I’ve learned listening to American Theatre Wing’s ‘Downstage Center’ podcasts over the past week

I’ve always been late the the party — particularly when it comes to ipods and podcasts and things. As in: I’ve only just discovered how to sync my iPhone to iTunes and how to download podcasts. Oh, it’s opened a whole new world of possibilities! My commute, which involves tuning out the crazies on the el for 35+ minutes, is now filled with interesting conversations from clever people on topics I enjoy.

My favorite podcast series on (in?) my playlist is American Theatre Wing’s “Downstage Center,” a weekly theatrical interview show featuring “the top artists working in theatre both on and Off-Broadway and around the country.” Each interview is around an hour long, and American Theatre Wing Executive Director Howard Sherman, along with XM Radio’s John Von Soosten (in the days before XM and Sirius merged), do the interviewing. They’re both great. Sherman’s now on his own as a result of the merger, but he equips himself quite well. He does his research, poses smart, interesting questions, and really listens to what each artist has to say. He’s engaged and genuinely excited to be sitting in the room with these people. He keeps the tone conversational.

Mostly I’ve been sticking to to the leading ladies of the stage: Donna McKechnie, Betty Buckley, Maria Friedman, Harriet Harris, Barbara Walsh, Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, Cherry Jones, Beth Leavel, Estelle Parsons, etc. While, for me, actors talking about acting can grow wearisome, these women have had such accomplished careers, it’s fascinating to learn how they got to where they are today.

After listening nonstop to these podcasts for a week, I’ve noticed some striking similarities — motifs, if you will — among their stories:

  • A mother (or a mother figure) plays a pivotal role in discovering and promoting their kid’s talent, while father strongly disapproves. It’s a major point of contention.
  • Gumption is just as important as talent. Nearly every interviewee moved to NYC with nothing but determination, and struggled for their big break — and usually that career-defining role came by fighting for it.
  • There are a lot of smarmy, opportunistic agents out there.
  • Musical actresses want to do plays, dramatic actresses want to do musicals.
  • Actresses love Stephen Sondheim.
  • A surprising number of these actresses didn’t get bit by the “acting bug” until late high school or even college.
  • Regional theatre rocks.
  • Resiliency is vital. Premature closings, lost opportunities, disappointments over shows that don’t transfer to Broadway. You need a firm backbone to get by in this business.
  • Know who your champions are and stick by them. Nearly every women had someone in the business, usually a legendary performer, director, choreographer or producer of some sort, who recognized their talent early on and helped them become the actress they are today.

However, as much as I enjoy listening to these podcasts, I’ve noticed a few recurring themes (let’s just call them pet peeves) that make me roll my eyes. So, if I may so boldly offer the following advice to actors who may participate in future Downstage Center podcasts:

  • Avoid referring to your experience with a particular role as a “journey.”
  • “Synergy” should not be used in any way in any discussion — theatre-related or other.
  • I have a hard time believing that the research for the character you’re playing, or have played, is/was all “in the script.” That’s just lazy.
  • When asked how you got a role, don’t say “I auditioned!” when the real reason, which you reveal later, is that you knew people in the decision making process who basically already cast you.
  • Don’t talk about how the theatre is so vital to you, and then go on to say how you want to expand into TV and film.
  • Don’t presume we know who you’re talking about when you refer to someone by their first name. “Well, then, of course, David said to me…” Who?

Hope this helps! Up next for this listener: Hallie Foote and Marsha Mason.

4 thoughts on “Things I’ve learned listening to American Theatre Wing’s ‘Downstage Center’ podcasts over the past week

  1. The Downstage Center podcasts are terrific. I’ve also taken to listening to them during my commute to and from Cedar Rapids, which actually helps mellow me out before the performances.

  2. Yeah, I’m addicted to them! It’s been great for me to be able to go back and listen to older interviews with people I’ve just seen on stage. Have you listened to Marian Seldes? It’s one of my favorites, she’s captivating. There’s so much history when you listen to someone like Seldes or John Cullum talk about their careers. I think the performers tend to be a little more lively than the designers or artistic directors. But really, I enjoy them all. The Working in the Theatre panel discussions are great, too. There’s a Steppenwolf one with Laurie Metcalf, Rondi Reed, Amy Morton.

    1. I’ll have to check out the “Working in the Theatre” podcasts! Thanks for the heads-up!

      Meanwhile: did you listen to the Estelle Parson’s “Downstage Center”? She’s a character! She basically interviews herself.

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