Audra McDonald’s Words of Wisdom

April 1, 2016

Actress-singer Audra McDonald is in a league of her own when it comes to talent and achievements. She’s especially noted for her musical and dramatic stage performances in Broadway productions such as Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, and Porgy and Bess. The 45-year-old star is the first person to earn a whopping six Tony Awards for acting, and on top of that she’s the first person to win a Tony Award in all four acting categories–and she’s still going strong.

McDonald recently was interviewed by Shanice Williams, who starred as Dorothy in NBC’s The Wiz Live!, for an Artist to Artist talk at Lincoln Center. In the hour-long interview, McDonald shares her artistic inspirations, describes several twists and turns she experienced along her creative journey, and reveals many important lessons she learned along the way.

For instance, McDonald recounts some of her influences as she was growing up, and through her determination to sound like others, she eventually learned to embrace her uniqueness. “I tried to sound like Barbara Streisand…I tried to sound like Judy Garland, I tried to sound like Lena Horne, I tried to sound like Ella Fitzgerald. I tried to sound like Patti LuPone. And what I eventually discovered in trying to sound like all of these women is that they sounded like nobody else. And as I got older, I realized that was the beauty in what their voice was–that they sounded like nobody else.” Thus, she learned the value of sounding like herself.

Although McDonald can say she’s a Juilliard alumna, in her case, she found the prestigious school limiting. “I felt that I was not on my right path, and studying all this classical music and opera…I didn’t feel good about myself, artistically.” She felt so close and yet so far from Broadway–where she truly aspired to be. While McDonald did make the most of the school experience by gaining classical training, she says, “In the end, what Juilliard taught me was that there was another side of my voice that I had not discovered yet.” As far as the importance of performers listening to their inner voice, she asserts, “If you love it, and it makes you feel like you’re flying or you’re soaring? Do it. Follow that. That is your soul telling you that this is a yes.”

Regarding the audition-room jitters, she advises performers to shift their mind frame. She suggests, “Go into the room being the solution to their problem. Instead of saying, ‘They’re going to judge me,’ say, ‘Hey guess what? I’m going to solve your problem for you. I know you’re looking for the right person, and apparently I am that right person.'”

As far as what attracts her to a role, McDonald says she goes for what intimidates her. Rather than staying in her comfort zone, she’s attracted to “something where I’m going to be challenged, something where I feel at the end of the experience, I’m going to know more than I did going into it. Evolution is very important to me as an artist.” Also, McDonald encourages performers to take the work that comes their way as this sends “out into the universe that you are accepting, and more work will come.”

Another tip she gives to performers is to be purposeful about who you keep in your life. “Friends and family will tell you the truth. Even if the truth hurts, they’ll always tell you with love. Keep people whose opinions you trust around you, and anybody who kisses your butt on a daily basis, keep far away,” she advises.

Watch the interview above for more of Audra McDonald’s words of wisdom.