October 26, 2009
Broadway headliner Debra Monk (’75) shared personal stories of the stage and screen with Meadows School of the Arts students on October 15 at SMU’s Margo Jones Theatre. Monk was in Dallas for the opening of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, where she starred in the comedy Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing at the Wyly Theatre.
“When I was a student here, Geraldine Page came to speak to us, and I will never forget it,” said Monk, who earned a Master of fine arts in theatre from SMU. “I thought, ‘If I ever have a chance to do this, I will come back to SMU.’ ”
Monk, who won a Tony Award for Redwood Curtain and an Emmy Award for NYPD Blue, told students about her path from SMU to New York, where she waitressed and did temp jobs for three years before writing and starring in the Tony-nominated Pump Boys and Dinettes.
“I’m so thankful for my career, but I’m constantly having to work to prove myself – again and again,” she said. “I never got the breaks. I’m not telling you that you have to be aggressive or rude, but you have to build these things for yourself. You can’t sit back and wait for someone to call to represent you.”
She said her studies at SMU prepared her well for her career in theater, film and television. “What I got here was the best training I got anywhere,” she said. “The training was so hard, and it was sublime. We knew how to get up and do a scene, and how to get a direction. I was ready when I got to New York.”
Here are highlights of her question-and-answer session with students:
How did you know what roles you were right for?
I didn’t. I thought I was a serious actress and wanted to do great plays, like [Eugene] O’Neill. I’ve done one O’Neill, but mostly all new work, which I’ve ended up loving. It just happened. You don’t start out choosing; you’re so happy to get a part.
There was a theater off-Broadway that I loved, where I auditioned and didn’t get in. So I waited a whole year and auditioned again, and I finally got in. However, they didn’t have any parts for me. They’d already cast everything. I was so upset.
I could sit home and complain; instead, I called the director and said, “Can I do something? I have to have a part-time job.” He said, “Why don’t you take notes and be my assistant?” So I did, and I watched, took notes, learned so much, and lo and behold, one of the gals gets sick and I go on. I thought I knew what I wanted, but you never know.
How do you keep your work fresh?
My job is to show up and do that job just like I did it six months ago. That’s the work of a professional. I take it very seriously. I rely on my technique, and every time, my technique will flip me into the emotional place I need to be. This took me years to understand and to have the ability and the confidence to know I can deliver every night.
You have to be consistent. They aren’t going to hire actors who aren’t consistent. It’s not fair to the other actors; it’s not fair to the audience.
You’ll learn as a young actor through working. Big failures will teach you more than the successes. I have failed, failed, failed. Stick it out, feel like you have something to offer, pay your rent and your bills, and keep going no matter what for as long as you want to do this.
How do you like working in film versus the stage?
I love all of it. I’ve been lucky to do a lot of film. I get hired mostly to do supporting parts. The crew, the stars all know each other, and I come in to the set as a guest to do my scene for a day or a week. Sometimes they introduce me to the star; sometimes the director gives me direction, sometimes not. Sometimes I’ll get on the set, and there’s no talk about the scene. Your job is to show up, know your stuff.
It’s great that you all are here in this great place learning great technique. That’s what’s going to carry you – the confidence in the technique and the skills you’ve learned as an actor, that you’ve honed over and over again.
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