BWW Interviews: Debut of the Month - VIOLET's Emerson Steele on Playing Young Sutton & More

By: May. 29, 2014

Emerson Steele is making her Broadway debut as 'Young Violet' in Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Violet. Featuring a score of show-stopping anthems and starring two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster, the show follows a young woman's search for beauty after being facially disfigured in a childhood accident. Along the way, she forms friendships with others who teach her about beauty, love, courage and what it means to be an outsider.

Today, Emerson chats exclusively with BWW about working with her biggest idol, Sutton Foster and why her Broadway debut experience has been "truly indescribable!"

When did you first realize you wanted to be an actress - was it one particular moment or was it something you knew you wanted to do from a young age?

Well, I would listen to my Mom sing at church and then I would sing with her sometimes at church from when I was about 7. But the first time I think I even thought of doing this as a career was when I was 9. I competed in the triple threat "Access Broadway" competition and I sang "Corner of the Sky" and I won high-gold which is like second place. And although I didn't win, I didn't let it stop me like it did when I played soccer and was so awful at it. I wanted to keep trying and keep working to get better and that's when I realized that I wanted to be an actress and be on Broadway!

What is it like to work with Sutton? What advice has she given you and what things have you learned from her?

Working with Sutton is such a dream come true. Ever since I was about 11, she has been my biggest idol. I watched all of her YouTube videos and I watched her on Bunheads and she just was so incredible and she just had this magnetic personality that just made you want to be best friends with her! Playing younger her is just the coolest, most amazing thing to get to do! I am so grateful for this experience because I not only get to make my Broadway debut at 14 years old, and I not only get to do it with Sutton, but every day I get to learn from her! I would say that I have learned from Sutton to be myself and that working extra hard makes the reward even greater than you could ever imagine! Also, I've learned from her that being kind to everyone is so very important. Every night I get to watch her be the character and I have learned so much acting wise from just doing that. I could go on and on about Sutton and everything that I've learned from her - she is just the greatest!

Did you and Sutton discuss the journey your character takes from childhood to adulthood to fill in the years that are not depicted in the play? Is it difficult to get into the mindset of this character each night?

Yes, Sutton and I did lots of character work together. Violet is a bit of a tough girl to figure out at first... she doesn't really let anyone in because she is afraid of being hurt emotionally, but at the same time that is what makes her so interesting and fun to play! I love getting to play her before the accident and after, because I really get to play the innocent part of her, but also that more gritty and sad part of her as well. I will admit that it did take me a while to fully understand Violet...but now that I do I feel like I am still learning more and more about her every night, but it is easier!

What do you think is the message of 'Violet?' Do you consider it an uplifting story?

Violet has many different messages, but I think that one of the more prominent messages is that in order for you to realize how much people love you for who you are, you need to realize it yourself and love yourself first. Yes, I think Violet is very uplifting! What is more uplifting than coming to love yourself and coming to a place where you are able to make peace with your past? It is such a beautiful piece. It is a hard piece, but Jeanine [Tesori], Brian [Crawley], and Leigh [Silverman] have done such an incredible job with it and I couldn't be more proud!

What is it like to perform on a Broadway stage? In what way is it different than previous theater you have done?

Wow! Well, it is truly indescribable - it is just the most incredible thing to get to experience! I would say it is different because of the amount of professionalism and that fact that we are all such a big family. The cast, the crew, the creative team. We just love each other so much and support each other to no end. I've never done a show that runs for this long, so that is very different too!

I know you were in the running for the recent revival of Annie. How do you deal with the disappointment and what advice would you give other young aspiring actors?

I always tell myself if I don't get something that there is ALWAYS something else out there for me. I may not know what it is... but I do know that if I work very hard it will come. So I say, never ever give up and always keep working hard and dreaming big!

Is there a dream role you'd love to play on Broadway?

I absolutely love the role I play right now and I never thought I would have the opportunity to play a role like this... but I would also love to play Elphaba, Evita, Cassie or Maggie from A Chorus Line, and anything composed by Jeanine Tesori - she is the bomb! And while I'm at it, if I can cross gender boundaries, I'd be in heaven if I could play Jean Valjean someday!

Who are some of your greatest influences?

My mom for sure! She is an actress and singer and her parents didn't support her dreams, but now she has gotten back into the business and is showing me that it is never to late to do what you love! And Sutton of course, and Jessie Mueller. My voice teacher back home, Keleen Miskin has taught me so much about my voice that I would've never learned without her. My vocal coach, Bill Newberry has really helped me with the performance aspect. My friend Sophia Gennusa (Matilda) is so talented and smart and although she is younger than me, I feel as though I could learn a lot from her too. She makes really strong acting choices. Also, Leigh Silverman, my director is just the most amazing director I could ever ask for. Without her through this process I don't think I would have the grasp on my character that I do. She has taught me so much. Since working with her, I feel that when looking at new scenes and characters, I look at them differently than I did before.

What has it been like to make your Broadway debut in 'Violet'?

It has been the best Broadway debut I could ever ask for. I couldn't be more grateful and happy that it happened for me at this age, in this role, and in this show. I wouldn't want it any other way. I have felt so welcomed by not only my fellow Violet team, but by every other Broadway actor I've been lucky to meet and by the press and Broadway trades. Everyone says the Broadway community is a very special and tightly-kit community. That is absolutely the truth!

About Emerson Steele:

Emerson Steele recently appeared in New York City Center Encores! Off-Center concert production of Violet last year. She has since performed in NYC in the Songs for Story Shifters cabaret and the Broadway Dreams' Fall Showcase. Although she had an early television appearance at age 3 in a Barney commercial and began her love of solo singing in church as a 7 year old, Emerson's passion for musical theater started at age 8. By the time she was 9, Emerson was cast in her first professional theater production and at age 11, she won Miss Access Broadway in the Junior Division for her entries in the triple threat competition. As a native Atlantan, Emerson has played roles in regional professional theaters in A Christmas Carol, Annie, Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, and Gypsy.

VIOLET is currently playing at the AMERICAN AIRLINES THEATRE (227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY). For tickets and more information, click here.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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