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PSS Winter '12

Passion for Performing

Actor Christopher McDonald ’77 makes $1 million gift to the Performing Arts Center

by Catherine Williams

Christopher McDonald

Actor Christopher McDonald '77 in character as 'Tommy
Jefferson' on Harry's Law. (Photo courtesy of NBC)

In an act of extraordinary commitment to Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Actor Christopher McDonald ’77 has pledged $1 million to the Performing Arts Center, the final capital project of Campaign for the Colleges. McDonald’s gift will help fund the construction of a 55,000-square-foot facility that will create academic space for theatre, music and dance.

“It’s time to give back, to help the school because I have benefited so much from my liberal arts education,” says McDonald, who came to Hobart with the intention of becoming a dentist and ultimately switched his major and career path after becoming involved in the Little Theatre and Koshare Dance Collective.

The process of auditioning for and earning parts with the Little Theatre “sparked an interest in me that I didn’t even know I had,” explains McDonald. “I had no delusions of grandeur of trying to be an artist, but because it was there – the theatre was there, Koshare was there, I was exposed to these opportunities and it just lit me up. I loved it.”

McDonald explains that the Colleges are at a distinct disadvantage without performing arts facilities. “Our current facilities discourage prospective students from looking at the Colleges, as I found out when I tried to get my own children to consider Hobart and William Smith,” says McDonald. “They loved it here but there’s no decent performing arts center so they’ve gone elsewhere. I don’t want that to happen again.”

“I am personally grateful to Chris for his commitment to his alma mater and for the generosity he has shown through this gift and through his many efforts over the years mentoring our students,” says President Mark D. Gearan. “Chris’ support means so much to our faculty and our students and it is through his efforts that we will create a facility that will be a source of inspiration for our entire community.”

The new Performing Arts Center will help to draw a new generation of students and scholars to the Colleges and in doing so will provide opportunities that, according to McDonald, were instrumental in allowing him to discover his passion. “Hobart and William Smith changed my life. It was here that I discovered acting. That was it for me,” says McDonald.

Described by the New York Times as one of the hardest working and most prolific actors in Hollywood, McDonald has performed in nearly 100 films and countless television and theater productions. After graduating from Hobart, he went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and the world-renowned Stella Adler Acting Conservatory in New York. He reprised his role as Billy Flynn in the 10th Anniversary of Broadway’s “Chicago,” sharing the stage with Broadway legends Joel Grey and Chita Rivera, and is the recipient of the Drama-Logue Best Actor Award.

Christopher McDonald

Steve Buscemi and Christopher McDonald '77 on the set
of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. In the series, McDonald plays
'U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty.'
(Photo courtesy of HBO)

Currently, McDonald is known to television audiences as Tommy Jefferson in NBC’s “Harry’s Law,” starring alongside Academy Award winning actress Kathy Bates. He also has a recurring role on HBO’s acclaimed miniseries “Boardwalk Empire” where heplays U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty. On the silver screen he has starred in such films as “Requiem for a Dream,” “Thelma and Louise,” “The Perfect Storm,” “Quiz Show” and “Happy Gilmore,” working with such acclaimed actors as Ellen Burstyn, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Ralph Fiennes and Susan Sarandon, among many others.

While at Hobart, McDonald played football for two years and was backup goalie on Hobart’s varsity soccer team for two years. He was Song Master of the Kappa Alpha Society and received his degree in English, cum laude. McDonald has returned to campus numerous times to present lectures, network with students, participate in Reunion and, in 2008, to co-emcee William Smith College’s Centennial Gala with his friend and former teacher, Mara O’Laughlin ’66.


Q&A with Christopher McDonald '77

Q: How did you end up working with Stella Adler?
A: As a struggling actor in Manhattan, I didn’t have the money to pay for Stella Adler’s acting classes so I approached her to propose an exchange of services: her acting classes for my driving and bartending. In our time together, especially in the car, she’d discuss film theory and playwrights with me. It was amazing. I had a closer relationship with her than if I’d paid for the courses. As an actor, I really benefited from her tutelage. You knew you were one of the good ones if you could survive a Stella Adler scene study without being ripped apart, or survive being ripped apart and come back and do it again, because she didn’t suffer fools. She would say, “You haven’t done your work. Get off the stage, darling.” People would leave in tears. Only the good ones came back. She taught us, “the truth of your art is in your imagination,” allowing actors to embrace any type of role with confidence.

Q: Why have you stayed connected to Hobart and William Smith?
A: Hobart and William Smith was a life-changer for me. I came to school to study science. After joining Little Theatre, I discovered that I had a passion for acting. Busy with the sciences and football, I wanted to do something else that was not inside my comfort zone. And then I walked into the Little Theatre. Professor E.E. Griffith, God bless him, he said, “Yeah, we’re going to use you.” I auditioned and got cast. Professor Roger Farrand was also influential. Several productions later, at the end of my sophomore year, I changed my major much to my parents’ chagrin. In hindsight, though, we were all glad I did.

Q: How did you end up in Koshare Dance Collective?
A: I had a crush on a girl who was a dancer in Koshare and they needed guys, so I decided to join. I really loved the natural modern dance moves we were doing. So, even after the infatuation with that particular girl went away, I stayed with Koshare. I learned how the commitment to movement – the stretching, rhythm and endurance necessary to dance – truly made me a better athlete.

Q: How did the Colleges prepare you for life after graduation?
A: The education I received kept me on a path of the pursuit of knowledge. The great literature and creative thinking I was exposed to have stayed with me to this day. I further cemented my passion for acting when I was exposed to West End Theatre in London while studying abroad my senior year. You get a global outlook from the Colleges. There are so many successful people who have graduated from Hobart and William Smith, and there’s a reason for it; we’re trained to think differently and encouraged to look at all aspects of a situation. With knowledge comes confidence that one can make a change in this world.

Q: Why do you think it is important for the Colleges to have a place for the performing arts?
A: Our facilities now are in gymnasiums and lecture halls. We need to give today’s students facilities that match their expectations and their needs. And the plans for this Performing Arts Center are stunning. This center is going to make a difference on campus. It’s time to step up if we want to keep this school thriving and competitive in the arts with theatre, dance, music and film.

Q: Why is the location of the Performing Arts Center significant?
A: I was so broke when I was going to college here – my parents didn’t have the money and I didn’t want to borrow any more – that I lived for two semesters in a motor home in Medbery Parking Lot with a 60 foot extension cord plugged into my buddy’s room in Medbery Hall. The groundskeepers never called me on it. I literally lived on the site for the new performing arts center. The irony is not lost on me.

Q: Why did you decide to support this project?
A: I hope to encourage my classmates and all alumni and alumnae, each one influential in his or her own right, to give back to Hobart and William Smith. It’s time to help fund this very worthy project because it’s only goin make the Colleges better. The new Performing Arts Center is going to be good for the community, and it’s going to be exciting to come back to see what our theatre, dance and music majors are coming up with in the arts. These students are so willing to learn and so smart in their questions. And let’s be honest, it’s also a great and worthy tax deduction, particularly in this economy. The Colleges made it painless for me. It’s a win-win.