Call Me Adam chats with OBIE and Drama Desk award winning actress Donna Lynne Champlin about making her directorial debut with the 2014 NYMF show of Rowen Casey's Valueville which will play from July 7-13 at PTC Performance Space (555 West 42nd Street). Click here for tickets!
For more on Donna be sure to visit http://www.donnalynnechamplin.com!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I honestly don’t remember. I think it was always in my bones. My first memory of anything "show biz" was when my mom took me to audit my first tap class. I was three years old, sitting on my mom’s lap, watching a class from the side of the dance studio. A bunch of little girls were doing their routine which included a cute finger wag and the lyrics "Don’t forget your tap shoes!" and I went completely ballistic. Normally a very calm kid (according to my Mom) she immediately took me outside to find out what was wrong. Apparently, I was SO indignant that she had taken me to dance class unprepared as the song CLEARLY stated "DON’T FORGET your tap shoes" (of which I had none) that I had flown into an absolute rage. After my mom stopped laughing, we picked up a pair of tap shoes on the way home and that was the beginning of the end, I guess.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? Ooh. That’s a long list but I am a huge Randy Newman fan and I was absolutely devastated that I was not available to audition for the FAUST they’re doing at the ENCORES! Off Center Series this July. My audition book is wall-to-wall Randy Newman, and pretty much my whole wedding "score" (ceremony, cocktail hour and reception) was 75% his stuff. I think he’s an absolute genius, both as a musician and a story-teller and I would love to just be in the same room to watch him work.
3. You are making your directorial debut in ValueVille, the NYMF show running from July 7-13. What made you decide that now and this show was the right time to make your directorial debut? In all honesty, people have been asking me to direct for years and I’ve always said "no" for various reasons but I just couldn’t say "no" to ValueVille. Long story short: I was a judge for the NYMF 2014 season and ValueVille was my #1 pick of the season. I just found it to be so incredibly funny and insightful, but also very different from most of the scripts I see submitted to NYMF. On paper it’s got that rare quality of being both very commercial while also being artistically and intellectually satisfying. The best way to describe Valueville is that it’s like NO EXIT meets A CHORUS LINE. Cool, right? Anyway, I submitted my notes and suggested dramaturgical fixes along with my rankings, like I do with all the shows and about three weeks later NYMF called me to say that the writer of ValueVille (Rowen Casey) had liked my notes so much, he wanted me to direct it. After a few phone calls with RC (who lives in CA) we both decided to take the NYMF plunge together and I have to say (knock wood, toi toi toi, etc), so far so good.
4. What made you want to shift some of your career focus to directing? Again, a big part of my decision was the piece itself. It’s not so much that I’ve had a burning desire to direct (quite the opposite). But I just really believe in ValueVille immensely as a new musical and directing it (after some serious soul searching) was something I genuinely wanted to do. I’d never felt that before about a directing opportunity so I decided to go with my gut on this one and say "yes" for once.
Also, having done numerous NYMF shows as an actor, "celebrity judge," etc, I felt confident that this festival was the perfect place for me to debut directorially. Knowing the NYMF staff already to be such incredibly competent, intelligent and kind people, I knew that if I ran into "first-time" directorial issues or had to ask really basic questions, that I would be helped and encouraged in my process and not treated like an ignorant newbie. I’m looking at this whole thing as a chance to learn everything I can about being a director in the safest environment possible, which for me is NYMF. That way, if directing is something I want to pursue more of in the future, I will be able to go further outside my comfort zone theatre-wise and have the confidence that I will already know experientially what is expected of me especially in pre-production.
And not for nothing, having done many NYMF shows over the years I know exactly who is the best design, management and artistic people team-wise and I have to say, I’m 100% confident that I’ve succeeded in surrounding myself with THE best people NYC has to offer. My main hope (besides their talents making ValueVille the very best it can be) is that their brilliance will also make up for any unforeseeable directorial deficiencies I might have.
5. What excites you about directing and what makes you nervous? At first I was so excited about the idea of having more control over the process. As an actor, you’re pretty much the lowest man on the totem pole and I always imagined being a director was way more satisfying in the decision-making department. Ironically, I’m already learning that the control you gain in overall aesthetic, you lose once the show is onstage. I’m so used to having control as an actor ON stage, that I totally forgot that the director has NO control once you’re in a run. So…I’m excited about having conceptual control and I’m really excited about our fantastic cast and working with all of them in rehearsals. But I am admittedly absolutely terrified of that first performance where I will most likely be sitting helplessly in the audience, muttering every single line in the show like an escaped mental patient.
6. What are you looking forward to most about working with the cast of "ValueVille"? Oh man. We have SUCH a stellar group of actors. So smart. So talented. I can’t WAIT to see how they lift the script and score off the page. I can’t wait for their ideas. I can’t wait to be surprised by them, and honestly, I can’t wait for them to answer some problems that I haven’t solved yet. I think all of my favorite directors I’ve worked with at some point in the rehearsal process have said "I don’t know" in the room and as an actor, I always trust those directors the most. Because if you come into the rehearsal process with all the answers, then your actors are just puppets. But if you leave room for them to come up with their own answers to legitimate problems you haven’t solved, it always ends up a more organic, collaborative and bottom line, better show in the end.
7. What do you think it will be like to be part of NYMF as a director as opposed to a performer? Already in pre-production, I am learning SUPER fast just how much work and thought and preparation happens before that first day of rehearsal when the actors start their process. I always suspected there’d been a few phone calls, maybe a meeting or two before the first day of rehearsal amongst the designers and artistic team, but now I know first hand that the first day of rehearsal is actually the middle of the process for everyone else involved. I think my experience as a director already (even though as an actor, I have always had a tremendous respect for absolutely everyone involved in putting up a show) has greatly deepened my appreciation for exactly WHAT everyone else does off stage. General Managers, Casting Directors, Production Managers, Stage Managers, Designers, etc…being a director has brought me literally into everyone else’s off stage process and it’s been a truly humbling adventure thus far. I thank God every day for this amazing collection of people who’ve agreed to work on ValueVille with me.
8. What's the best advice you've ever received? Never be a second rate version of someone else. Always be a first-rate version of yourself.
9. What have you learned about yourself from being a performer? That perfection is impossible, which is what makes it the best thing to strive for.
10. Favorite skin care product? L’Oreal Active Daily Moisturizer. I swear by it. That and lots of water.
11. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? These days? The ability to be in at least three places at once. Definitely.
A native of Rochester, New York, OBIE and Drama Desk award winner Donna Lynne Champlin has been performing since her very first tap solo in a local variety show at the age of four. Her childhood was a veritable whirlwind of lessons, community theatre productions, and national and international competitions in voice, piano, flute, theatre and dance. Having had the good fortune in her career to use these varied talents, she has deservedly earned the reputation for being a proverbial "quadruple threat."
Donna graduated with high honors from the prestigious Musical Theatre Program at Carnegie Mellon University. She also received intensive training in Shakespeare and Chekhov at Oxford University on the Advanced Acting Scholarship and The Vira I. Heinz Grant to study abroad. While still in college, she received her Equity card playing "Dorothy" in The Wizard of Oz with the celebrated Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
Donna made her New York Debut at Carnegie Hall in a concert version of Very Warm for May in the title role under the direction of acclaimed conductor John McGlinn, and her Broadway debut followed in James Joyce’s The Dead, in the role of "Mary Jane." In her next Broadway turn, she earned enthusiastic reviews as the delightfully eccentric "Honoria Glossop" in the Alan Ayckbourn/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical By Jeeves. Next came the opportunity to work with Carol Burnett and Hal Prince in Hollywood Arms – the dramatization of Carol’s biography. National reviewers proclaimed Donna a "show-stopping star in the making" and described her performance as "brilliant", "a triumph", and "a tour de force."
In 2006 Donna played "Pirelli" (and the accordion, flute and piano) in the groundbreaking Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd where critics characterized her performance as both "hilarious" and "superb." In May of 2009, she joined the Broadway company of Billy Elliot as the principle female dancer, "Lesley."
In 2013 she won a Drama Desk Award for her Off-Broadway performance in as "Woman #3" in Working, The Musical at the Prospect Theatre. Her performance as "Cora Flood" in the production of The Dark At The Top of the Stairs, hailed by the NY press as "perfection," "brilliant" and "a privilege to watch," earned her the prestigious 2007 OBIE award.
Since winning the OBIE, Donna went on to win other acting accolades for her Off Broadway work such as the NYMF Award for "Outstanding Performance" in not one but three productions namely as "Gracie" in Flight of the Lawnchair Man in 2006, "Kate" in the daring and brave new musical about child abuse, Love Jerry in 2008 and as "Jane Austen" in the innovative take on a beloved classic Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Other Off-Broadway appearances include Bury The Dead, First Lady Suite, My Life With Albertine, The Audience, Reunion, and City Center Encores! Bloomer Girl. National Tour roles include what critics called "a high octane performance" as legendary hoofer "Ruby Keeler" in the national tour of Jolson.
No stranger to concert work, Donna has starred as "Daisy" in The City Center Encores! Production of Bloomergirl. She has received rave notices for her many concerts with the Town Hall Series, played "Sophie" in Master Class opposite Edie Falco at the Broadhurst produced by the Metropolitan Opera (the MET), performed alongside the legendary Len Cariou in the Simply Sondheim inaugural concert celebrating the opening of the new Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts, and has sung in concert with some of the most illustrious orchestras in the world including the London Symphony and the Rochester Philharmonic.
Throughout her career, Donna has received numerous awards besides the OBIE and the Drama Desk, including the prestigious Princess Grace Award from The Princess Grace Foundation, the Presidential Scholar in the Arts Grant from The National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, The Anna Sosenko Trust, The Charlie Willard Memorial Grant and the title of National Tap Dance Champion for four consecutive years from the Dance Educators of America.
Her film credits include My Father's Will, The Audition, The Dark Half, By Jeeves, and Sweet Surrender. TV credits include a 2013 CBS pilot Mother’s Day, Law And Order, Law and Order SVU, The Annual Tony Awards on CBS, The View (guest star), The Rosie O'Donnell Show, and Regis and Kelly and as "Emily Dickinson" of the PBS Voices and Visions series.
Her self-produced solo debut CD Old Friends was voted "One of the Best Ten Albums of 2009" and critics have hailed it as "brilliant," "a masterpiece" and "breath taking." She can also be heard on many cast albums including Sweeney Todd, By Jeeves, 3hree, Albertine, Reunion as well as Our Heart Sings, The Lady and the Slipper, and Have a Heart (as well as many voice-overs).
Donna also continues to perform her critically acclaimed one-woman show Finishing The Hat in NYC (most recently SRO at both ARS NOVA and BIRDLAND) and across the country, along with teaching acting master classes at many prestigious colleges such as Carnegie Mellon University, Hartt and NYU.
Of particular importance to Donna is her regular participation in many benefits for two of her favorite charitable organizations, BCEFA, the MDA and The Actors’ Fund.
Offstage, Donna’s life is as colorful and as versatile as the characters she brings to life onstage. In addition to being an accomplished performer, writer, stand-up comedienne, pianist, composer, musical director and choreographer, she enjoys an eclectic array of hobbies and special interests including metaphysics, mystic history and philosophy. She is currently working on two books, a humorous non-fiction book inspired by her (mis)adventures in the theatre and the other a "how-to of comedy." Donna lives in New York City with her husband, actor Andrew Arrow (www.andrewarrow.net) and her son, Charlie.