Audra McDonald freely admits that, nine times out of 10, she is dissatisfied with her work. Few critics or audience members share that assessment. The six-time Tony Award winner is “a defining voice of our time,” according to the New York Times. She’s “a historic talent,” agrees the Los Angeles Times.
UCSB Arts & Lectures will present McDonald in concert on Sunday, December 7, at the Granada Theatre. In a brief interview with The Independent, McDonald discussed her inspiration, her process, and her self-criticism.
How do you learn a new song? What comes first, learning the notes or grasping the emotions? I think they come together simultaneously. You look for the clues and cues the composer is giving you. Who is the character singing this song? Why are they doing so? What do they want? That’s Acting 101, of course, but I also think it’s Singing 101, as well. … I don’t think it’s about sounding pretty — unless you’re sounding pretty for a specific reason, like you’re trying to seduce someone or make someone feel better or get someone to go to sleep. But there needs to be the “why” behind everything. That’s where I start. That gives me clues to why certain notes need to be specific and exact and why it needs to be a little freer and looser here.
Your answer reflects your roots as a musical theater performer. When you are giving a concert, do you still assume a character while singing a particular song? No, but it’s still about “What do I want?” and “Why am I singing this song?” I don’t have to be the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music to sing “Climb Every Mountain,” but [in my mind] I am helping someone get through some journey ahead of them that they’re afraid of.
You’ve said you are perpetually looking for new challenges. Why is that important to you? Do you fear getting stale or repetitive, like a rock band doing its greatest hits for 30 years? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing your greatest hits. They’re part of what made you who you are as an artist. But if you do so, you want to sing those songs differently — asking yourself what you are feeling this time you sing it. As artists, it’s all about accessing something within the human condition, even if that’s just finding joy or release from pain. But you have to be present for that. Presence and creativity and motivation in the moment can’t come from a stale, dead place.
So you need to find something that excites and enlivens you. Yes. “The quickening” is what they call it. Quickening your spirit, your imagination, your senses — that’s where it all comes from.
Is it harder to find that sort of inspiration as you get older? I think you go through phases. It’s comparable to a marriage. Some phases are great — others not so much. It ebbs and flows.
You’ve worked a lot on television as well as on stage and in concert. Does working in one medium inform what you do in another? I would say so. It’s a way of getting multiple perspectives on your creativity. There are many different ways to find the truth of a character and a moment. I think they all inform each other. If I get back on stage, I’ll think, “I had to get really specific to find that moment and make it a true moment on film. How can I use that to make my stage work more specific and yet still be the proper size for the stage?”
When you’re unhappy with your work, do you beat yourself up about it, or do you simply think, “I’ll try something different tomorrow”? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned not to beat myself up as much. I’m not looking for perfection because there’s a rigidity in perfectionism. But I am looking for evolution. I want to be better tomorrow than I am today — a better actress, a better singer, a better artist. If I’m not better, I want to at least have learned something.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Audra McDonald at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Sunday, December 7, at 7 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.