Q&A: Alumna from new HBO series joining Whiffs for benefit concert

Allison Williams

Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City will resound on Saturday, Dec. 17, with the voices of Yale performers and friends in the second annual “Sing Out, Raise Hope” benefit concert, sponsored by the Association of Yale Alumni and the Yale Whiffenpoofs Alumni Association.

Allison Williams
Allison Williams

The concert features the Yale Whiffenpoofs, the Princeton Nassoons, and the Harvard Krokodiloes, with special guest performers Darren Criss, star of the television hit show “Glee” who will make his Broadway debut in January in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and Yale alumna Allison Williams, who will star in HBO’s upcoming series “GIRLS.”

In keeping with the alumni association’s focus on service to community, proceeds from the concert will benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and the Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young people under 24.

Born and raised in Connecticut, Williams has been involved in the performing arts from an early age. While a student in Yale College, she was a member of the improvisational comedy group Just Add Water (JAW). One of the stars of the video “That’s Why I Chose Yale,” Williams was among a set of undergraduates whose singing talents got broad notice through their own YouTube viral video hits. Since graduating with a B.A. in English in 2010, she has pursued a career in singing and acting in Los Angeles and New York, and is a co-lead HBO’s upcoming series, “GIRLS.” Currently filming in New York, the show chronicles three friends living in Brooklyn a few years out of college.

YaleNews spoke with Williams recently about how her Yale education influenced her, the upcoming show with the Whiffenpoofs and Darren Criss, and tips she has for college students thinking about careers in the worlds of performing arts and entertainment.

Theater and music were a big part of your high school and college education. How did those experiences shape you and help prepare you for your career? 

My dream since childhood has been to be a performer. Singer, actress, comedian, whatever it was. … I just knew I wanted to be a performer of some sort. So, that informed my extracurricular life in a major way. In high school, I stuck with athletics until it became tough scheduling-wise (and detrimental to my grades). Then, I began focusing solely on performing. My parents didn’t allow me to pursue it professionally until I had a college degree. So I participated in arts programs throughout high school and college, in order to best prepare myself for a post-college career. 

Doing improv comedy in Just Add Water at Yale is the best training I have had. I use those tools I learned in JAW every time I go to work. I feel very lucky to have gotten into the group, and I had no idea then how important it would be to me now. The theater scene at Yale is a microcosm of what it’s like in real life, so that was great, in terms of preparing me. For example, having thick skin is essential in this business. At Yale, I don’t know if I ever won the role I auditioned for. I learned to deal with rejection — and there are a lot of frustrated journal entries to prove it!

And even though I was lucky enough to be cast as a lead in HBO’s “GIRLS” just months after graduating from Yale, I have experienced rejection since filming the series. So it never ends. As a friend once told me, “it never gets easier. It just gets different.” I believe that wholeheartedly.

What was your favorite class at Yale?

I couldn’t possibly pick one. But the classes that deal with psychology, anthropology, or archaeology have proved very helpful in understanding the ways that humans operate in the world. And all my English classes helped me realize that said humans are all just variations on a theme. I genuinely miss school — I hope to go back someday. 

In recent years, Yale College students have forged a tradition of producing YouTube videos that make a mark — Sam Tsui, Kurt Schneider, Kevin Olusola, and yourself. What about Yale and the environment for the arts here foster this creativity?

You know, when I look back on Yale, I really can’t figure out how I found the time to do all of the stuff I did with Kurt and Sam. Maybe it came out of my sleep, my studies … who knows. But I think time plus resources plus talent equals good amateur web content. I was also really ready to start my career at that point, and the closest experience to that was creating these web videos with talented people, in the middle of the night. The DMCA [Digital Media Center for the Arts at Yale] was like a halfway house for soon-to-be professional singers, actors, directors, writers, and producers.

A cappella singing is a big tradition at Yale. Why do you think a cappella stays so strong and fresh over the generations? Do you think it will be as fresh for college students 50 years from now?

I do. I think a cappella is timeless. A full sound with no instruments will always give people the chills, especially as music becomes more and more produced and digitized. Dubstep is a favorite genre, actually, and it is made entirely from distorting sound. It’s far from human voices. But music began vocally, and instruments were created to mimic the human voice. There will always be a certain joy in listening to that prototypical instrument at its finest.

During your time at Yale, you participated in the filming of “A College Musical,” a “Glee”-esque production filmed on Yale’s campus. Have you been following the show? What do you think of the “Glee” phenomenon? 

I’ve never missed an episode of “Glee” — I adore it for everything that it is. My favorite TV show growing up was “American Dreams.” They figured out the “Glee” formula way ahead of their time. They’d feature a famous musician every week, dressed as a singer from the Sixties, performing a song on “American Band Stand.” It was genius. 

With “Glee,” I’m so excited for all the talent that the show is breaking. Many of them, like Lea Michelle and Matthew Morrison, have been blowing people away on stage for years. It’s nice that they’ve entered the mainstream with such a bang.

You’ll also be sharing the stage with Darren Criss. Which of the songs from “Glee,” or of your own choosing, would you want to sing with Darren? 

Darren is so talented, and I’ve been a fan of his since he played Harry Potter in the Star Kid production of “Harry Potter: The Musical” while he was at Michigan. I would sing any song with him! I’d also love to hear him sing some of Matthew Morrison’s songs from The Light in the Piazza. I bet he could rock it.

This is a first time engagement with you on a program with the Whiffenpoofs. What do you think about these gentlemen songsters and their style? Which of their songs would you want to be the lead solo on? 

I love the Whiffenpoofs, so it’s an honor to share a program with them. It’s also nice to feel a personal connection to the group, knowing a few past and present members. I am thrilled to be the lead soloist on “Hallelujah” — it’s a dream come true. I also love “Down by the Salley Gardens”, among others. I could go on. 

This is your Lincoln Center debut. What are you thinking of performing?

Ironically, a few weeks before I got the call to sing with the Whiffenpoofs, I went to see John Williams conduct his music with the New York Philharmonic. That night, I added “performing at Alice Tully Hall” to my bucket list. And now, here I am!

In terms of my performance, I can’t reveal too much, but I will say that I’m going to perform two songs, in addition to my song with the Whiffenpoofs. One of them will be a holiday song, and one will be a more uptempo jazz song. I can also share that I’m performing with Keiji Ishiguri on piano, Luke Short on drums, and Kevin Hsieh on bass. They’re a fantastic trio, and this is the first time we’re playing together.

Your concert benefits the Trevor Project and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. What drives you to want to serve through theater and song and what impresses you about these two groups?

Everything about these two groups impresses me. The Trevor Project has been on my radar for years, ever since I was first sent their inaugural video about Trevor. And the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation is doing wonderful work as well. It’s heartbreaking to think of the children who have AIDS or that kids dealing with their sexuality should be made to feel helpless or alone. I cannot thank the supporters of these foundations enough for their tireless work and dedication. Without them, I hesitate to imagine what the world would be like. It’s an honor for me to be doing my part, supporting them through this concert. 

What advice do you have for college students who are looking to make it in the worlds of music and television?

Hone your skills and work the contacts that you have. There is zero shame in that. But also know that while people can open doors for you, once you walk into the room, you have to knock it out of the park on your own merit and talent. Some other tips I learned: Don’t send anyone in the business a rough draft of something because they will remember it forever. Be fully prepared when you walk into an audition. Being early is so much better than being late. And stand by your work knowing it was the best you could do.

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Michael Morand: michael.morand@yale.edu , 203-432-3056