Q&A: John Lithgow Talks Arts First

An interview with the Oscar-winning actor

With roles ranging from political assassins to romantic bankers, John Lithgow ‘67 has built a varied and distinguished career as an actor in theater and film. However, Lithgow’s resume isn’t limited to stagecraft. He also played a major role in creating Harvard’s Arts First festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In a phone interview, Lithgow talks about the process of building Arts First, his fond memories from the festival, and why it is so similar to a certain aquatic theme park.

The Harvard Crimson: In your autobiography, you said that you came up with the idea of Arts First when thinking about your undergraduate experience at Harvard andthe environment’s “wild variety of creative ferment,” as you call it. What were some of the most memorable experiences during your undergraduate education?

John Lithgow ‘67: Oh, boy. There were so many. I would say some of the most memorable were playing Gloucester in “King Lear” my freshman year, when I was only 18 years old, directing Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” in the Leverett House dining hall and the “Beggar’s Opera” in the Adams dining hall. That was a fraction of what I did at Harvard, but those are high points that leap to my mind.

THC: What was the process of starting Arts First like?

JL: I was on the Harvard board of overseers for six years, between 1989 and 1995. I proposed that we create a committee for the arts, and the first and only thing that that committee did was create the festival. President, Neil Rudenstine embraced the idea wholeheartedly, and Myra Mayman, director of the Office of the Arts, created an operating committee. It’s remarkable how many of the elements of that very first year are still in place 20 years later. The extraordinary performance fair on Saturday, the big concert on Friday night, bringing together a dance repertory on Saturday afternoon...all those things were there, just very modest. In 1995, I proposed the Harvard Arts Medal. The idea was to celebrate the fact that, although it’s rare, Harvard men and women do go into the creative arts. Over the years we’ve had major, major figures, like Jack Lemmon, John Updike, Yo-Yo Ma, and Bonnie Raitt. This year, it’s Tommy Lee Jones.

THC: Have any Arts First events stuck out in your mind?

JL: I’ve always enjoyed the Q&A with the various medal winners –there was a wonderful interview with Yo-Yo Ma. I’ve always loved going to Adolphus Busch Hall and hearing the choral groups. I loved it when John Adams came up and conducted his own work with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. I could literally list things for 20 minutes.

THC: It’s been said that Harvard’s Arts First was inspired by the Edinburgh Festival. How did that event influence you?

JL: When we created it, I sort of named it Harvard’s version of the Edinburgh Festival, but I’ve never even been to the Edinburgh festival. What I always compared it to was SeaWorld, where at any given moment there’s always something going on. You go from one venue to another, and no matter what you do, you can only see 10 percent of the offerings. You leave with a wonderful sense of fulfillment and dissatisfaction that you haven’t seen everything.That’s how SeaWorld always struck me.

THC: What, in your opinion, are the benefits of events such as Arts First?

JL: It seems obvious that it’s a good thing. It’s a wonderful moment of creative rebirth. It’s a wonderful moment for parents to visit. It’s a great kind of morale builder, and it’s a great moment of self identity for the university.

—Staff writer Petey Menz can be reached at menz@college.harvard.edu.

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