11 Pieces of Advice for Performers from Audra McDonald Photo by Autumn de Wilde

11 Pieces of Advice for Performers from Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald, the Tony Awards’ most decorated performer, is a veritable member of the Lincoln Center family. “I’ve spent so much of my life at Lincoln Center that I consider it my home away from home,” says The Juilliard School alumna. The singer-actress has skillfully honed her artistry upon the world-renowned stages of Lincoln Center and beyond, and she currently hosts Live From Lincoln Center.

Audra recently sat down with Shanice Williams for an Artist to Artist talk at the David Rubenstein Atrium to discuss the intricacies of her creative process and craft. Watch the livestream here, and read on for her most valuable pieces of advice for performers—from the novice to the seasoned.

1. Be uniquely you.

I tried to sound like Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald. I tried to sound like Patti LuPone. And what I eventually discovered in trying to sound like all of these women is that they sounded like nobody else. As I got older I realized that was the beauty in what their voice was.

2. Find the right path for the greatest outcome.

I felt that I was not on my right path, studying all this classical music and opera [at Juilliard]. I didn’t feel good about myself, artistically, so in the end, what Juilliard taught me was that there was another side of my voice that I had not discovered yet.

3. Follow what you love.

If you love it, and it makes you feel like you’re flying or you’re soaring? Do it. Follow that. That is your soul telling you that this is a yes.

4. Read the script!

When the King and I came around, I was cast [in the junior company]. They didn’t let us stay very late for tech rehearsals because we were little kids. It wasn’t until the final dress rehearsal that I found out that the king died. I didn’t know!

5. Choose the part that scares you.

What attracts me is something that scares me. Something where I’m going to be challenged, something where I feel at the end of the experience, I’m going to know more than I did going into it. Evolution is very important to me as an artist.

6. Work begets work.

Do it, and even just the nature of the people you’re working with, and the experience that you’re having [will] send out into the universe that you are accepting and more will come.

7. Let the audience have the experience of the show.

Theater doesn’t happen unless there’s an audience. You can rehearse all you want, but when you get out there, if you don’t have that audience coming back at you, you’re missing your last element, your last character of the show.

8. Keep sycophants far away.

Friends and family will tell you the truth. Even if the truth hurts, they’ll always tell you with love. Keep people whose opinions you trust around you, and anybody who kisses your butt on a daily basis, keep far away.

9. Learn from other actors.

What I love most about [my mentor] Zoe Caldwell, one of the greatest actresses the theater has known, [is] she’s not wrapped up in ego. She knew the names of all the ushers and the crew. She would get to the theater two hours before she had to be there. She expected you to have the same commitment she had, night after night after night.

10. Anyone who does theater is a badass.

The guys in Local 1, who have been working at these theaters generation after generation, and the carpenters putting the show up—it’s not easy. If you make it your livelihood, and you make it your life, you’ve got all of my respect.

11. Have a life.

Don’t leave it all on the stage, take some home for yourself.

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