At Age 78, Actor John Lithgow Goes Back to Art School

LOS ANGELES — John Lithgow has an illustrious acting career going back five decades, with memorable roles on stage, screen, and TV — yet he recently decided to go back to school to broaden his arts education. His journey is the premise of Art Happens Here With John Lithgow, a one-hour PBS special premiering tonight that follows the venerated 78-year-old thespian as he explores dance, singing, ceramics, and silkscreen printing at four influential arts centers in Los Angeles. At each location, Lithgow trained alongside and is mentored by current students, conveying a sense of the joy, wonder, and trepidation of new creative endeavors.

The show’s roots began with Lithgow’s tenure as co-chair of the Commission on the Arts for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which has published reports on arts education and the creative economy. In a press roundtable earlier this month, the actor lamented the “slow diminution of arts in the classroom.”

“And I speak very much from my own experience. When I was a kid before I decided to be an actor, I wanted to be an artist, and a lot of that was pure inspiration from great art teachers in public schools,” he said.

A clip from Art Happens Here With John Lithgow (video courtesy © PBS SoCal)

“We found an enormous amount of evidence on the effect of arts in education for young people in schools,” Lithgow continued. “It makes them better students, but it also makes them much more eager to get to school.”

Juan Devis, one the program’s executive producers, told Hyperallergic that they were looking to reflect the diversity of LA as well as a range of artistic practices in the four sites they selected, but also seeking to emphasize the various benefits of arts education, including “a sense of management, organization, discipline, [and] belonging.”

Lithgow visits four arts centers: the longtime Chicano community-based arts space Self Help Graphics & Art; the Debbie Allen Dance Academy; the Community Center of La Cañada Flintridge, which has a well-respected ceramics studio; and the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). Throughout the course of the program, viewers follow Lithgow’s elation, frustration, failure, and success as he tries his hand at new disciplines, guided by fellow students several decades his junior. “I was a shy kid all over again,” he says in the show after struggling to hit the right notes during a LACHSA singing rehearsal.

At the Debbie Alen Dance Academy, Lithgow pushes his body through its paces while practicing the Dunham Technique, a form of dance that fuses Caribbean and African dances with European ballet.

“It almost killed me,” he recalled. “There were moments in that dance class where I genuinely thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have a heart attack and collapse with documentary cameras covering the whole event.’”

At the Community Center of La Cañada Flintridge, his face lights up with glee as he successfully throws a modest pot, and at Self Help Graphics & Art, he learns the term “artivism” as he collaborates with another student on a screenprint.

Art Happens Here is a love letter to the transformative power of art on a personal, everyday level, with all its small discoveries, missteps, breakthroughs, and joys.

“Through the arts, young people find out who they are and where their imagination will lead them,” Lithgow says in the show. “It happened to me.”

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