Nov. 12, 2010— -- An empty stage adorned with a circular rug, red armchair and small coffee table drew a crowd of 400 theatre students at the University of Texas at Austin.
Instead of holding playbills, they grasped each other's hands.
Instead of the usual vocal warm-ups, they sat in silence.
The scene was set.
The lights went up.
And within seconds, the silence was shattered by screams of "Oh my God!" and "I can't believe it's her!" as the leading lady walked onto stage: actress Meryl Streep.
"Today is a day 10 years in the making, and a true test to the power of nagging," theatre professor and lifelong friend Fran Dorn said.
Dorn, who studied at Yale University with Streep, introduced her to a standing ovation of actors, actresses, directors and costume designers. Sharing everything from Streep's childhood (she was a cheerleader) to her 166 award nominations and 16 Academy Award nominations, Dorn deemed her the most influential actress of our time.
"Imagine how many dresses I had to buy," Streep said.
The discussion, held last weekend, was titled "A Conversation With Meryl Streep," an audience-based question and answer forum. Dorn hoped the event would rejuvenate students pursuing jobs in the theatre industry, helping them understand that even the most prominent role models in the business have faced trials and tribulations.
For an hour and a half, students were able to pass the microphone, asking questions about Streep's journey as an actress and the theatre world.
First-year graduate student Amanda Morish asked how Streep balances her home life with her career.
"She said to cherish the relationships you have and nurture them," Morish said. "Your world gets so crazy, and I was astounded at how grounded she was."
The graduate students even got the opportunity to have lunch with Streep.
"I'm speechless -- I can't really describe in words," graduate student Mykal Monroe said. "I believe in magic, and it was a very magical moment."
Feeling "at home" in the theatre department, Streep jokingly said she was open to any questions except about her weight. She stressed the importance of the stage and treating it as your "temple," making every day an opportunity to perfect your art.
"I believe in the work that I've chosen: it's the altar of everything I believe and care about," Streep said. "I think of it as, that's my church. Every time I get lazy I think, 'This is your church Meryl!'"
Streep also spoke about her early days at Yale in 1972 and some of the professors she had. One vivid story included a teacher that wore English riding boots and took his crop to class "which he would slap against his boot if he didn't like something."
She says it was in that class that she shed some of her first tears on stage. Her teacher had told them to imagine someone in their life who had died, but she had a different approach.
"I couldn't do it, I couldn't think about anybody that I loved dying," Streep said. "So I got up on stage and I imagined I was the most famous actress in the world, and I was really, really old, like 45. I was on stage at the Academy Awards announcing my retirement because I was so old -- tears rolled down my cheeks!"
Senior theatre arts and dance major Lilly Wolf says tears of laughter rolled down her own cheeks as Streep spoke to the crowd.
"There's energy, this confidence she's renewed among us," Wolf said.
Streep spoke about the type of "stamina" it takes to be an actress in everything from her first film roles to her performances in Central Park.
"Not just physical, but spiritual, mental, character stamina," Streep said.
She earned a roar of laughter from the audience when she discussed her applications to different graduate schools.
"The admission fee to Yale was $15 while the admission fee to Julliard was $40," Streep said. "I wrote a snotty letter to Julliard saying that I wasn't going to go there because they only asked for a certain class of people -- I'm a girl from Jersey who wanted to keep it real."
Streep stressed the importance of "feeling" your characters and delving into their thought process. She took audience members on an expedition through her career as she described how she never judged a character's actions but rather sought to understand how the characters came to them.
When one enthused fan said Streep was the greatest actress of all time, Streep replied with a modest smile.
"I don't think of myself as the greatest anything -- cook, housekeeper, actor or developer of material. I don't think there's the best of anything," she said.
And when students asked about the "uncertainty of the job," Streep said that actors live the most certain life because "life is not certain, things can go right, things can go real wrong, and we need actors to help us know that."
As she walked off stage, the heralded actress shared her most valuable lesson of the day.
"You have to get your life right before you can get your art going," Streep said. "At least for me the things that matter most are peripheral to my awards or parts I've played, my life is what matters."
ABCNews.com contributor Ashley Jennings is a member of the ABC News on Campus program in Austin, Texas.