Donna Lynne has had the unique opportunity to originate a number of roles, including Honoria Glossop in Broadway’s By Jeeves and Older Helen in Hollywood Arms, currently in previews at the Cort Theatre. Hollywood Arms is her fourth show with Hal Prince and an opportunity to play a young version of one of her all-time idols, Carol Burnett.
I recently met with Donna Lynne during a lunch break from rehearsals.
Nancy Rosati: Tell me about growing up in Rochester. When did you decide what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Donna Lynne Champlin: I always knew that I wanted to perform. I wasn't sure in what way I would do that but I wasn't picky.
NR: Is anyone in your family an actor?
DLC: No. My dad's a scientist and my mom is a technical writer. The only music in my family is from my grandfather on my mother's side. He was an Irish tenor. He didn't do it professionally - he was a traveling salesman but he had a nice voice.
NR: So this came out of nowhere? Did you just decide one day that you wanted to act as a career?
DLC: Not really. I knew I wanted to perform. My first memory ... it makes me laugh because I think it's just indicative of me as a grown-up, although hopefully I'm more chilled out now. I was about 3 1/2 and I had a lot of energy. One of the neighbors recommended putting me in a dance class. My mother brought me to a tap class to audit. As an adult, I look back on this and I realize it was probably a bunch of 5-year-olds dancing and singing their song (singing) "And don't forget your tap shoes..." But as a 3-year-old, something visceral happened and I immediately had to be a part of it. I jumped up and I got so upset because the song said, "Don't forget your tap shoes" and I didn't have mine. All I could think of was, "How could my mother bring me to a tap class without my tap shoes?" I had this whole "actor-nightmare" at 3 1/2! My poor mother had no idea what was going on except she knew that I was hysterical. I had a huge fit and she had to drag me out of the studio. I finally calmed down enough to explain to her how incredibly incensed I was that she had put me in that awful situation!
As Ruby Keeler with the ensemble
in the national tour of Jolson
NR: (laughing) Then what happened?
DLC: (laughs) Well, I started tapping, thank God, with my own pair of tap shoes. Tap lessons turned into piano lessons, and then flute lessons, and then to voice lessons. I was just hungry for all of it. All the while I competed in all these different things. By the time I was a junior in high school I was very scattered and unfocused. I think I applied to seven different colleges for seven different majors because I didn't know what I wanted to do. Every teacher gave me different advice. I decided to leave it up to fate and attend whichever college gave me the most money, which turned out to be Carnegie Mellon as a Musical Theatre major.
NR: Excellent choice.
DLC: Yes, it's a fantastic school. I recommend it to anybody, especially for Musical Theatre. At a lot of other schools, the Musical Theatre department gets cheated out of straight dramatic classes. With Carnegie Mellon, you're exhausted if you're a Musical Theatre major because you have the straight dramatic curriculum and on top of that you take voice and dance. You have eight extra hours a week. It's a marvelous school and I'm very happy I went. I didn't have to give up anything - I used my piano playing as work-study. I played for ballet classes and voice classes. Even when I moved here I accompanied people. I played at AMDA for awhile.
NR: Did you come to New York right after college?
DLC: No. I was lucky. I worked at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera during my summers in college. The summer of my junior year I got a scholarship to Oxford so I skipped that season. Carnegie Mellon really hooked me up. I'd made so many contacts through Pittsburgh CLO that after I graduated, I had about six months of regional work already booked up. After that I came to New York.
It had been pretty easy up to that point. I had been lucky and I didn't realize how lucky I'd been. When I moved to New York I had a dry spell of about eight months. In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I was one of those people who was constantly doing projects and I had no core of friends that I hung out with unless I was doing a show with them. I had no other interests. I had a lot of interests in the arts but I had nothing else. In those eight months I was forced to sort out my life, which was the best thing I could have done as an artist.
I discovered spirituality, friends that aren't in the business, politics, what's going on in the world. It's embarrassing to say that I was 21 years old and none of these things had ever been important to me. I didn't realize it at the time, and this is only looking back on it, but that time period made a huge difference. Now I'm a certified reflexologist. I have an avid interest in metaphysics, which I try to apply in my daily life. Like any spiritual philosophy, it's not easy, but it's the one that makes the most sense to me. It's the one that gives me the tools to be a better person.
NR: You did a couple of shows after that.
DLC: I did. After that dry spell I've been lucky in that I haven't had much down time since. I attribute it to the other stuff I was doing. I had great family support and I'm glad I grew up doing competitions because it gave me a healthy attitude towards accepting criticism and not taking it personally. When you're competing, you're constantly criticized, and at Carnegie Mellon, if you have a thin skin, you can forget it. If you walk out of Carnegie Mellon University on two feet, you can pretty much take anything; you can read any review. That's why reviews don't bother me. I'm more worried about what I'm going to see about my friends. That's when I'll lose control.