Award-winning actress, writer, and producer Tina Fey was the inaugural speaker at the University of Virginia’s President’s Speaker Series for the Arts on September 14. Fey, a 1992 graduate of the University, was introduced by UVA president Teresa Sullivan and, following her lecture, engaged in a Q&A with drama professor Robert Chapel. Virginia Film Festival director Jody Kielbasa opened the evening’s proceedings.
In a wide-ranging, hour-long address that drew on her experiences on stage in high school and college, in television on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, and as a mother of two young daughters, Fey discussed the importance of the arts – including music, theatre, film, and graphic arts – to society and human fulfillment.
Fey singled out three artists that she particularly admires and views as role models: British feminist playwright Caryl Churchill (Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Mad Forest); stand-up comedian Chris Rock; and Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Into the Woods, Follies).
These three artists, she explained, “meant a lot to me,” saying that, although she had often acknowledged the influence of comediennes like Mary Tyler Moore, Gilda Radner, and Carol Burnett, “I’ve never really talked about these particular people whose work really thrills me and really inspires me, which is the way I think art should make you feel.”
Churchill’s work, she said, is “so fascinating to me because it really made you think about what you think is normal and what is deviant and what is societally acceptable. It didn’t tell you what to think, but it made you think about it.”
The things she “loves most about Caryl Churchill’s writing,” Fey explained, are that she writes “spare dialogue,” that she plays around with theatrical conventions, and that “she inspires me to write politically, to try to write about something, to write about things that are important.”
On that latter point, Fey gave the example of her film Mean Girls, costarring Lindsay Lohan.
That movie, she said, was a high school comedy but also “intended to be a jumping-off point for a conversation about what they call ‘relational aggression’ among girls.”
“And we fixed it; the movie fixed it,” she added sarcastically.
The TV series 30 Rock, she explained, was meant to explore gender, class, and racial differences among the main characters, Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy, and Tracy Jordan.
What she admires about Chris Rock, Fey said, is that he is “the greatest stand-up comedian of his generation, of my generation.”
Rock, she explained, has a special ability to “look closely, to look at the world really, really, really closely and notice something that’s true, that no one’s ever said before, and then say it. Call out something that no one’s ever said out loud before. That’s the best way to write a joke because only the truth is funny.”
Rock’s social and (sometimes) political commentary, Fey noted, is sometimes too vulgar to repeat in front of a general audience like the one gathered in the McIntire Amphitheatre, but it is no less sharp-edged and relevant because of that.
“Obviously, the third artist in this completely organic triumvirate of my favorite people, is musical theater composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim,” Fey said, noting that she used to watch the VHS copy of Into the Woods every Friday night in UVA’s Clemons Library.
Sondheim “is the master of many things,” she said, recommending his two books on lyric-writing to the audience. “My favorite thing about him is that he’s the master of a beautiful song in a creepy context,” giving as an example “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd, as well as the show Assassins.
Like Fey, Sondheim is in the theatre because “he’s interested in communication with audiences.”
What she has hoped to have learned from Sondheim, Fey said, are to “set the level of difficulty really high … and to challenge your audience, expect them to pay attention and to be smart, expect them to love language.”
Sondheim’s work is “so finished,” she said, “it’s made with so much care,” adding that she and her colleagues at 30 Rock would treat their script pages “as though they were going to the Smithsonian.”
“We would check every detail of the set because it’s your work. It doesn’t matter if it’s a school play or a dumb TV show. It’s your work. You should care about it so much that people get annoyed with you.”
Another lesson Fey learned from Sondheim is that it’s OK to make things that are not for everyone. Setting out to create a huge commercial success is like “a recipe for Cream of Wheat.” She suggested that the “best-selling book in the world,” Fifty Shades of Grey, was written by a malfunctioning ATM machine.
“Money is not the way to measure success in the arts,” Fey concluded.