‘Nashville' star Connie Britton '89 sits down to discuss her new show

by sydney ayers | 10/10/12 10:00pm

Even while the College celebrates its Year of the Arts and the Hopkins Center honors its 50-year history this weekend with a variety of events that spotlight our artistic alumni, actress Connie Britton '89 now the star of ABC's "Nashville," which premiered last night continues Dartmouth's artistic tradition outside of Hanover. Best known for her Emmy-nominated roles in "Friday Night Lights" and "America Horror Story," Britton, who was known as Connie Womack while a student at Dartmouth, now plays country singer superstar Rayna James, opposite actress Hayden Panettiere, in a television show that integrates music and drama.

Created by screenwriter Callie Khouri best known for "Thelma and Louise" (1991) and with T-Bone Burnett as its music producer, "Nashville" features original songs composed by Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams that are performed by the cast members. In last night's season premiere, Britton shined as the backbone of the show's cast. Prior to her work on "Nashville," Britton appeared in multiple well-known sitcoms, including "Spin City" and the film "A Nightmare on Elm Street."

Although she is now well established, as an undergraduate student, Britton was slow to get her start in acting. After performing in one play during her freshman fall, Britton decided to take a hiatus from theater.

"I had always done a lot of acting in high school, and I had always loved it, but I did the play and I had a lukewarm experience with it," Britton said. "I let the theater go for a while, and I started studying Chinese."

Britton majored in Asian studies with a concentration in Chinese. As a part of her studies, she participated in the Beijing Foreign Study Program over her freshman summer. Incidentally, Britton was on the same FSP as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand '88, D-N.Y., and the two were some of the earliest Dartmouth students who traveled to China after it was opened to American students.

Britton said that when she returned to Dartmouth for her sophomore year, her path suddenly changed. While walking through Shakespeare Alley in the Hopkins Center, where the theater department is located, she saw auditions posted for Larry Shue's "The Foreigner." The play was to be performed in the Warner Bentley Theater in the Hopkins Center. Britton won the role of Catherine, an heiress experiencing a rough patch.

"I hadn't done theater in over a year, and I thought, Maybe I'll just go audition,'" Britton said. "I had a blast doing that. Once I did that show, that was it for me, I was back in the theater. So I kept doing plays the whole time, and I was really involved."

Britton appeared in a number of shows during her time at Dartmouth, but she recalled her role in "The Bacchae" as her favorite.

"There was an amazing teacher who has since passed away named Errol Hill, who I just positively adored," she said. "I remember he directed me in a production of The Bacchae' that was really one of my more memorable experiences at Dartmouth."

Over sophomore summer, Britton took Theater 65, designed to introduce students to all aspects of a mainstage production, which she described as a "theater immersion class." She was also working in the costume department over the summer.

"It was amazing I just remember being down in the costume department and stitching all day and then rehearsing for whatever plays we did that summer," Britton said.

Britton was also the summer sisterhood chair for Sigma Kappa sorority, which has since become Sigma Delta sorority.

Britton also credits her junior year off-terms as having had a profound effect on her decision to pursue acting as a career. While interning at a public relations agency in New York, Britton quickly discovered that public relations did not interest her.

Luckily, a family friend was working as a stage manager on Lamb's Theatre's production of "The Boys Next Door." Lamb's Theatre was an Off-Broadway theater located near Times Square that closed in 2007. He invited Britton to be a production assistant for the show, and she left her public relations internship to start working on the production.

"I totally bailed on my PR internship that I was doing, and I still remember that they were very unhappy about that," she said. "It was just an incredible experience and an incredible immersion into the theater."

The connections that she made in New York helped her secure another job over her junior summer.

"It was the same director that I had worked with on The Boys Next Door,'" she said. "It was during the summer, so they called me to see if I would be a PA on that production. I ended up working at the Cleveland Playhouse during my summer off on this amazing production of Born Yesterday' with Ed Asner and Madeline Kahn that then went to Broadway."

Heading into her senior year, Britton said she knew she wanted to pursue acting as a career. She faced several challenges, however, as she was not studying theater, and the College only lent assistance to theater majors to audition for graduate schools and drama programs at that time, according to Britton.

"Because I wasn't a drama major even though I was doing two plays at the same time and had done theater for most of my time at Dartmouth they wouldn't sponsor me to go to the auditions," Britton said. "So I was on my own trying to get into drama school after college."

After graduation, Britton studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York.

Britton credits the unique aspects of Dartmouth with having had a huge positive affect on her career. She said that the D-Plan was one of the reasons she was intrigued by Dartmouth and wanted to go here.

"It was really a huge support for discovering what I wanted to do and giving me a lot of different experience in doing what I loved," she said. "In that way, Dartmouth really helped me."

Britton praised the arts program at Dartmouth, which is centered at the Hopkins Center.

"I think it's a really important part of the program there, whether people end up deciding to do it as a career or not," Britton said. "I kind of did the opposite thing. I didn't major in drama, but I knew I wanted to be an actress. So I hope that it's still going strong there because the Hop is such a great resource for all aspects of the arts."

While Britton was very involved in theater and the arts during her time at Dartmouth, she continues to appreciate the wide range of experiences she was able to have at Dartmouth.

"I love the way that I did it at Dartmouth because I got to have a really broad and exciting experience in the theater and discovering what it is I wanted to do," she said. "At the same time, I got to study really interesting and exciting things and travel to China and see the world. In college, I always said I believe that having as extensive of an experience of other cultures and other people as possible will make me a better actor anyway. I still believe that to this day. So I feel really fortunate about all of it."

Britton is now looking forward to her newest project, "Nashville," on which she is also one of the producers.

"There are two aspects about it that are really exciting to me: One is the storytelling part of it, and the other is the music part of it," Britton said. "We're hoping it's going to be a really great show."