Akron gave a warm welcome to award-winning actor John Lithgow on April 18.
Raised in Akron, this was Lithgow’s first time visiting in 52 years. He addressed his audience at E.J. Thomas Hall as part of the UA Forum Series. His speech was entitled “The Power of Storytelling.”
Hundreds of people – young and old – gathered to witness this compelling speech from a man who has a broad range of talents that include acting, singing and writing.
Lithgow began his speech by rhetorically asking the audience why people want to tell and hear stories. He explained that people love to feel emotions, and that is exactly what stories can give.
After his brief introduction, Lithgow began the story of his life.
“Now, not another word about storytelling – here are my stories,” he said.
Lithgow revealed his past, describing each moment that shaped who he is today. A very prominent and influential person in his life was his father, Arthur Lithgow. His stories as a child almost always centered around his father and his love for Shakespeare.
Arthur Lithgow was theperson who introduced his son to theater. Managing the Shakespeare Festivals in Stan Hywet Hall in Akron, Arthur Lithgow sparked the acting flame within his then 14-year-old son.
John Lithgow started out with very minor roles in the Shakespeare plays. Lithgow jokingly stated that his first real role in a play was a French Messenger in “Henry IV” who only had a single line. He went on to reminisce how he would practice and practice the smallest line in the entire play for hours because it was the very first line he would speak on stage.
Lithgow said the setting of the plays in Stan Hywet made the plays “glorious.” He explained that the more of his father’s plays he acted in, the more he became confident as time went on.
After some troubles at Stan Hywet, Arthur Lithgow moved the Shakespeare Festival to the Ohio Theater in Cuyahoga Falls. Lithgow and his father spent 15 hours a day repairing the theater. They painted, swept, concreted and did everything they could to renovate the area.
Lithgow told the audience of a fleeting memory he had of his father when he was seven years old. While in the middle of a rehearsal, he gave his father a sandwich for lunch. His father took the sandwich from him without taking his eyes off the stage, for he was so engaged in his work.
Lithgow said his father was “strangely absent” when doing his work, and that he admired how dedicated he was to it.
Lithgow told another story of his father, this time making it comical for the audience. One of Arthur Lithgow’s actors in “The Taming of the Shrew” had to leave her role for personal reasons. He decided to take over her role, even though he had his own role in the same play. To make things even more difficult, the two roles had to be on the stage simultaneously. Lithgow recalled how his father managed to play two roles at the same time, and said the audience got a kick out of it.
Lithgow said an important message came out of that.
“Make a pact with an audience, and they’ll follow you anywhere,” he said.
Attendee Zack Thoren said the speech was an eye-opener.
“Mr. Lithgow’s speech was a very interesting and insightful one,” Thoren said. “Firstly, it was very funny and entertaining. It impacted me in a number of ways. I really, really appreciated that John admitted very early on that he was not a strong improviser or performer on the stage. He admitted that he had that weakness, and instead of accepting that limitation, he wrote a wonderful speech and performed it in a way that only he could.”
Not only was Lithgow’s father an inspiration to him as a child, but so was his favorite high school teacher, Ms. Robinson. Ms. Robinson was his art teacher, and he would always anticipate going to her class. According to Lithgow, she “inspired and encouraged [him] into the visual arts.” Soon it became his biggest priority, and he began winning many local art competitions.
University of Akron student Kelly Dwyer said that since Lithgow’s speech, she has changed the way she looks at her future career.
“You should never let anyone judge your life, and he understands that,” she said.
Lithgow has been nominated for 11 Emmy Awards, and won five of them. One of them was for an episode of “Amazing Stories,” and the other three were for his popular character of Dick Solomon in the series “3rd Rock from the Sun.”
Lithgow has appeared in over 30 films. Some of these include “Buckaroo Banzai,” “Raising Cain,” “Ricochet,” “Cliffhanger,” “Shrek” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
In television, Lithgow found success in “Dexter,” a television drama in which he played Arthur Mitchell. Lithgow won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Series.
Aside from being an actor, Lithgow is also an author and children’s entertainer. He has written eight New York Times best-selling children’s picture books. In addition, Lithgow released three children’s albums and performs concerts for kids.
As a request from an audience member during a question and answer session, Lithgow sang an entire song from one of his children’s albums. The song was called “Marsupial Sue,” based off of one of his most famous children’s book he had written.
To end the night, a long line formed as Lithgow signed books, including his memoir called “Drama.”
John Lithgow is an inspiration to not only those who are pursuing a career in the arts, but in all other areas as well. His story is a great example of what dedication and determination can do for a person.
“I will attack my goals and live passionately, like John did. He worked hard and got where he is because of that. I will also not let my limitations and weaknesses hinder me from reaching my goals,” Thoren said.