Tina Fey usually arrived early to her classes at the University of Virginia. Drama professor Richard Warner remembers heading down early to Culbreth B006, a basement classroom, and finding Fey sitting there, coolly thumbing through the New York Times, waiting for everyone else to show up. "I spent every waking moment there," Fey says of the drama building.
Fey (Col '92) was known for constantly taking notes in black-and-white composition books, not just in class, but wherever she happened to be. "I would just sit there, watching her write and write and write," Fey's friend Cady Garey (Grad '93) says. "I finally asked her, 'What is it that you're writing down?' And she said, 'Oh, just stuff. Anything I think of.'"
That "stuff" tended to be observations about the world around her, some of them "caustic," as Fey has described her own behavior at U.Va., but almost always correct. "She would peg people pretty quickly," Garey says.
Warner, too, remembers Fey always writing and observing, hovering between being a part of the group and also many steps ahead of it. "She had this wonderful way about her: something would happen—something funny, or something emotional—and the room would get quiet, and Tina would say the perfect thing. When I think about her work today, that's really still what it is."
The gift for satire that Fey has displayed on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock was there when she was a student, as was her tremendous work ethic. When Fey returned to U.Va. in September as the inaugural speaker in the President's Speaker Series for the Arts, she displayed that old ability to hover between realms, engaging with the audience and also making quick, precise jokes about society.
She made speaking in front of thousands look easy, but Garey admitted Fey was nervous: "She said that she had been working and working on what she was going to say." At a reception afterward in Newcomb Hall, people congratulated Fey on her speech, and she made a gesture of relief, sighing and sweeping her hand across her forehead.
Perhaps this is part of what makes Fey so intriguing. She is world famous ("I mean, she was listed as one of Time magazine's 100 most important people in the world!" drama professor Bob Chapel, says, laughing. "Unbelievable."), but remains, as numerous friends and professors say, "a real person," or in the words of her friend Jenny Bennett, an "authentic badass."
"I think for Tina, it is about the work. It's not about the fame," says Doug Grissom, a playwright and drama professor at U.Va., who taught Fey playwriting. "She's just very grounded … I think that's why she's able to keep doing everything so well, because it's all about the work."
Finding Her People
In Fey's book, Bossypants, her chapter about U.Va. begins: "Let me start off by saying that at the University of Virginia in 1990, I was Mexican. I looked Mexican, that is, next to my fifteen thousand blond and blue-eyed classmates, most of whom owned horses, or at least resembled them."
"I always felt like my U.Va. experience was kind of fun, like going to school abroad," she said wryly in an interview. As an undergraduate, she found a home in Culbreth Theatre. "There was a somewhat conservative environment at Virginia, and then the drama department was just a bit different. It was this little insular community," she says. Fey's U.Va. professors remember her as "a very good citizen" of the department, someone who wrote, directed and acted in plays, who worked backstage in the costume and scene shop, who took every drama class there was to take.
Her initial theater experience at U.Va. was in a First Year Players production of Godspell. Bennett (Col '92), who is now a director and actress in New York, met Fey for the first time at auditions for that show. "When you're auditioning, you're scoping everybody out, and everyone there had long hair except for me and Tina," she says. "I had this sort of leftover muffinhead from a terrible hair accident a few months prior. Tina was like, 'Who's that other girl with the short hair?'"
The two became close friends, and threw themselves completely into the U.Va. theater world. "There was so much opportunity here," Bennett says. "The secret was you just had to claim it." When Fey and Bennett ran out of undergraduate drama classes to take, they moved on to graduate-level classes. They both got assistantships to create their own projects. "We could say, 'Oh, I want to direct a showcase,'" Bennett says, "and our professors would say, "Get the rights; here's 50 bucks. Make a play show up.' And we did."
In their fourth year, Fey and Bennett disrupted the final moments of auditions for a play Warner was directing. The show, On the Fourth Day, was about soldiers during World War II; there were no parts written for women at all. Fey and Bennett entered through a side door and marched onstage. "They'd gone down to the prop shop and found military helmets, rifles and army boots," Warner says. The two performed a skit about female soldiers in World War II ("a fierce battle scene against an invisible enemy," Warner says) before running offstage and allowing casting to resume.
"The comment underneath it all was, 'Why not do shows that women can get roles in?'" Warner says. "Tina's a social critic, but she's always done it with humor."
Betsy Tucker, Fey's first acting professor at U.Va., remembers Fey as a "smartypants" who "would certainly make fun of anything she wanted to make fun of." She described Fey at "Dram Prom," a theater event at the end of the academic year where students would do send-up sketches of their professors. "Tina always did me, and I was very flattered, because she was kind of ruthless about it," Tucker says. "She would always make fun of me for my smoking, for not shutting up, interrupting people and rolling my eyes when men started to say, you know, terrible things." She laughs. "She nailed me. If she weren't so good at it, I would have taken offense, but God, it was funny."
"I really hope that there's no video of Dram Prom in existence," Fey says.
The Best Use of Me
Most of Fey's stage roles at U.Va. were not particularly glamorous. "I played a silent maid who moved chairs around in Amadeus," Fey says. "I was a chicken carrier in Much Ado About Nothing." Garey, who now teaches in the U.Va. drama department, recalls the bit roles she and Fey played in a production of The Elephant Man in 1991. "We were the pinheads—circus freaks who appeared in a dream sequence. The costumes were loose-fitting burlap with heavy padding underneath. If that wasn't humiliating enough, the director of the show could never, never remember our actual names."
In her fourth year, Fey was cast in her first and only leading role, as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. "I remember the day I cast her as Sally," Bob Chapel said in an interview in his office. He pointed to the doorway, "She came down that very hall after reading the cast list, just floating; she was so happy."
In her speech, Fey discussed her Cabaret experience: "There was this moment at the end where Sally is hoisted up on a chair, high above the chorus, and I hit a note so sour that they almost dropped me," she said. "It started to occur to me that I might not be an incredibly talented actress."
Her self-deprecation about her acting skills pops up often in interviews and acceptance speeches. When she received the 2010 Screen Actors Guild award for her performance on 30 Rock, she said in her speech, "I want to thank some of my acting teachers, because I actually did have some," and then gulped, as if she'd told a lie. She then went on to seriously thank Warner and Tucker.
Tucker thinks that Fey may not see her acting ability as remarkable because "it comes naturally to her." Her gift for imitation "was an early learned behavior. She has a very quick mind and a quick mouth," Tucker says. "What's brilliant about Tina is that she also has the physicality. It's not just in her wit; her whole body is comic. It's not that she doesn't work hard—it's just that some of the keys to acting, she had early."
Fey says U.Va. was the first place she got a taste of what it was like to write for other people. In her fourth year, she wrote her first one-act play, Sunday Girls, about a group of young women reuniting in their hometown for the wedding of a mutual ex-boyfriend. Their hometown is, of course, in suburban Pennsylvania, the same place Liz Lemon and Fey herself are from.
"That was my first experience of not being in the play, of watching it from the outside, and hearing laughs, and just thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this is very gratifying, more gratifying in some ways than being in a play,'" Fey says. "I thought, 'Oh, OK, that's what I'm supposed to do. That's the best use of me. I'm supposed to write things to make people laugh.'"
After graduation, Fey moved to Chicago and began a career in improv comedy. Garey moved to Chicago to pursue acting as well, and often went to see Fey perform in shows at Improv Olympic and then Second City. Garey also took some improv classes, but says she "never got as in-depth as Tina was. It was apparent even then—she just clicked with it from minute one."
"This is going to sound weird," Bennett says, "but I always had enormous confidence that Tina would be successful. She's always been my favorite writer of things." In the fall of 2001, Bennett returned to the U.S. after spending a year in Taiwan. She says she was "staggering, jetlagged, around San Francisco," when she came upon a giant poster at a bus stop. "And I'm like, 'That looks like—that's Tina Fey on that bus stop. It's Tina Fey on the bus stop.'"
At that point in her career, Fey was head writer of Saturday Night Live and co-anchor of the show's "Weekend Update." Mean Girls, 30 Rock and Sarah Palin were all to come. "There's so much work she's accomplished," Bennett says. "She's the hardest working gal in show business, just as she was in school."
I Want to Go to There: Fey's Return to U.Va.
On the morning of Fey's speech in September, ecstatic students snapped photos with Fey as she walked around the Lawn and the Corner. Fey also met with Arts Scholars students for a Q&A session in the drama building. When one student asked her what was one thing that she wished she had done sooner in her career, she replied, "I wish I had started waxing my eyebrows earlier."
"That may seem flip, but it's so honest. Tina's not afraid of saying the things that maybe we all think, but wouldn't say to someone else," Garey says. "She's OK with being vulnerable in some areas of her life, and people feel immediately comfortable with her."
The night of the speech, as people in U.Va.'s McIntire Amphitheater, packed from the foot of the stage all the way back to McCormick Road, waited for Fey to take the stage, they began chanting her name, pumping their fists in time. A clip reel ran highlights from Fey's career—her precise comic timing on "Weekend Update"; her performance as Liz Lemon, dreamily stating, "I want to go to there," and fawning over Oprah; and, of course, her uncanny impersonation of Sarah Palin on SNL. When a scene from Mean Girls flashed on the screen, the audience drowned out the audio with cheers—many in the crowd had grown up watching the film. When Fey came onstage, she may as well have been the Beatles on their first U.S. tour. She thanked the audience warmly and immediately cracked a joke:
"I'm so happy to be here with you and see you all. I love U.Va. I loved every moment of my time here. And I graduated a virgin and have nothing but happy memories. Really, it's just a testament to the architecture. Beautiful."
As she moved through her speech, she did what she does best: communicate with an audience. Dressed in simple blue pants and a black top, she seemed unassuming and even, at times, earnest. "I'd like to tell you about three artists whose work thrills and inspires me, which is how I think art should make you feel," she said.
She listed comedian Chris Rock, playwright Caryl Churchill and composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim as the artists who've meant the most to her. Fey, who wrote in Bossypants about falling asleep midsentence when she pulled all-night sessions in her living room with her 30 Rock writers, practically gushed to the crowd about Sondheim's work ethic.
"His work is so finished," she said. "His parents were in the dressmaking business, and I feel like you can tell—it's like his work is stitched together perfectly," she said. "We tried to exercise that kind of care at 30 Rock. We would proof our pages like they were going to the Smithsonian. We would check every detail on a set, because it's your work! It doesn't matter if it's a school play or a dumb TV show—it's your work."
Here, people started to clap. "You should care about it so much that people get annoyed with you!" Fey cried, and the crowd of students, faculty and artists cheered back.
Fey nodded and smiled, almost shyly. She had been speaking for nearly 40 minutes and the temperature had dropped into the low 50s. She leaned into the microphone. "Just two more hours to go," she said quietly, her expression a perfect deadpan. The crowd, of course, answered her with applause.