When Tisch School of the Arts acting professor Miriam Silverman heard her name announced as winner of the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, her excitement was tempered with pragmatism.
“I was simultaneously skyrocketing to Cloud 9 and also very practically trying not to trip in my high heels and fitted dress and to get to the stage as quickly and gracefully as possible,” she recalls. “They’ve drilled into your head that you have like 90 seconds from the time you get out of your chair to getting off the stage!”
Silverman’s award—for her role as Mavis in Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window—was one of the first of the ceremony, held June 11, 2023 at the United Palace in Washington Heights. Wearing a red gown with purple flounces for sleeves, a smiling Silverman acknowledged her family, including her mother who passed away in February, and spoke of the importance of live theater. “We all know the transformational power of theater, that it can be a balm to commune with one another every night, and I've never felt that more,” she said.
Though it was her first Tony nomination, and only her second Broadway role, the win comes after almost two decades of steady work in theaters across New York City and around the country. After earning an MFA from Brown University in 2005, Silverman appeared in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., a production that was directed by the late Zelda Fichlander, long-time chair of Tisch’s graduate acting program. She has worked in New York, Chicago, and Providence, and she made her Broadway debut in 2017 in Ayad Akhtar’s play Junk. She has also appeared on TV in Fleishman is in Trouble, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Blacklist.
For the last nine years, the native New Yorker has been teaching at Tisch, and she learned of her Tony nomination on the morning of her last class. “That was a wonderful way to celebrate,” she says.
Since Sidney Brustein closed on July 2, Silverman has been traveling, supporting the actors’ and writers’ strikes, and spending time with her husband, Adam Green (Tisch MFA ’04), and two children. As the fall semester begins, she is working with second year grad actors on their production of Fifth of July, and teaching New Play Readings, a Dramatic Writing department course that is a collaboration between actors and writers. She has some readings and workshops on her calendar, but is taking a break from being in a full production.
Silverman recently sat down with NYU News to talk about the Tony Awards, the joy of playing problematic characters, and how teaching is central to her artistic practice.
Take us back to that night in June at the Tony ceremony. What was that like?
I actually had to call out of the show. It was the first performance I missed the whole run. It seemed ludicrous to me at the time, but then on the day, it was such a blessing that everybody had told me that I really couldn't do the show the day of the Tony ceremony.
The ceremony itself felt like an out of body experience. Getting through the speech and then getting off stage and being ushered through the bowels of the theater and I’m holding my Tony, and people are congratulating me, and the adrenaline is unlike anything I experienced before–and I've had two children!
We get off stage and it's like the opposite of glamorous. There’s electrical equipment and wires and we’re walking through the back alleyways and then brought into this “first reaction” interview, which is meant to get you in the moment. You're still in a daze. I did that interview and then I was put in a car by myself and driven through Washington Heights to the offsite press room. You get whisked away, you don't have your phone, you don't have anything. My husband was back in the theater. My dad was in the audience. And I was gone for an hour doing interviews and taking pictures.
Where is Tony statue now?
It’s on my piano at home in the main living area.
How has life changed in the months since that adrenaline rush? Have things settled down?
I'm definitely still tickled, but I've come back to normal. I have two small kids and that requires a certain amount of presence and engagement.
The character you played, Mavis, has been described as a racist and antisemite. What attracted you to her?
I like difficult, thorny, complicated characters. I'm always more interested in diving into somebody that maybe at face value is difficult, or not likable, or the villain. I played plenty of ingenues when I was younger, but I was also lucky. Hennie Berger in Awake and Sing is not your typical ingenue. She's tough, she's angry, she makes bad choices, she does some things that audiences have a hard time getting on board with. Mavis is another one, right? To me, the joy of being an actor is to bring the full humanity and full potential of a character onto the stage, because those are the characters that I relate to as a person and that I feel I have the best shot of making the audience do the thing you want to make the audience do, which is to think and engage and question and maybe debate with each other as they leave the theater. I loved how many people said to me after seeing Sidney Brustein, ‘God, she said such horrible things and she was so problematic but I just loved her.’ And it’s like, right? What if we all—not to be apologists for people with really problematic viewpoints, but just to understand the complexities— have more empathy and compassion for what makes people the way they are? The Shakespeare roles I got to play, I never did Juliet, I did Helena in All's Well That Ends Well and Isabella in Measure for Measure. So I got to play these tricky, hard characters. I don’t know what’s next, but give me Medea or someone really hard to crack. That’s always what attracts me.
You’ve been teaching for many years, including the last nine at NYU Tisch. What draws you to the classroom?
Teaching is such an important part of my life and being an artist. I love it. It’s an incredibly useful place to put my creative energy, either when I am not performing or in tandem with performing. It keeps me really engaged and curious and is a really wonderful outlet. And I'm very inspired by young actors. I never want to not be teaching. I want to have it be part of my artistic palette.
You said teaching your final class last semester on the day of the nomination as the perfect celebration. Even though the award came after the semester had ended, did your students acknowledge your win?
They were amazing. So many came to see the show, some for the second time. They wrote, they posted on social media—all of it.
Can you describe how your career informs your teaching? And does it work the other way? Does teaching influence or affect your acting?
On one level, it’s important that you are putting your money where your mouth is. It wouldn't make sense to me to talk to students about the bravery and courage, the inquisitiveness and rigor, and all of the requirements of being a performer if I wasn't actively engaged in that myself and continuing to figure it out. Because I think you spend your career figuring out how to do it and the different ways to do it. So it feels like the continuous exploration and investigations of teaching and talking about it and being present to discoveries that students make is definitely a feedback loop.
I tell them that this training, it’s just the beginning, and not to have the expectation that you're going to come out fully baked. You're not. You're going to come out with all the tools, and some experience, and an idea of a process and how to start to work. But all the real learning about how to be a good actor and performer and artist – that happens in the years following graduation.
What is the most important lesson you have learned—from your own MFA and from working—that you share with your students?
I had really excellent models for what being a working actor was like. We were taught by largely professional actors and directors who were company members at Trinity Rep, which partners with Brown. They were actors who had been doing it for decades, who got to do all sorts of different roles, and continued to grow and explore without the expectation of being a star, but of being a really valuable asset in the community they were in.
The Tony has been a really good reminder of that. The goal was never to achieve an award or some degree of fame. It was to do good work and have an impact on the communities that you brought your art to. And so, especially because we're based in New York City, I try to share that with my students. It can be a really long, slow career and maybe you'll even end up moving to a different city for a while, maybe you'll have a better chance of growing as an artist there, of having more of an impact there. So I’m doing my part to share that a lot of it is chance and luck, and there is some degree of just putting your nose to the grindstone and sticking with it. Following things that you feel passionate about, and doing things that align with your convictions, may pay off in different ways. I feel like this was an incredibly insane, lucky thing that happened, that I didn't need to have happened. It was a wonderful thing but it was never my goal. And that has made it feel like a real gift.