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Blue jean-covered legs crossed and sipping from a Starbucks cup, “West Wing” star and Broadway actress Allison Janney portrayed herself during an impromptu visit to the University Center Theater Monday.
In town for the announcement of the Colorado Festival of World Theater season and to visit longtime friend and World Theater president Suzy Bassani, Janney spent more than an hour answering questions from Drew Martorella, producing director, Theatreworks, and from the more than 90 faculty, staff and students in attendance.
“So, how tall are you?” asked a student before being invited to the stage and to going back-to-back with Janney. “It’s not that I’m that tall,” Janney said. “It’s just that everyone else on ‘West Wing’ was short.”
Janney’s conversation revealed a path to America’s living rooms that was arduous and often doubt-filled.
“At one point, I did three days of career counseling and took all kinds of tests,” she said. “When they came back saying I would make an excellent systems analyst, I decided I’ve got to do this acting thing.”
Janney talked about scooping ice cream, working as a night receptionist at a recording studio, and struggling to make ends meet in her pursuit of an acting career. Her stints included two years on the daytime soap opera “The Guiding Light” as well as numerous plays that were “far, far, off Broadway” before appearing in the “Ice Storm” (1997), “American Beauty” (1999) and her Emmy Award-winning performances in “West Wing” (1999-2006). Most recently, she appeared in “Juno” and plans to do a musical “9 to 5.”
“Lots of people like to make fun of soap operas,” Janney said. “But ‘Guiding Light’ paid my rent and got me started. I’m appreciative.”
The Dayton, Ohio-native, the daughter of an aspiring actress and a pianist turned commercial realtor, encouraged the audience to follow dreams and to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
She recounted auditioning for a play at Ohio’s Kenyon College cast by actor Paul Newman and wondering how she could make herself stand out from others seeking a part.
“I knew he was into race cars so I told him about what a good driver I was,” Janney said. “He probably saw right through me but I got the part.”
Encouragement from Joanne Woodward, who is married to Newman, sent Janney to New York to pursue her dream.
“I was going to be a psychologist, but I couldn’t handle the rats,” she said.