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Award-winning actress talks to students about putting the story first

Yes, she’s a star, but she’s probably the last person in the world who would cop to that title. Joan Allen, this year’s Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence, is one of the world’s most celebrated film, television, and stage actresses. She has been nominated for three Academy Awards for her work on Nixon, The Crucible, and The Contender, and has won a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in Burn This.  

Jessica Thebus moderating a conversation with Joan Allen

On Monday, November 4, in a conversation moderated by assistant professor of theatre Jessica Thebus in Annie May Swift Hall, Allen talked with students, many of whom are on the verge of entering the world of professional acting and had questions about how to navigate their careers.

Allen was quick to point out that, as a founding member of the then nascent Steppenwolf Theatre Company, “I was part of an ensemble, so I was blessed with a tremendous amount of security most actors don’t have. That’s not the norm. Many of you guys may be striking out on your own.”

Still, she said, one of the most important pieces of advice she could impart, “whatever work you end up doing,” she said, “is to know that if there’s a top dog in the play it’s the story. That’s the top dog. That’s the star. That’s the thing that’s most important.

“With that attitude,” she said, “I never felt that any actor was more or less important than any other one. We’re all equal. We’re all trying to tell the story, and we all need to work to that end. So when I started working with people like Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis, people would say to me, ‘Aren’t you intimidated?’ and I’d say no. Because the better the actors are the better you can hopefully be. And, really, the star is whatever story you’re telling.”

Allen is in town performing in The Wheel, a Steppenwolf production that has reunited her with the company to whom she attributes her success. “I would not be where I am had I not had all those years in my twenties with Steppenwolf,” she said. “It just wouldn’t have happened.”

Jessica Thebus moderating a conversation with Joan Allen

While the run of The Wheel is only seven weeks long, Allen described to students how, after a particularly long run of a play, dramatic scenes can become harder and harder to play with authenticity, likening the quandary to having “veins collapse.” She also joked that the technical dialogue in the Bourne movies (she played deputy CIA director Pam Landy in all three) had been especially challenging for her. “I actually had cue cards for the first and only time in my career,” she said. “Now, guys on the other hand were really good at it. Guys could memorize those lines in, like, three seconds.”

Overall, Allen said of the creative process, “I think kindness is hugely important. I think appreciating every person who is responsible for putting a play on, or putting a movie together is the key. Knowing people’s names. Saying hello. This form happens as a group. It does not happen in isolation. And I think acknowledging everybody’s contribution is important and will make you feel stronger and more connected in what you’re doing in every way. I cannot stress that enough.”

The Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence Program began in 1990 with a gift from Hope Altman Abelson, who studied theatre at Northwestern University and became a Broadway producer. The first Abelson Artist was opera and theatre director Peter Sellars. Subsequent Abelson artists have included playwright Tony Kushner, actors Cherry Jones, Meryl Streep, and Bill Irwin, and actress/writer Regina Taylor, as well as School of Communication alumni like playwright/screenwriter John Logan, film director Jason Moore, and, last year, actor/writer/director Zach Braff.