Without ever having stepped foot on the University of Virginia’s Grounds before, Tina Fey nervously moved into Metcalf House, the dorm she would soon call home, in the fall of 1988.
“I didn’t grow up in a world where people went on college tours,” Fey said. “You kind of looked at a paper catalog about colleges, and then you would try to get in somewhere.
“You can imagine my delight when I did get there. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is so beautiful.’”
For the second time in 10 years, Fey will return to Grounds on Sunday to participate in the President’s Speaker Series for the Arts, a series that featured Fey as the inaugural guest in 2013. The conversation at John Paul Jones arena scheduled for Sunday will be moderated by President Jim Ryan and will underscore the value of the arts in college.
Fey spoke by phone last week with UVA Today, both about her upcoming talk and about her time on Grounds, where she developed some of the skills that later launched her career as an actress, comedian, producer and writer.
Upon arriving at UVA for the first time, Fey met her roommate, Karina, an international student from Germany whom she was paired with randomly through UVA’s roommate lottery.
The two quickly found that they had something in common: the culture shock of moving to an unfamiliar environment in the South. Growing up 25 minutes outside of Philadelphia in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, Fey was always surrounded by people that looked like her.
In her bestselling comedic autobiography, “Bossypants,” released in 2011, Fey recalls feeling out of place next to her “fifteen thousand blond and blue-eyed classmates.” She remembers feeling “Mexican” – not because she was, but because she looked different than her peers.
“I had grown up as the ‘whitest’ girl in a very Greek neighborhood, but in the eyes of my new classmates, I was Frida Kahlo in leggings,” Fey wrote.
Fey entered the University with the assumption that she would major in English, but quickly realized her strengths could be better used elsewhere.
“I got into my [English] classes and realized, ‘I don’t know what we’re talking about,’” she said.
One of the first clubs Fey gravitated to was First Year Players, a student-led musical theater organization with a mission of casting only first-year students.
Because it can be difficult to be cast in productions within the UVA’s Department of Drama as a first-year student, the organization was founded in 1977, allowing these students to meet like-minded individuals who share a passion for theater.
“During my first year, I really felt like I had met my people,” she said. “The drama department became my home.”
At the time, First Year Players was directed by Stacey Wolf, a UVA graduate student studying directing. “She pulled a bunch of us into the drama department, and by the spring, I started taking drama classes,” Fey said.
Fey took several influential classes in the Department of Drama that she still recalls to this day, including directing with Betsy Tucker and several acting classes with Richard Warner that “were super helpful.”
“I often remind myself that I’m one of the few people technically using my degree,” she laughed. “Who would have ever predicted that?”
Despite not being cast in a leading role during her time at UVA, Fey did not feel discouraged. In fact, she saw it as an opportunity to develop other production-related skills.
“I always felt like I was a part of the department because there were always different things to be doing in the classwork itself,” she said. “Throughout my whole career … I’ve always been a person that had to make my own opportunities, and I think that’s fine.”
The first script Fey wrote for other people to perform resulted from an assignment in her playwriting class during her fourth year. It was a one-act play called “Sunday Girls,” following a group of post-graduate friends uniting in their hometown before a wedding.
“I don’t know why everything I write has the word ‘girls’ in the title,” she laughed.
“Sunday Girls” was performed in UVA’s Black Box Theater and was the first time Fey received laughter from an audience based on something she had written, an experience that sticks with her to this day.
“It was such a new and fulfilling experience to think, ‘Oh, I wrote that joke and it got a lot [of laughs].’ It was more satisfying than if I had just been in it, in a way.”
UVA Today asked Fey if she could return to UVA without being recognized, what would she most like to do? She said, “I really want to be in a play, of course – or just not even a play, like a monologue, and get notes on it as an actor.”
The receiving notes part is important, she said, because actors don’t usually get feedback on their acting as they become more accomplished.
“No one really gives you notes once you leave [college],” she said. “If you are in a movie or something, usually there is no time to give the actors notes. … People assume that I’m doing it exactly how I want to do it, and nobody gives any direction.”
Stemming from her lack of background knowledge about UVA before entering college, Fey said if she were applying to colleges today, she’s not certain she would have committed to the University. But, she said, that would have meant missing out on the kind of experience that comes from taking a chance.
“Because UVA’s strengths are not necessarily what I’m interested in, I would maybe never have even considered UVA,” she said. “There’s a lot that can be said about trying new things and blooming where you’re planted.
“You don’t need to find a thousand people that you like. You can find 20 people you like and still have a fantastic experience.”
General admission tickets are free and available today through April 21 at the following locations:
- UVA Arts Box Office (in person, weekdays from noon to 5 p.m.
- Newcomb Information Desk (in person, every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
- John Paul Jones Arena Box Office (in person, weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., day of event opens at noon)
- Online: ticketmaster.com (note that Ticketmaster fees will apply).
The President’s Speaker Series for the Arts is presented by The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation and supported by the offices of the President and the Executive Vice President and Provost, the Vice Provost for the Arts, and UVA Arts.