Banana stand on standby, Jeffrey Tambor shares life story

Illustration by Daniel Torraca
Illustration by Daniel Torraca
Illustration by Daniel Torraca
Illustration by Daniel Torraca

A crowd of energized young student actors, television viewers and intrigued adults piled into the Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond as they waited for what promised to be an interesting night with Jeffrey Tambor.

The Emmy-winning and acclaimed artist hosted the part lecture, part performance, part rant titled “Performing Your Life” at the Modlin Center for the Arts on Oct. 28, where he detailed some of his hilarious and tragic history.

Amidst roaring applause, Tambor, dressed in slacks and blue button-up, casually walked onto the stage, but stopped his opening remarks almost immediately. He was beginning to describe how the upcoming lecture came to be, when he decided to tell a story about an interaction he’d had earlier that day. He’d met a man who nearly recognized him, but Tambor pretended to be someone else.

“When I left and I got to the elevator, I heard him talking stuff about me,” Tambor said. “It was not nice, and I felt horrible.”

That was the end of the anecdote: flat and dry. This set the pace for the entire evening, as Tambor lulled between deeply emotional and personal stories to inspirational quotes from old friends and acquaintances, interjected with his exceptionally dry humor.

Tambor is known best for his leading role in “Arrested Development” and “Transparent,” the latter being his portrayal of a late-life transgendered woman. Tambor has been in countless other films, theatrical productions and television roles, with his career beginning at an early age back in the ’70s.

He was introduced to the stage by Modlin Center Executive Director Deborah Sommers, who read a biography that called Tambor an incisive talent that has been entertaining audiences for nearly four decades.

A thread that ran throughout the entire presentation dealt with his overcoming of personal issues, ranging from substance abuse to self-doubt.

“I am the Jewish son of Russian-Hungarian parents,” he said to a timidly-laughing audience. “Happiness wasn’t even on the menu.”

Tambor’s performance was undoubtedly intended to motivate the audience to achieve greatness. He would regularly recite quotes from articles, speakers and friends that talked about the youth’s potential and the purpose of existence.

The atmosphere remained light thanks to Tambor’s snippy humor that regularly engaged the audience, often through insulting them. He would shush the crowd, or ask a question and immediately cut-off the answerer. Some of these incisive comments lacked any humor, and one of the most tensile moments came midway through his presentation.

Tambor has worked for 40 years as an acting coach/teacher, and brought some volunteers on stage to demonstrate some of the work that he does. One of the volunteers was a student at U of R, and the other was a faculty member of the school’s theatre department.

Tambor instructed the student to recite lines from “A Letter to Agnes DeMille,” prodding her and frustrating her until she was shouting on the stage, and the crowd wound up applauding her performance. When it became the instructors turn, Tambor was annoyed by his attitude, as he dismissed and joked about Tambor’s remarks.

Once he began reciting the same lines as the student, Tambor was visibly annoyed with his performance. Tambor stopped him short, ending the exercise after telling the instructor that he needs to get out of his head and use his heart instead. The crowd didn’t applaud or laugh, unsure how to react.

Tambor didn’t shy away from self-deprecation either, but he always had an explanation. At one point, he spoke about his father’s experiences with the Holocaust, being Jewish, and how he instilled a fear of celebration in Tambor.

“Don’t say anything. Don’t say anything. They’ll take it away from you,” Tambor said, quoting his father. “This actor, when he was walking up to receive his Emmy, was shushing himself.”

Tambor clearly wanted the audience to believe in their own abilities and strive for greatness. While he was an actor, and many of his stories related to him auditioning, being on set or discovering his passion for acting, he would always try and make it relatable to people going for different fields.

Still, at various points throughout the evening, Tambor would ask for the actors in the crowd to raise their hands — a command which garnered wide response. He encouraged these aspiring students to meet with him after the show.

Actors and non-actors alike were a part of the question and answer session before Tambor left the venue. People asked him questions about his fondest memories on set, advice on beginning careers and one VCU student extended an open invite to come to the university to speak.

Tambor ended the night with one of his character’s most memorable quotes:

“There’s always money in the banana stand!”

Spectrum Editor, Austin Walker

meh_mehAustin is a sophomore print journalism major. He started at the CT as a contributing writer, and frequently covers work done by artists and performers both on and off campus. He hopes to one day be a columnist writing about art that impacts culture, politics and documenting the lives of extraordinary and everyday people. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn

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