John Lithgow on the Importance of Arts Education

Article Image
Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Over the course of his decades-long career, John Lithgow has played an alien, a serial killer, a reverend, and Winston Churchill—and that’s just scratching the surface. At 78, he remains a curious performer and a strong advocate for arts education. For the last three years, he’s co-chaired the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Arts. 

In his upcoming PBS special “Art Happens Here With John Lithgow,” which premieres April 26, he visits the classrooms of four Los Angeles–based arts organizations that are making a difference in the lives of young people—studying dance, ceramics, silk-screen printing, and vocal jazz. 

“The whole idea was that the teachers teach the kids, and the kids teach me. I was like the new kid in school,” Lithgow says with a laugh.  

Here, he discusses how his own arts education has impacted his craft.

How do you feel that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of arts education?

I deeply feel the loss for millions and millions of kids [who missed] two years of [school]. I look back at my own childhood and how essential arts education was. I went to eight different public schools, and most had wonderful art classes. 

My ninth and 10th grade years in Akron, Ohio, began for me with two periods of elective studio art. Two teachers in those two years were my favorites. [They] made me want to go to school every day. Everything in life, to me, should involve both hard work and joy—to take things seriously [but also] have exuberant fun with it.

John and Rosie work on a ceramics project - ART HAPPENS HERE WITH JOHN LITHGOW cred Jessica Howes_PBS

Credit: Jessica Howes/PBS

What lessons did you learn from your parents, who were also artists?

Both my parents had a wonderful, supportive, but fair attitude towards all of us kids. We ran wild, me and my three siblings…. My mother made sure that I always had good art classes. If the schools didn’t have good ones, she would find them. 

[My dad] was a theater producer, director, and actor. He ran Shakespeare festivals, and we were in the shows. It was our summer activity—watching rehearsals and befriending these wonderful actors who came out from New York. I absorbed it in my blood, and by the time I went off to college, I was an expert actor without realizing it. 

You’ve done a wide variety of projects over the years, ranging from “3rd Rock From the Sun” to “Dexter” to “The Crown.” Which role shaped you most as an actor?

My childhood experience [shaped me most]. I was playing all of the one-syllable Shakespeare comic roles. There were five, six, even seven shows per summer…. While you were performing, you were rehearsing the next one. At the end of the summer, you had all seven plays running every night, which duplicated the experience of Shakespeare’s troupe. It made me into a chameleon character actor. 

Is there a Shakespeare part you haven’t played that you’ve always wanted to?

I was asked to play Hamlet twice when I was younger. Both times, I think I was not available. It’s just too stupid to have grown up and said no to “Hamlet.” Now, I am way too old for that. I aspired to play King Lear, and I finally played [him] in Central Park in 2014. 

What have you learned about arts education that you’ve carried throughout your career?

[Being a performer] is hard work. It’s a discipline. I went into the acting business, but I’ve also sang and danced. I’ve danced in the New York City Ballet, and I’ve performed with major orchestras…. When I do those things, I’m surrounded by incredibly disciplined and hardworking people. Overwhelming discipline and joy—[those form] the superstructure of a good education for young kids. 

This story originally appeared in the Apr. 11 issue of Backstage Magazine.