Art Talk with Renée Elise Goldsberry

By Paulette Beete
headshot of actress Renee Elise Goldsberry

 Renée Elise Goldsberry. Photo by Dennis Kwan.

“Education teaches students how to write their name; arts education teaches students how to find their signature.” – Renée Elise Goldsberry

Renée Elise Goldsberry won’t learn for a few more days if she’s won the Tony Award® for her performance as Angelica Schuyler in the musical theater juggernaut that is Hamilton (editor note: She did!), but if she does take home the coveted prize, it will join the slew of other honors she’s already amassed for originating the role, including Drama Desk and Grammy® awards. Goldsberry’s success is not surprising given that she’s been performing since she was in single digits. As she disclosed in our e-mail interview, after appearing in her first show at a mere eight-years-old, “I said a prayer and made a promise to God. I said that I wanted to be in plays for the rest of my life, and I promised that I would sing loud the next time someone pointed at me and asked me to sing for an audition so that I could always be cast in a show.” Since then Goldsberry—who studied theater as an undergrad and vocal jazz performance as a grad student—has gone on to create memorable characters on both stage and screen, while also sustaining a parallel career as a singer-songwriter. To highlight the outstanding talent, dedication, and drive that will be celebrated at the Tony Awards this Sunday, June 12—including this year’s recipient of the Excellence in Theatre Education Award, Marilyn McCormick of Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and the NEA's own Special 2016 Tony Award for our services to the theater field—we spoke with Goldsberry about the importance of arts education in helping young people find their identities, how a high school teacher taught her to not put limits on the roles she could play, and how she’s spent a lifetime being in love with the arts.

NEA: What do you remember as your first experience of the arts?

RENÉE ELISE GOLDSBERRY: My first experience with the arts must have been the sound of my mother singing to me when I was in the womb. The sound of my father singing to me when he held me. The sound of The Temptations records that they played. My mother used to sing Karen Carpenter’s “Close to You” to me when I was a little girl. “Just like me they long to be close to you,” she would sing. And my father used to sing “Daddy’s Home.” I learned how to spell my name because of a song my mother made up; I learned how to count, I learned the alphabet. My first experiences in the arts were gifts that people gave to me before I could walk or even hold up my head. We use art to welcome our children into the world. We use art to teach them who they are. So our first experience with art comes before we are even conscious.

NEA: What was your journey to becoming an artist? When/how did you decide you’d pursue the arts as a career?

GOLDSBERRY: They used to say I was very dramatic as a child. I sang and danced and put on little performances with my friends, like all children do. But there was a moment that I remember being singled out for having a gift. Heatwave had a song on the radio called, “Always and Forever,” and my cousin Dawn would always ask me to sing it for her. If other friends were around, she would say, “Listen to my cousin sing this,” and she would swoon as I sang. That acknowledgement felt really good to me. It changed me from being a girl that just did shows to someone who thought that she could sing. That’s probably my first conscious memory of a recognition of the power to lift people up by a talent.

Years later, at the grand old age of eight, my mother put my brother and me in summer camp at Houston International Theatre School. I was in the chorus of Guys and Dolls, and I was so happy. I remember sitting in the parking lot in the car after the last performance, waiting for my mother to get out of some store, and being so depressed because the show was over. I made a conscious decision at that moment—actually, I said a prayer and made a promise to God. I said that I wanted to be in plays for the rest of my life, and I promised that I would sing loud the next time someone pointed at me and asked me to sing for an audition so that I could always be cast in a show. I marvel that so many years later, I am still on the journey to become an artist. I’m still becoming. I’m still learning every night, with every opportunity to write something, to sing something, to perform any work. Every opportunity to do these things brings me further along the journey, and the best part is, no matter how far along I go, I have so much more to learn.

NEA: As you know the Tony Awards has inaugurated a special award to honor a theater educator each year. Why do you think it’s important to support and foster arts education opportunities for young people today?

GOLDSBERRY: There’s a new Mozart, a new Miles Davis, a new Misty Copeland, a new Matisse potentially languishing in a math class somewhere. If we fail to introduce them to art, we fail humanity. I was sitting in the back of a classroom making my friends laugh until a teacher told me one day, “Renée, you have a beautiful voice. Sit up here in the front. Sing the solo.” She gave me an awareness of something I could do with that energy (the ability to mimic her singing and make my friends laugh). She gave me an opportunity to be constructive with that ability as opposed to destructive. She made me a creator and everyone treated me differently once I realized who I was. We are all good at things—a varied assortment of things—and we all desperately need to find out what those things are for our self-esteem. If there is anything young people need, it is confidence and an identity and a purpose. Arts education gives that to so many people regardless of what careers they choose. Arts education also enables students to find out who they are. Education teaches students how to write their name; arts education teaches students how to find their signature. The skills developed through an education in the arts will create not only the next Lin-Manuel Miranda, it will create the next Isaac Newton, it will create the next Barack Obama.

NEA: This is the second year that the Tony Awards are recognizing an arts educator with the Excellence in Theatre Education Award. Is there a particular arts teacher who was significant in your life?

GOLDSBERRY: When I was a junior in high school, I went to an audition for South Pacific. I wasn’t really involved in the theater crowd in my high school. I was just a regular high school girl running around in lots of other groups, but the part of me that had grown up doing musicals was lying dormant. I showed up right before the audition closed and landed Nellie Forbush, the lead. Little did I know that some people would have said I was miscast playing Nellie Forbush in spite of how well I sang the song or how well I acted the role. The whole point of the play is to show racism and its impact; and the journey for Nellie is to get over that implicit bias that she grew up with as an American and love Emile in spite of the fact that he has two brown Polynesian children. In my high school production of South Pacific, the two brown Polynesian children were cast as two kids that were not nearly as brown as me, and somehow or another [my teacher] Dr. Geroux still thought it was a good idea to give me this role.

When I think about playing Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton so many years later [I realize I’m] free of anyone’s questions that I might not be perfect to embody her because I don’t look like her. It’s really a thought that never enters my mind because so long ago an arts educator set this trajectory for me. The joy I had playing that role is the reason that I applied to music theater programs for college, and the educators that I had at Carnegie Mellon University are the reason that I live in New York now and play all of these roles of women that are Hispanic and white and every shade under the sun with complete confidence and self-possession. I will always be grateful to Dr. Geroux and all of the arts educators that believed in me.

NEA: You are one of the more experienced actors in the show. What advice do you have on sustaining a career in the theater?

GOLDSBERRY: Make friends. People want to work with people that they like. People want to have creative, hard-working, positive people in the room. Be the light in the family, and when new families are formed down the line, you will be sought after. 

NEA: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about your arts career?

GOLDSBERRY: Invest in your life. Run toward it. Fall in love. Get married. Have children. Travel. Fill your soul with other forms of art. Our artistry is the sum of our experiences so have rich experiences. Joyful, painful, peaceful, hectic life experiences feed us. They make us not only interesting, but valuable. Our life is all we have to give to our work, so have one. Do not fail yourself by putting your life on a back burner for the sake of a career in the arts. Create art and live life, with equal commitment and passion. That is the artistry that launches huge careers and saves the world. 

NEA: As an artist, what tool could you not live without?

GOLDSBERRY: I could not live without faith and God. As an artist, I have to believe that something is going to happen in a moment that is bigger than me—that somehow or another something is going to come through that is greater than the sum of all my parts, that is going to create something that’s going to move other people. I couldn’t live my life without my faith in God; I would not have the courage to walk into auditions, or to believe in myself to do the role that I get from an audition, or to try for another role when I don’t get an audition—and even to walk onstage to do the 312th performance of Hamilton. No matter how much acclaim has already come and how much success, to believe that I can actually pull it off again comes from the belief that I didn’t get myself this far, so I don’t have to get myself all the way. I believe in a higher power than me that has blessed me with this opportunity for a higher purpose than my own glory, and that is my resource and that is my source and without that I would not be here.

NEA: You're a professional actress, but in addition to your artistic skills, what other skills do you think you’ve developed because of your arts career?

GOLDSBERRY: I am really confident speaking in front of people whether I’m reading copy or just talking from my heart. I feel very practiced in the ability to focus because that’s what I have to do when I am working in the theater or working as an actor. With everything that’s going on around that’s distracting or all the pressure, I have to learn how to—in the midst of that—focus, and that helps me speak in public. That helps me deal with any kind of stress or anxiety in my life. I also feel like this career has given me the ability to value the psychology of human beings because we spend a lot of time breaking down characters, understanding what makes them tick and why we did this and what their motivations are and what their objectives are; and that works just in understanding people in general, and life in general, and making sense of relationships because it’s the same skills that we use when we’re dealing in any kind of drama.

I also think this career has given me a platform to be a leader. When you’re the one that’s singing the song or creating the artwork that’s being celebrated, people are looking to you and you recognize the responsibility of that to say something that is valuable, to say something that lifts people, whether it’s through the art you’re doing or just in general with the kind of life that you’re living. These are things that my arts career and the studying of art have enabled me to do and I’m grateful for it.

NEA: Finish the sentence: The arts matter because…

GOLDSBERRY: God uses artists like prophets—to heal the world.

Can't get enough of the musical Hamilton? Check out our podcast with the show's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda