Actor, writer, and director Josh Radnor (“Liberal Arts” and “How I Met Your Mother”) arrived a little late to the Thanks to the O’Neill: A Tribute to the National Theater Institute panel he was participating in at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, but upon his entrance he received a hearty round of applause and hugs from his former playwriting teacher Donna Di Novelli and his former classmate, now artistic director of the National Theater Institute (NTI), Rachel Jett. Di Novelli and Jett hadn’t seen Radnor in nearly 20 years, and the panel served its participants as a perfect context for a NTI reunion as well.
“I’m so glad you listened to me and kept writing and writing and writing,” Di Novelli said to Radnor, who has credited her for encouraging him to pursue writing. Attributing success as a playwright to Di Novelli is not uncommon for former students of hers, Rachel Jett said.
“We like to say—those of us who are still writing now—that Donna Di Novelli was the midwife to our lives,” Jett said.
To attend the discussion, Radnor commuted from Poughkeepsie, New York, where he is currently rehearsing The Babylon Line, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Richard Greenberg, which is set to have its world-premiere June 23rd at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater.
Radnor attended the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in the spring of 1995 along with Rachel Jett. The 14-week, credit-earning training program allows young theatre artists to gain experience in acting, playwriting, directing, voice, movement, and design. There is also a six week summer session called Theatermakers, currently underway. “Before NTI, theatre was my mistress and it was hot and secret and always at night. After NTI theater became my wife. It was like a deeper commitment, maybe a little less sexy, but it was like a deeper, stronger commitment,” Radnor said.
A distinctive aspect to the National Theater Institute’s training is its focus on exposing young actors to various aspects of theatre, including writing and scenic design, an aspect that Radnor said helped make him see himself in a more professional manner.
“The hidden agenda or hidden role of NTI, is that so many people leave there as writers. They come as actors, they come afraid of that first playwriting class,” said Di Novelli at the beginning of the discussion. “And to see those students understand what their voice is and practice their voice and become playwrights—and I’ve seen that over and over again—is glorious.”
Radnor, who said that he cannot believe his ability to “keep this charade up” of pursuing a theatre career despite what he calls his “slightly conservative” upbringing in Ohio, expressed his enthusiasm at having the ability to pursue careers in directing and writing. Radnor could very well be considered a renaissance man. A 1999 graduate of the NYU Tisch Graduate Acting Program, he received his first big break when he was cast as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, opposite Kathleen Turner on Broadway in 2002. Along with his successful nine-season run in the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” he wrote, directed and starred in the film “Liberal Arts,” with Richard Jenkins and Elizabeth Olsen, who was a 2009 participant in the Moscow Art Theatre Semester, an NTI program that allows American undergraduates to study acting in Russia for a semester.
“I do know that I feel the most alive as an actor in the theatre and I know that I still feel that I know how to act on stage better than any other kind of acting-so I appreciate and enjoy stage acting,” Radnor said. “I want to keep directing movies and writing movies and acting in other people’s stuff.”
He also had some advice for the young actors in the NTI program.
“Someone told me something great: your first year out of school, don’t expect to get jobs, expect to get fans…Don’t expect to get jobs, expect to get some callbacks and expect to get people who really like your work and will put you on their lists and keep bringing you back.” Radnor said.
Radnor also shared his trepidations with the professional world outside of graduate school, which he graduated from in 1999. He referred to his waiting for auditions and battling with the “barking wolves of doubt,” as part of a life of “snow days.”
“I’d never been out of school so I was so hooked on academia and the hall and the protective, moonlight environment that, come graduation, I felt like I was booted out into the wild and I wasn’t sure if I knew how to feed myself.”
The Babylon Line will run June 23rd-August 6th. Radnor will begin rehearsals for his Broadway production of Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced in August, which will begin previews Sept. 27th at the Lyceum Theater and. The Broadway opening is set for Oct. 23.