A Chat with Donna Lynne Champlin
Heather Smith: Tell us a little about yourself; born and raised? First interest in theatre Dancing, singing, piano playing?
Donna Lynne Champlin: Born and raised in
Began dancing at 4yrs, piano at 7 yrs, flute at 9 yrs, singing at 11 yrs, but never really truly understood acting at all until I went to college at 18 yrs.
HS: You attended/trained at the acclaimed
DLC: CMU was great for someone like me- I didn't need much sleep and thrived on stress. Seriously, the training was really wonderful, especially for music theatre majors (MT's) because we all got the same training as the "straight dramats" did. In addition to the basic training we had an additional 12- 15 hours a week of dance and voice training on top of it. Granted- we also got less hours a week to sleep and do our homework . but I got a much fuller education as an MT at CMU than I would have gotten most anywhere else.
The best thing about CMU was that we were all required to study the classics and basic techniques in voice, speech and movement regardless of our specialties. I hated it then, but I'm so grateful for it now. I firmly believe that if you train classically in theatre- you can cross over into ANY other acting form. However, I don't believe it necessarily true the other way around.
HS: When you first came to
DLC: Playing piano at AMDA was a fascinating experience. First of all it was a job I was extremely grateful to have. I was temping and working as a janitor (ugh) in a GYM (blech!) up until then and it was wonderful to get paid for something musical and creative. It felt like I was ."thisclose" to actually working as an actor, I guess.
I learned a lot just by watching the kids and listening in class. Of course as an accompanist---I learned the very important lesson of what NOT to give a pianist in an audition. I had kids hand me 22 page long accordion taped versions of "Something's Coming" in pencil, on faded yellowed paper. There might as well have not been any notes on it at all. Indecipherable Xerox copies, and I had a kid once hand me a Sondheim piece (with no chords) and then ask me to transpose it on sight down "2 and half steps". Kind of ridiculous requests and as a result I'd say, "no, this is unplayable in this condition. Best to learn your lesson with me and clean it up before you go to an actual audition." Of course then I'd go home at night and clean up MY book realizing it was the same kind of mess.
Also, having just been a student myself I found a new sense of empathy for the kids. When I was in school I was a tad ruthless with my fellow classmates, as conservatories tend to encourage that 'dog eat dog' mentality. But more than once in an important jury if someone 'went up' or froze - I would stop playing and stand up at the piano and claim it was my fault and ask them to 'come over and clarify something'. Then they could breathe and look at the lyrics again and start over. Things like that were actually really fun, and it was nice to help out a fellow student instead of being competitive with them out of habit. I'm not sure if the teachers bought it or maybe just thought I sucked a lot (very possible) - but it was the beginning of my learning how to be more humble and generous to fellow actors - which I've found has led me to a much richer life as an actress. You really don't act alone up there after all - which sounds simple, but in reality is a really hard lesson to learn and put into practice. I think, better to be someone people can trust to have your back than someone people worry about and secretly despise.
HS: Your first big break?
DLC: James Joyce's THE DEAD on Broadway. I was having lunch with Emily Skinner who was doing JJTD at Playwrights Off Bway and they were planning to move it to Broadway. She mentioned that she and Alice would most likely need a cover and that I should get my agents on it. They tried like hell to get me in, but with no Broadway credits on my resume and not to mention
My agents called me a week later and asked if there was any way to go through Emily because they'd done all they could. So I left her a message basically saying "hey Em, here's the deal - if there's anything you can do that would be great - and if this is just a totally jerky thing for me to even ask in the first place then just tell me to f*** off and that will be fine too."
God bless her - she went up to the director (Richard Nelson) and explained that I should come in and audition. Then, she added, "My only request is that when you offer her the job, that you let me call her."
So I get an appointment for the next day and there's like -- mutant Alice/Em look alikes everywhere- blonde hair, gorgeous, little perfect, pointy noses and tall and I'm like "which one of these things is not like the other?" I also hear the songs being sung in the room and they're NOTHING like the traditional Irish pub song that Em and
I walked in and went quickly over to the accompanist and said 'here's my piece it's really really Irish." He said "that's great", and I said "no you don't understand, it's like a f*** you I'm f***ing Irish, song." And he said, "no really, that's great."
So I sang my song- and there was absolutely no reaction whatsoever from the 20 people behind the table.
I did my first scene for
I did my second scene for Em's character- and there was no reaction.
I practically ran out of the room at the end and left Em a message saying, "Girl, I went in there but I have NO idea how I did. None. I just hope I didn't embarrass you. Thanks for sticking your neck out for me, regardless."
The next day, Emily called the box office of my Off Bway show with the message "You got the job."
Yup, I still have that message in a frame on my wall- "You got the job". Four of the sweetest words in the English language.
So that's my big break story-
And my Emily Skinner's pretty frickin awesome too, story.
HS: Most recently, I saw you in a reading of 'Monica the Musical' at MTC. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical going into it, but left finding it one of the most entertaining things I have seen in a while. Tell us a little about playing Janet Reno and do you think you'd like to have a hand in 'MTM' if it was brought to workshop and/or Off-Broadway?
DLC: I was brought into it because I was friends with the director Casey Hushion who's probably one of the most wonderful directors I've ever had the pleasure of collaborating with. At first when she asked me to play Janet Reno, I laughed. And then I read the script and heard some of the songs and laughed my ass OFF. I think the trick to pulling off Janet is that she is one of the most honest and noble characters in this piece, so - to make fun of her in any way would be a mistake. She's a woman with very particular physicality regarding voice and stature - but other than that, she's just an intelligent woman surrounded by idiots and a lonely woman looking for a little love. Earnest people in absurd circumstances - you can't lose, really.
One of the reasons the workshop of MONICA was so successful was that it's extremely intelligent (the writers Dan Blau and Tracy Potochnik all met at Vassar I believe). They didn't pander to the audience and instead creatively delved into what was the 'unknown' about this famous story - like the secret motives of these infamous characters and conversations that might have happened behind closed doors. Like a WEST WING on acid, so to speak. Also I just think that the music by Adam Blau is probably some of the funniest and brilliant musical parodies I've ever heard.
I would be thrilled if it moved forward and I was asked to be a part of it. Definitely. Regardless, you'll be hearing a lot from the above-mentioned people- they're young, they're talented and totally ready to kick some NYC theatre ass.
HS: Your most recent Broadway credit is the role of Older Helen in Hollywood Arms. You were absolutely incredible in this role and no matter how many times I saw the show you never failed to move me to tears. How was it that you came to be a part of such an amazing company? Do you have any favorite moments?
DLC: I was doing 3HREE with Hal Prince and he brought up the idea originally during rehearsal. Almost 8 months later I had the chance to meet Carol Burnett after one of our performances of 3HREE in LA where I made the most ridiculously awful impression in person, not being able to speak at all out of sheer nerves. Humiliating, really. Then while we were doing BY JEEVES here on Bway, Hal called me in to audition, and audition and audition. Carrie, Carol's daughter was very ill at the time so we put our final auditions on tape for her to watch in LA and then a few days before Christmas I got the call that I had the job and we would head to the Goodman Theatre in March for a 2 month run.
So, I had the connection with Hal- but I had to work for it in the end, for which I was grateful. Because by the time you audition for something 4-5 times, if you're lucky enough to get it- you own it. And that's a good feeling to have when you're already feeling like the freshman that crashed the Senior Ball, you know? Which was EXACTLY how I felt in the company of Carol Burnett, Michele Pawk, Rank Woods, Hal Prince and Linda Lavin.
My favorite moment from the run of HOLLYWOOD ARMS would have to be - Christmas on Broadway 2002.
It was a horrible horrible snow storm- just horrendous. And most of the company was at Linda Lavin's for dinner before the evening show, it being Christmas and her being so generous. So, it gets to be like 6:30pm and we decide it's time to head to the theater except that she's so far on the West side near the water that for about 3 blocks in from the edge with the wind chill it's solid ice. No cars are getting in or out of that area at all. No cabs, no nothing and the nearest subway is 20-30 minutes walk away especially in the weather.
We call the theatre in a panic and tell them the situation and they say no worries they'll call the understudiesto which we had to reply"well, they're here stuck WITH US so we can just put them on the phone for you". This of course, being the worst possible scenario because if we couldn't get there the show would have to be cancelled completely.
We finally all got behind a cab that's been stuck for the past 2 hours in front of the building and we all took turns getting in the car to give it weight and getting behind the car to push it for a good 5-6 blocks. Normally this wouldn't be much of a feat but with the snow and the wind and the cold and all of us dressed in our Christmas best, it was almost impossible.
But in a way it was absolutely fabulous too. Granted I got great pleasure from acting onstage with Linda Lavin and Michele Pawk every night- but there's something that BONDS you when you're standing behind a car in a dress slipping all over the place and hearing Linda Lavin yelling and laughing at the same time "For the love of God PUSH--- don't fall PUUUUSSSHHHHHH!!!" while she spits snow out of her mouth.
Needless to say we got there with 5 minutes to spare and it was a fantastic show. It just sort of reinforced that family energy that we'd created onstage- that in real life we were all out there pushing that damn car together to get to the show we all loved offstage.
To top it off, in the second act during my monologue I had a line that went something like "there were hotsy totsy people all around at the theatre, and it was SNOWING ." And I just couldn't resist when it came to that line. I looked right at Linda and really pulled it out ."it's SSSSNNNOOOOWWWWWIIINNGGGGGGG" and she lost it, I lost it and the whole audience who I'm sure had their own stories of how they got there that night lost it themselves for a good 30 seconds while we all got over our giggles.
I remember thinking at that moment- "it's good to be on Broadway on Christmas. It's really really a wonderful thing this live theatre stuff. I'm a lucky girl."
HS: Name the most incredible experience in theatre you have ever been a part of either onstage or in the audience.
DLC: I've been known to be literally immobile in the audience from being so moved that I'm weeping uncontrollably at theatrical events so, I'll spare myself the embarrassment of telling any of those stories. Although I will admit that the magical experiences I've had as an audience member outweigh the ones I've had as a performer, which is part of what keeps me going, I guess.
As a performer onstage, the magical moment that sticks out right now was my actual debut performance in James Joyce's The Dead. It was the second preview and Em got that horrible flu going around and I was on with no costume and no rehearsal. I got the call in
So I got to the theatre with an hour before curtain and Richard Nelson walked me through the set purely for safety's sake, no time for anything else. He asked me point blank "can you do this? Because if you can't, that's ok and we'll just cancel." And I said, "no absolutely not, I'm ready, this is my job and it will be fine." I then went up to Emily's dressing room, proceeded to throw up in her bathroom and then put on the make shift blouse and skirt they'd pulled from stock for me 10 minutes prior.
Before I knew it- it was time to go.
Now, the good thing about this was that the play itself was a party and very Checkhovian in it's direction - so people could very matter of factly say to me onstage "Mary Jane, could you come over here and fill my glass . Mary Jane could you go over there and get that chair?" etc. So I made it through due solely to the pure kindness, generosity and support of the esteemed company.
But the magic moment for me was about half way through the play when Mary Jane finally gets to sit down at the dinner table. There are speeches and a few songs and then the whole table toasts the three hostesses of the party - of which I was one.
So picture this, I'm sitting there as Mary Jane next to Marni Nixon and Sally Ann Howes as my aunts and we're getting toasted by the likes of Christopher Walken, Blair Brown, Alice Ripley, Stephen Spinella, Daisy Eagan, Paddy Croft just to name a few. I was sitting there looking at all these amazing actors, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the edge of the audience, and the lights from above the lip of the stage-- and it finally hit me. I was ON Broadway. And up until that point I had managed to not severely screw it up. And all these amazing performers were supporting me and loving me through itand I began to cry. I sat there and blubbered like a baby until I thought - "oh my God, you can't do this I mean it fits the characterbut you can't do thispull yourself TOGETHER girl!"
But then I looked up at my fellow actors and I saw--- Blair started to cry, and
When they all finished their song/toast and raised their glasses - I looked at Blair who raised hers just a little higher, winked at me and mouthed quietly "to you, my dear."
It was, beyond -- anything I could have ever dreamed of for a Broadway debut. The generosity of those actors and the enormous stillness of that moment when it all finally hit me
Truly one of the most magical moments of my life.
HS: Tell us a little about the By Jeeves experience
DLC: The BY JEEVES experience was a long, winding, top notch education in not only comedy from Sir Alan Ayckbourn but in the business and the way things work, or don't work, and the frightening power critics' opinions have on the audiences who read them. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times it was BY JEEVES.
HS: Favorite roles you've played?
DLC: Gracie in 3HREE. Fanny Squeers in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and Ruby Keeler in JOLSON
HS: Dream role(s)?
HS: Ever look back on a show and/or role and wonder what you were thinking?
DLC: Yup. Absolutely. All the time.
But also, I've noticed that the parts that come into my life somehow mirror the things I'm trying to work out personally. I might be having love trouble and I get to play a role like Gracie to remind me of how it feels to be in truly, madly, purely in love. I might be feeling too self-centered and I get to play the Grandmother/Francoise to remind myself of how it feels to give and give without expecting anything back. It's been fascinating to really look back and see the pattern in my life line up with the roles I've been lucky to play. Now I tend to look at role first when it's offered and see try to decipher the life lesson I'm meant to learn in it- but I never can see it until the run is over. Only in hindsight is it clear to me - which is why I spend MANY run going "what the hell am I doing here?" Only when it's over do I go ."ooooohhh yeah, that's what I was doing."
It's hard because you learn the most as an actor when you're in a role that makes you uncomfortable and makes you stretch your comfort zones. But you most likely do your best work in a role that's not so much further from what you know. Ergo, I feel like I did better work in HOLLYWOOD ARMS than in ALBERTINE, but I learned a lot more and grew a lot more in ALBERTINE than in HOLLYWOOD ARMS. It's a double-edged sword.
HS: I could listen to you sing the phone book Have you ever thought of recording a solo album?
DLC: Yeah baby YEAH! Sign me up. I sort of have the impression that you wait for a CD producer of sorts or a label to approach you about that. I may be completely wrong - but while it's definitely something I'm interested in, it's not really in my personal budget to sort of fund myself. Hopefully, someone will ride up on a shining white mixer board complete with vocal reverb and say "darling- will you do a solo CD with me?"
Seriously I'd love to-
I'm just waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.
HS: What's next for you? Can we expect to see you in Broadway's next smash hit?
DLC: I have certain projects for later this year that I'm very excited about but not at liberty to discuss yet, alas.
But actually since you've asked, I'd really like to start coaching people privately with more regularity. I've been doing it for years for my friends and they tell me it's been really helpful, for which I'm delighted. The only reason I've not decided to go 'mainstream' until now is because I just didn't feel right charging people to come all the way out to
I've also found myself doing more and more master classes and private tutoring recently and I admit I get a real buzz from helping people be better prepared, or even just more confident before they walk into an audition room.
In fact, anyone who's interested in coaching with me can feel free to contact me through my website at www.donnalynnechamplin.com and I'd be more than happy to set up an appointment. Shameless, I know but hey- why not right?
HS: What advice can you give to aspiring actors and actresses?
DLC: Get training, not even so much for the training- but for the peace of mind and confidence having training gives you.
Be discerning in believing what people tell you and what you choose to use.
It's good to learn and trust directors, teachers, agents- but don't give that trust blindly.
When you do find that director or teacher that you trust 100% (and they are rare)- fall into that trust and enjoy everything they have to share- it is a rare experience when you encounter this as an actor.
Be wary when people tell you to change who you are.
Remember that who you are is what makes you special- the worst thing is to yearn to be like everyone else for sheer acceptance.
Figure out what you bring to the table that's unique to you.
Do what you can, but don't make yourself crazy with what's out of your control.
Think as positively as possible.
It's not shameful to have a day job, just make sure it's something you enjoy and that it doesn't suck the soul out of your body.
Remember that having a complete life means having other interests besides acting- and that those other interests will in turn, make you a better actor.
If you can think of anything else you could be doing besides acting- do it.
If you can't think of anything else- then don't ever ever ever give up. Ever.
HS: Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful stories and words of advice, Donna Lynne! It's been a pleasure.
For more information about Ms. Champlin, including her upcoming projects, please visit her official website: http://www.donnalynnechamplin.com