I’m backstage at the Timms Centre for the Arts, waiting in the Green Room to interview BFA Acting student Emma Houghton, who is in the middle of rehearsals for Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea. With just a week to opening, The Lady from the Sea is not only the last show of the 2016-17 Studio Theatre season, but is also the last production that Emma will perform in before graduating from the University of Alberta.
She’s running late from rehearsal but when Emma finally arrives, I’m greeted by this bright and charismatic girl dressed in black combat boots, black tights and a black top, her blonde pigtails a stark contrast to her outfit. She apologizes for running late as their director was still giving rehearsal feedback to the cast, but from her sheer energy and enthusiasm, I can already tell she’ll be fun to talk to.
With the whole Green Room to ourselves, we settle in to a couple of oversized purple chairs and start talking. Having only just met her and not knowing anything about her, I start by asking Emma about her theatre background.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Emma has been performing from a very early age. Edmontonians may have even seen her during the early 2000’s as a child performer at The Citadel Theatre in productions of A Christmas Carol, The Sound of Music and Who Has Seen the Wind.
After graduating from the Victoria School of the Arts and doing local theatre in Edmonton, Emma began her university studies here at the U of A before transferring to McGill where she spent a year as a history major. “That was my period of ‘Do I want to be an actor? I don’t know…’,” she laughs.
The answer ended up being yes, because while still in Toronto, she auditioned for the BFA Acting program and was accepted. Now, at the end of her three-year program, Emma will be seen on stage as 16-year old Hilde in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, adapted and directed by Michael Bradley.
“The show is about plumbing your past, and coming to terms with what you’ve done and promises you’ve made,” Emma explains. “For Hilde, she’s not ok with people who hide everything under the rug and pretend everything’s fine. Hilde is very obnoxious, because she tries to get people to tell the truth, and she tries to reveal everyone’s secrets.”
Emma has been a fan of Ibsen’s work even before landing this role. When asked what she thinks audiences will love about this show, she talks about the themes from this play originally written in 1888, but now set in present day.
“Some of the original ideas about being stuck in a certain place because of certain things are interesting to explore in the modern age. We have internet now, so are you really stuck? Can you really never get access to things? There’s a great quote by [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ This show is about that — each of the characters is chained up by something, and it’s about discovering what it is, and what’s holding them there.”
As Emma ends her three years with the BFA program, I asked what it’s been like being with the same 12 people for every single class every single day, every rehearsal at night, and some of them even living together as roommates. That’s a lot of time to spend with the same people for three straight years.
She reflects on how close they’ve become, and how they’re now able to call each other out on each other’s drama, literally. “It’s been great — we’re not the same people we were coming into this program. We’re like a family of ‘Hildes’ now. If something’s wrong, or if someone’s trying to avoid an issue, Hilde will say ‘No, this is the problem we’re all having, and we need to address this.’ And that’s what we do now.”
So how much is Emma like her character, Hilde? She says she may have been like Hilde when she was 16, but that was nine years ago. Emma does still find a lot in common with the character.
“Michael, our director, made her a painter, and I paint in my spare time, so I really connect with that whole aspect of putting feelings into paintings. That’s what Hilde does: she has all these feelings, and she tries to find ways to vent them out.”
On leaving her program, Emma looks back on her time with the U of A and talked about some of the best things she’s taking from the Drama Department.
“It’s given me a safe space for the past three years to take a bunch of risks, which is invaluable. I did some stuff as the character Osip in Government Inspector that I was pretty nervous about — trying out different voices, and dancing was a new thing for me. It’s given me more confidence, and a whole toolkit of exercises to bring my characters to life.”
As for “life after BFA,” Emma talks about wanting to travel and see the world. Professionally, she’d love to do more musicals, and has aspirations of Stratford and doing big shows in Toronto. “I also want to spend some time here in Edmonton with the companies I grew up with — the people and the community I really respect.”
The Lady from the Sea will run May 18-27, 2017, at the Timms Centre for the Arts (purchase advance tickets here). Also look for Emma’s paintings at Edmonton Whyte Avenue Art Walk in July, and see her in The Last Wife at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary this September.
THE LADY FROM THE SEA
By Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Michael Bradley
May 18-27, 2017
Timms Centre for the Arts
Director – Michael Bradley
Production Designer – Ksenia Broda-Milian
Sound Designer – Matthew Skopyk