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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Emily Townley

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Emily Townley
Emily Townley

Today's subject Emily Townley is currently living her theatre life over at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company where she is preparing to begin performances of Taylor Mac's play Hir. The production plays from May 22nd through June 18th.

Emily Townley is one of the area's most versatile performers. Her amazing list of credits encompasses almost every theatrical genre. Select credits include Our Town at Everyman Theatre, Tryst and Pen at Washington Stage Guild, Laugh and Between Riverside and Crazy at Studio Theatre, Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Mystery of Love and Sex at Signature Theatre, The Gaming Table at Folger Theatre, and Bad Dog at Olney Theatre Center.

Emily's many performances as a company member of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company include A Bright New Boise, Detroit, The Totalitarians, Spain, Watbanaland, Wonder of the World, and House of Gold among others.

To say that Emily Townley is crazily talented is a true understatement. You are always guaranteed a stellar performance if her name is in your program. We're nearing the end of the theatre season so why not go into summer with Emily Townley, Mitchell Hébert, and the other very talented artists involved with Hir at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Substantive and edgy are what makes Woolly Mammoth a top notch local theatre company. Emily Townley onstage in said production kicks it up a few more notches. 'Nuff said.

Where did you receive your training and whom do you credit as the person who most encouraged you to become a performer?

I went to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, VA. The second part of that question is harder to answer. My parents were always supportive, but worried and hoping I would make any other career choice......so probably some of the people I encountered earliest in my career who had a made a life in the arts, and my earliest teachers and directors/mentors were the most encouraging, not a single person? People such as Gary and Liz Hopper and Dr. Kenneth Campbell, all from VCU. Here in town, folks like Howard Shalwitz [Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company], obviously, and Pat Sheehy, Jerry Manning, Joe Banno, Joy Zinoman....

Can you please tell us almost everything we need to know about your current project Hir at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company?

The basic storyline is that Isaac, who is a young soldier with PTSD, is returning from the war to his family's suburban California home, and finds the whole family upended and changed. His father, Arnold, (Woolly Company Member Mitch Hébert plays this part and he's brilliant) who was the abusive former patriarch, has been almost entirely incapacitated by a stroke. His teenage sister, Maxine, is transitioning to become Max, a genderqueer anarchist who uses the pronouns ze and hir. And Paige, the mother, has been liberated from her abusive relationship and has become a sort of revolutionary and crusader. The central battle is between Isaac and Paige, as one attempts to restore the old world order, for his sanity, and the other wants to crush it and move beyond it, for hers.

Shana Cooper is directing, and she's awesome and so smart (Yay! Smart women directors!). We've talked a bit to Taylor Mac, the playwright, who has visited with the cast and he has said he wanted to write a real tragedy. And this play is certainly that, tragic, in a lot of ways. But it really upends the traditional kitchen-sink drama and is very, very funny and insane and ridiculous and absurd. Taylor calls it 'absurd realism' - and for anyone who knows his amazing drag work in New York, or his tremendous performances that are just these incredible, spectacular, brilliant extravaganzas; his style is very much suffused into this play.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Emily Townley
Production artwork for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's upcoming production of Hir.

With everything going on in this country now, why is Hir such an important piece of theatre for people to go see?

One of the central themes in Taylor's work is the notion of "radical healing" - he has told us that he's interested in how we "separate and then either deal or dissolve." Obviously, none of us can play our characters as metaphor, but that's the core of the piece - do we come together as a country or fly apart and how? We're also very interested in the reaction people seem to have to my character, this newly strong, liberated woman. Strong women on stage so often come across as "bitch." People have had a lot of sympathy for Arnold instead, the character who beat and terrorized his family for years. We're exploring how we, as a society, have a lot of cultural conditioning that protects the man in an equation but not the woman. I REALLY hope people who watch Hir can see past the darkness in the piece and understand that Taylor is trying to share how GOOD and JOYOUS the world could be, if only we could begin to think in alternative ways. He's asking should we compromise our radical vision of a new future in favor of less mess and discomfort? Or, do we endure a rocky transition and perhaps pain of those we love, in hopes of creating actual change?

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Emily Townley
Emily Townley in Watbanaland. This was her very first show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The year was 1997.

You are a company member of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. What are a few of the things that you enjoy the most about performing there?

Being part of an 'artistic family' is such a gift, having the freedom to explore and fall flat on my face there. That we all know each other so well and that I get called on my bullshit! Being supported by an incredibly generous and brilliant network of artists and thinkers, getting to be in the room with those people. And the audience and supporters of Woolly are a pretty lovely group as well. I'm just generally all-around grateful that they even opened the door and let me in the building.

You perform pretty much in plays only. Have you ever wanted to perform in a musical?

Sure. I've actually been cast in three over the last few years (including one for this upcoming season, that it just killed me to let go of) and have had to drop all three, for other offers and conflicts etc. etc. The musical talent in this town is RIDICULOUSLY good, so I've always felt a little sheepish about throwing my hat in the ring with those folks, but yeah, I'm really hoping there's one in my future someday.

Most performers have a bucket list of characters that they would like to play. What are a few of yours?

You know, I did for a long time have a list, all of the normal actress choices, the Shakespeare greats, some Albee and Williams and Miller etc., but I've kind of chucked that and just take the work as it comes. Mainly through my association with Woolly, I work on a lot of brand new plays. And the characters I'll be lucky enough to play and will turn out to be profound experiences for me haven't been written yet - or I couldn't possibly know what they are, anyway. I remember reading a review of Hir a while back in The New Yorker when it premiered at Playwrights Horizons and thinking "Huh. THAT sounds wild." And a few months later I was reading the script and going to play Paige. I would never have dreamed that particular play would come my way...so yeah, no bucket list. I'm just curious and eager to see what's out there and what the genius writers are brewing up!

What is next for you in the current and upcoming theatre seasons after Hir closes?

Hir is the end of this season for me. I'll be back at Woolly in the Max Frisch play The Arsonists, that's being directed by Michael Garcés and starring Howard Shalwitz. Then I'll be "Maria" in Ethan McSweeney's Twelfth Night at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Special thanks to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's Marketing and Communications Manager Bryan Braunlich for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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