News Column

UVa alum Fey hopes to be entertaining at inaugural arts lecture

September 8, 2013


Sept. 08--When award-winning actress, screenwriter and author Tina Fey steps up as the first speaker in a series of pro-arts education talks sponsored by the University of Virginia, it's unlikely she'll say anything new.

"I'm not ready to be instructional. I hope it will be entertaining, but I'm only part of the discussion," Fey said in a recent telephone interview. "I don't think I'm telling people something they don't understand. They already know the arts are important."

Fey, whose television series "30 Rock" recently finished a seven-year run, studied playwriting and acting at UVa, graduating in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in drama. She then worked with the improvisational theater The Second City in Chicago, served as head writer for "Saturday Night Live" and was the mastermind, head writer and co-star of "30 Rock."

She's returning Sept. 14 as the first speaker in UVa's President's Speaker Series for the Arts, proposed to be an annual event calling attention to the importance of the arts in education and life.

"[Arts] are the mark of a truly civilized society. Growing up doing kids' theater in my hometown, I learned a lot of things that paid off," Fey said. "The arts teach you life skills. You learn to work as a team, you learn organization, you learn to practice and work at something with others to get it right. You read literature. You speak in public. Those skills go beyond theater."

"In times of need the arts give us hope and help us imagine the future," said Colleen Kelly, director of UVa's graduate acting program. "They permit both the dreamer and the rocket scientist to reach the moon."

If society dumped the arts to focus only on math and science, life would be bleak, said Robert Chapel, artistic director of the Heritage Theatre Festival and a UVa drama professor. He imagined scientific lectures at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion, no music or dance or films at the Paramount Theater and no Fridays After Five.

"I believe history has shown that, in most great societies, the arts have always been a central and important element," Chapel said. "A society without the arts would be a dreary place indeed in which to live."

Fey agreed.

"Most of us don't want to live without the arts," she said. "We don't want to live in a world where we spend our free time sitting quietly, staring at walls, without music, art or entertainment."

Jody Kielbasa, UVa's vice provost for the arts and director of the Virginia Film Festival, said the arts are also big business.

"Over the years, the arts and American culture have been one of the nation's greatest exports," he said. "It's a huge business, from movies to music to plays."

The business has been good to Fey, both professionally and personally. She has won seven Emmys for writing or acting and two Golden Globes among her numerous honors. She also authored the best-selling book "Bossypants."

Her theater and writing careers are love's labors won.

"I was definitely one of those people where any opportunity I had to be in a play or on a stage or writing, I would take it. To me, it was everything. It was all encompassing," Fey recalled. "I was always auditioning for parts and never getting the leads, so I'd grab a glue gun and make costumes or whatever was needed. I helped build sets and even hung Fresnel [lights] on the stage. I knew this was what I wanted to do and, if I had taken a different career path, I would still do this as a hobby in local theater or something."

Chapel, who taught Fey during her time at UVa, said Fey's success as a writer shows that a well-rounded education helps to foster success.

"I believe that the presence of the arts and the training in the arts are as essential as any science or any math class, anytime," he said, noting that Fey's writing skills were honed at UVa.

Fey said writing and acting are equal loves, but writing can be more difficult. Often, her writing reflects her personality and experiences.

"Having come from improv and The Second City, I learned that there should be some sort of socializing core to the humor. We would read through the newspaper looking for things. If you read about the costs of child care and how it's unaffordable, you can came up with a sketch about that," she said.

Fey's trademark wit comes from growing up in a family that appreciated humor.

"My mom is very funny and has a very dry sense of humor and my father is a big fan of comedy. When my family would come to visit, one of my roommates at UVa would ask why they always had a [comedic response] to her questions," Fey recalled.

"That's just the way we were. My brother is eight years older and we grew up joking around the house and parroting back things we thought were funny, lines from 'Monty Python' and 'SNL,' things from movies," she said. "People ask if I was a class clown in school; I was too shy and studious for that, but I was the girl in the back who was quietly muttering burns."

Fey said being the first speaker in the series isn't particularly intimidating and her main objective is to have fun.

"When I speak in public I always wear a balloon hat," she said. "I feel like my job is to have the evening be entertaining."


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