Kristy Geslain: Hello and welcome to This is Lincoln Center, a podcast featuring the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's stages.
Audra McDonald is one of the most celebrated theater artists in history. You may have seen her on Broadway in Carousel, A Raisin in the Sun, Porgy and Bess, and Shuffle Along—just to name a few. Audra also has an impressive list of film and television credits. Last year, she starred in the big screen adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, and you'll soon be able to catch her on the small screen in the upcoming season of The Good Fight. Audra has won a Grammy, an Emmy, and a few Tonys too—six to be exact.
But in addition to this very impressive résumé, we here at Lincoln Center have always felt a special connection to Audra. She's a graduate of The Juilliard School, which is here on our campus, and throughout her storied career she's always come home to Lincoln Center. She's one of the few artists to have performed on every single Lincoln Center stage, which is really saying something because we have a lot of stages over here. And she's also the host of our very own television show, Live from Lincoln Center, where I've had the pleasure of working with her for the past few years.
And today I'm thrilled to bring you a conversation I had with Audra during one of our shoots.
Now, a note on this interview—it happened a while ago now. We're going into the vault, back to the summer of 2016. At that point, Audra was about 7 months pregnant with her daughter Sally James, and her most recent show on Broadway, Shuffle Along, had just closed. So, with work and motherhood on her mind, we had a conversation that offers a touching portrait of Audra as both professional and mom.
This is Lincoln Center with Audra McDonald.
KG: So, I think I found out about your pregnancy like so many of your fans did, with that great tweet that you sent out, "Who knew that tap dancing during perimenopause could lead to pregnancy? Will Swenson and I are completely surprised but elated to be expecting."
Audra McDonald: Yeah. I was rehearsing Shuffle Along and the symptoms of perimenopause, which I assumed that I was in, are very similar to a lot of the symptoms of pregnancy, and so I just assumed, you know, that that's what was happening. In fact, I was joking about it in rehearsal a lot because I was sweating more than any of the other dancers and whatnot and having a hard time sleeping and, you know, the hormone surge and all that stuff.
And I just, every once in a while, I would just say, "You people don't know what I'm dealing with with this perimenopause." And I would just scream it. You know, I'd scream at the cast because the rest of the cast was so young. And so when I finally started to think, "This is starting to feel funny," and I went to my doctor and she said, "Uh. No. You were in perimenopause, but something has put a pause on the perimenopause. This is pregnancy."
AM: I was just shocked.
KG: Well, speaking of the tap dancing, I mean, Shuffle Along, watching that show, you look at it and you think, well, this would be a super challenge for anyone. How did you do it with the baby? How did you make room for Lottie and the baby at the same time?
AM: You know, it got harder and harder and harder to do and they had to keep modifying my show and my costumes. I danced, I mean, if you saw the show up until about a week after the Tonys, I danced my whole track and after the Tonys, I couldn't do the end of the first number anymore. I couldn't do the end of "I'm Just Wild About Harry." I couldn't do certain crossovers that I use to do, which were tap crosses over because it was just too much bouncing around. With my first pregnancy years ago, I went into preterm labor when I was only 5 1/2 months pregnant. So I was being monitored heavily during the show to make sure that I wasn't going into preterm labor, which wouldn't have been the greatest thing for the show. It doesn't quite fit into the story. Every night was a challenge. It was scary for me to see, "Am I going to be able to get through?" And also me wanting to be able to get through. So it was hard. It was a real challenge.
KG: Yeah. And how do you know when to say, "I can't. I've just got to sit this one out."
AM: My body would tell me. Either I would have a hard time getting up or contractions would start a little too much and I would just know that I can go there and risk something or I can just stay home and listen to my body and once my body settles down, then try it the next night. There were a couple of nights I was on my way into the theater and I would be having too many contractions and I'd have to call and say, "I gotta turn around and go home." So it was frustrating for the company. You know, they were lovely, but it was just touch and go. We were always on a "we'll call an audible," to use a football term. We called audibles every single day, post Tonys.
KG: So how does that feel? It's such a joyful time, such an exciting time, but there's inevitably some sadness on the part of your fans who are going to have to wait a little bit longer.
AM: I mean, it's hard. You want to be there, and I think the other thing that we as performers feel like, it's like when we're missing a show we’re not at some party. We're at home, trying to get our voice back into shape or be quiet or, for me, laying on my left side until my uterus decides to calm down. I mean, those are the things that we are doing. We're human like our fans are. You know, we're all human. And our body is how we do our work, and if our body is not up to the work, we cannot do it. It's as simple as that. I feel like it's more forgiven in football or baseball or something like that than it is on Broadway.
KG: So let's talk by your other children. You have two stepsons with your husband, Will, Will Swenson; Bridger and Sawyer. And you have a daughter, Zoe, who I just saw in the hallway and I can't believe how grown-up she is.
AM: I know, she's taller than I am.
KG: And a side note for our dog lovers, you also have two rescue dogs; Georgia and Butler, correct?
AM: Yes, yes.
KG: One of my favorite Tony speeches that you gave, and there's been many, was when you won for Lady Day and you opened your speech with a really lovely tribute to the kids, and Zoe was in the audience and you look at her and you said, "And I want to thank my beautiful daughter, Zoe Madeline Donovan. Without you, I am nothing. Do you understand, mommy is nothing without you." And it was such a beautiful moment to watch her face and your face. So what—and this is a big question, and probably very difficult to answer—but can you speak a little bit about the impact of being a mom and what that's done to your artistry? How that's impacted your career?
AM: It does. You know, I remember a friend of mine when I was doing Ragtime, before I was a mom, and he had two kids. One was four years old and one was, like, nine, ten months old, and we were all on the road in Toronto doing the show and he had some cast members over to play a little poker one night, and his wife was there and the kids had gone to bed. And his daughter, his four-year-old daughter, from the bedroom, started to cough. A great guy named Bruce Winant. And I saw him look up from his cards, and then she coughed again and I saw him make eye contact with his wife, Kristin, and the two of them just immediately went into mommy and daddy mode. "That's the third time. I don't know, do you want to..." And I remember just the intensity and the togetherness in which they immediately just went into this... And that moment has stuck with me for ever and ever. And I remember a couple of weeks later asking him, "What's it like now that you're a performer and a parent?" And he said, "I go into auditions and there's is that the freedom now." Because he's like "Here's what I've got. Do you want me? No? Great. I've got to get a job, I've got kids." It takes the burden off in a weird way. And that, I have to say, once I had Zoe, I experienced that. And I've never forgotten that moment with Bruce and Kristin and watching them sort of go into—what it is is there's something so much bigger than I am. I am no longer the center of the universe. You know, as a performer it's easy to make ourselves sort of that. Once you have kids, you are no longer the center of the universe. The capacity to love and to care about and to protect all of that, I felt for me, blew open in such a big way. I felt more grounded more than I ever have, and as a result I just feel like I have more access emotionally, you know, to what's going on.
KG: And how have things changed for you? Either personally or just professionally, too. I would think the difference between going through this 15 years ago and now, going through it a second time, what are the biggest differences? Or does it kind of feel same?
AM: Well, you know, professionally it's a big difference because the pregnancy ended up impacting a lot of people and that was hard to deal with, you know? And there's this incredible amount of guilt at the way Shuffle Along had to shutter that I feel, so it's hard, because at the same time I'm so happy and I'm, you know, this is one of the most joyous times of my life. But at the same time, knowing that now all these people are out of work. So the impact has been a lot different this time because when I got pregnant the first time it didn't really affect all that many people. I want to keep everything as healthy and positive that I possibly can, but at the same time I'm not a robot. I'm very aware of what's happening, you know, to my fellow castmates and everybody in that theater, you know? So it's a—they're difficult waters to navigate.
[Music: "You've got those Broadway blues"]
KG: I think your fans would be upset with me if I didn't ask a little bit about the future and down the road and what they can expect.
AM: I mean, I never go away from theater. There are a couple of theater projects that we are lining up, actually, right now, that will come into. So I will hopefully be back on Broadway, and not too soon.
I mean, I'm going to rest for a minute, you know? Which is something I haven't done in a long, long, long time and it won't really be rest, because I'll have a newborn, but I'm going to take at least eight months off so I'm kind of looking forward to that and figuring out how to play with a little baby.
But yes, there are some theater projects that are on the horizon and will be coming when the time is right.
KG: Okay, four super quick questions. The toughest part of learning to tap dance?
AM: Learning how to speak Savion.
KG: Toughest part of being a parent?
AM: Seeing your child in any sort of pain, emotional or physical.
KG: The best thing about being on the stage?
AM: The oneness with you and the audience.
KG: The best thing about being pregnant?
AM: Laying in bed watching your belly move and knowing there's some little alien that looks somewhat like you in there moving around. That's an amazing thing.
KG: Awesome. That's it. Best of luck to you and the little alien.
AM: Thank you. The little alien, thank you.
KG: Thanks so much for taking the time.
AM: Oh, my pleasure! Thank you, Kristy. This was fun.
KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell and Rob Schulte.
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