September is a big month for Tina Fey as she prepares to reprise her role as guest host of “Saturday Night Live.” “SNL” is not the only domain to be graced by the presence of the talented actress, producer, writer, and comedienne this month. University of Virginia students and local residents alike welcomed Tina Fey this past Saturday evening as the Inaugural Presidential Speaker for the Arts. The series was organized by the Office of the President at the Office of the Provost at the University. Recently, a number of buildings were renovated for the departments of drama, studio art, music, and art history. Together this new complex forms the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds.
Fey studied drama at Mr. Jefferson’s university, earning her bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts & Sciences in 1992. The alumnus status and popularity of the “30 Rock” and “SNL” star made her an apt choice for the inaugural celebration. Indeed, the anticipation was palpable on Grounds. Students and locals lined up by the entrances of the McIntire Amphitheater in the hot summer sun as early as 3 hours before the main event. In spite of the nearby Taylor Swift concert, the venue and overflow seating areas were packed by the time Teresa A. Sullivan, UVa’s President, arrived to make the introduction. The crowd burst into laughter when a short video was played, showing a few clips of Tina Fey as a Weekend Update anchor, writer Liz Lemon, and of course, presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Finally, Fey took the stage, welcomed by a warm standing ovation. She spoke fondly about her love of music in public school, stressing that schools should not be cutting arts programs. Fey emphasized that early exposure is important to let kids play, be creative, and star in plays that “did not turn out” well. She went on at length about disasters during her high school production of “Dracula”, where she played the role of Van Helsing: the castle caught on fire, Dracula failed to shatter a mirror, and a two-year-old wandered onto the stage!
Fey acknowledged that she has often mentioned Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett as major influences on her work. She chose instead to discuss lessons that she learned from her other role models: playwright Caryl Churchill (inspire others with a message), comedian Chris Rock (“only the truth is funny”), and lyricist/composer Stephen Sondheim (challenge your audience).
As one may expect, Tina Fey threw in jokes to keep everyone entertained. She said at one point, “’Fifty Shades of Grey’ was written by an ATM machine … it came out on receipts.” And later on, “When Oprah is worried that you’re [too] busy, you really need to reexamine your situation.”
After Fey finished her speech, she sat down for a discussion with her former drama professor, Dr. Robert Chapel. Dr. Chapel poked fun at Fey for not finishing her MFA in Chicago before asking about “30 Rock”. Fey fondly described the show process as “a runaway train all the time” as different scripts were written and shot concurrently. She emphasized the amount of care that went into the project: “We would proof our pages like they were going to the Smithsonian.”
Then Fey was asked about her Sarah Palin skits on “SNL”. She reiterated the importance of challenging and dialoguing with audiences. In this case, the dialogue was initiated by the audience, as Fey was no longer on “SNL” at the time. “We did not set out to influence the election,” she remarked. The show merely “broke the monotony” of the election coverage and gave voice to what people were already thinking.
The conversation wrapped up as Dr. Chapel mentioned Fey’s autobiographical comedy, “Bossypants”, and asked about her future interests. Fey immediately acknowledged the practice of some actors to take up directing in their mature years. However, she still sees herself as a writer rather than a future director. She joked that she would like to play a judge on “Law and Order”, because “the costume is loose, and I can sit behind a thing.”
Judging by the shouts of “I love you, Tina!” and the final standing ovation, the “President’s Speaker Series for the Arts” had a successful start at the University of Virginia this past weekend. Future speakers have yet to be announced, but one thing is certain: it will be difficult to top the writer and comedienne whom President Sullivan so adequately described as “the funniest woman in the world.”