REGINA GEORGE may be a massive deal, but she’s got nothing on her creator, the multitalented Tina Fey. The award-winning actor, writer, and producer — best known for her work on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, and both film and stage productions of Mean Girls — made a special virtual appearance at the 2020 International Thespian Festival on June 25. Fey dropped in for a live Q&A, answering questions from Thespians that ranged from the influence of her high school theatre program to how she handles anxiety and writer’s block.

Long admired in film and television worlds, Fey joined the musical theatre community in 2017 when she adapted her Mean Girls film script for the stage. The show premiered in Washington, D.C., before opening on Broadway the following year. Fey said her husband, the show’s composer Jeff Richmond, always felt the movie could sing.

“Even though the actual stakes of what’s happening are relatively low in the world at large, the stakes are very high to the characters themselves, and I think that’s really all you need for it to sing,” Fey said. “The most fun part of adapting it to the stage, for me, was figuring out different kinds of jokes because, in a movie, you are in a close-up or you have voiceover and different places to put jokes. In the movie, a lot of the jokes are in Lindsay Lohan’s voiceover …. [but in theatre, the jokes] have to play from far away. Literally, you have to be able to see and get the joke in the balcony. That was a fun challenge: to figure out what stays and what goes and what kind of jokes will work on the theatre stage.”

Fey says she has frequently gone back to see Mean Girls with new cast members. “The coolest thing about having the movie turn into a Broadway show is that it goes from being a static thing — the movie is the movie. It’s set; it never changes. And the show is a living thing. When the show’s running, I love to go watch from the wings. I love to see when different actors go on, when swings are on and covers are on for people. I love to see how that affects the show. I love the fact that we were on tour, and there’s another cast, now the third or fourth group of people who have played these parts that started in the movie. And I’m really, really, really looking forward to the show being licensed so performers your age — performers the actual age of the characters — can play the parts. I’m beyond excited for that next phase.”

Fey says, if she could pursue only one path, she would choose writing over performing. “You just have so much more of a chance to contribute,” she said. “It’s hard for actors. To be an actor, and only an actor, is a hard life because you only get to play what people let you play. Even in a developmental process with a piece, you might get asked what you think, or you might get asked to make suggestions, but you might not, depending on the director. … I feel very lucky to be a writer first and to have weaseled my way into performing.”

It’s for those reasons Fey named 30 Rock her most fulfilling television project to date. Fey created and executive produced the show, in addition to serving as a writer and portraying the character Liz Lemon onscreen. 30 Rock aired from 2006 to 2013, winning three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series. “I have so many memories of working so, so, so hard, but then also feeling like we reaped the benefits of how hard we worked,” she said. “We were all working toward the same goal.”

Tina Fey with members of the Mean Girls creative team, from left to right, Casey Nicholaw, Jeff Richmond, and Nell Benjamin.
Tina Fey with members of the Mean Girls creative team, from left to right, Casey Nicholaw, Jeff Richmond, and Nell Benjamin. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

During the fast-paced, 30-minute conversation, Fey shared the following advice with Thespians.

Create your opportunities
Fey encouraged Thespians to create breaks for themselves. She said, “I often tell young performers they shouldn’t be afraid — even if you think of yourself as just an actor — you shouldn’t be afraid to try to write something for yourself or adapt something for yourself because it’s a really fulfilling process. Anyone can do it. Especially if you have peers you like working with.”

Try everything
Fey credits time spent in high school theatre — and in her Pennsylvania hometown theatre, the Upper Darby Summer Stage — for lessons she uses today. Of the latter, she said, “You learn to paint sets, you work in the box office, you work in costumes. It gives you so many skills. It gives you time management and collaboration and a respect for how much goes into putting a show together. So, it prepared me. By the time I got to Saturday Night Live as a writer 10 years later, I feel like I was more respectful and I was a better collaborator with all the different departments there because I had at least dabbled in most of them. … The more jobs you can do in the theatre the better.”

Open all doors
Fey stressed there is no one, right journey to getting where you want to be. “Most companies have internship programs that, if you are in college, there are ways you can seek them out,” she said. “Then, the next step above in TV is a PA, or production assistant, and they usually have them in all different departments. I always tell people, jump in wherever you can get in. Even if you are a wanna-be writer and they try to put you on the lighting crew, jump in, and you will learn.”

Use improv lessons to keep anxiety at bay
Everyone experiences anxiety at times, but that doesn’t need to keep you from trying new things. “I started as an improviser in Chicago,” Fey said. “And the really great thing about improvising is it goes wrong so often, and you bomb so often. … But the more you try, the more risks you take, and you survive … the easier it will become. Try improv if you have an interest in it. Try parts that are completely opposite of what you would normally play. … Try things in the rehearsal room where you’re definitely safe.”

Let go of jealousy
Fey said, given the opportunity to advise her teenage self, she’d tell her to let go of jealousy and competitive obsessions with others’ lives. “Comparison is the death of joy,” she said.

Ace your audition
As someone who often participates in casting projects, Fey said there are ways you can stand out in your audition. “Come in super, super, super prepared,” she said. “As a writer, I like to hear the words that are actually on the page. The more prepared you are, the more you can be free in the expression of those words, but it’s better if the words are correct. Being the most prepared you can be also leads to relaxation in the room, and when you’re more relaxed, we get to see more of who you are. Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Don’t be afraid to try something in an audition and, at the same time, be ready to be adjusted.”

Take projects one step at a time
To overcome writer’s block, Fey says she’s a fan of the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. “It’s a book about writing, and it’s all about taking it one step at a time,” she said. “If you don’t know the whole scene, what do you know? Do you know where it’s set? Do you have an idea of two lines of dialogue? Start with what you know and try to build out. And don’t be afraid to throw things away.”

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with theatres around the world closed for the foreseeable future, Fey offered encouragement to Thespians. “I’m just wishing you all so well. I know this is a hard time for all of us, and especially for those of us that love theatre and love being together and love creating together and being in audiences,” she said. “I want to reassure you that we will get back there, and there’ll be plenty of time for you guys to get back onstage. And I think that, when we do get together, and we get back onstage, we’re going to be more interesting people. We’re going to have a lot to say and a lot to share and a strong desire to connect through theatre. I really, really look forward to seeing what you guys do on the other side of all this.”

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