The UND Burtness Theatre’s latest mainstage production of Neil Simon’s Rumors is playing now through Saturday, April 12. Our very own Miss Jaye caught up with Emily Wirkus who plays Chris Gorman in the show to talk about the production…and any other scandalous gossip she may have to share.
Janessa: Today I’m very excited to be talking to Emily Wirkus. Welcome Emily!
Emily: Hey girl! Thank you for having me! I’m so excited…this is my WoC debut!
Janessa: I like to believe that you are best known to theatre-goers for your role as my delusional daughter in RUTHLESS! The Musical…
Emily: That was definitely a show to be remembered. So many jewels! So much hilarious drama too! I think that was the show that we first met (d’awww…) I learned so much from working with you and the rest of the cast. Gotta love Firehall!
Janessa: We had a lot of wig problems in that show.
Emily: Oh my gosh did we ever! That is still, to this day, my favorite theatre story to tell: the day Janessa’s wig got stuck to the front of her dress and all you could do was laugh. And laugh. Mother Mary Wirkus was beside herself. I think that was when she fell in love with you too! [laughs] Or when you left poor Ophelia bald!
Emily Wirkus in Ruthless! The Musical at the Firehall Theatre
Janessa: Yes, no wig was safe in that show! So, right now you are working on a show at UND, Neil Simon’s Rumors. What can you tell us about that show and your role?
Emily: Yes! I am playing Chris Gorman. She and her husband Ken are the first couple to arrive at a dinner party celebrating the 10th Wedding Anniversary of Charley and Myra Brock. When the show starts we are both trying to cover up the scandal that Charley has shot himself in the ear lobe and we are trying to protect his reputation from a suicide rap. Chris works as a lawyer, probably in a quiet office, doing legal publishing contracts. She had no idea what she signed up for when she RSVP’d for this party! Chris spends most of the show trying to help cover the situation at hand with other guests, as well as helping herself to more than her share of vodka to help calm her nerves, and her growing case of hives over the whole situation.
Janessa: Since the show is called Rumors…any juicy gossip from behind the scenes you’d like to share?
Emily: Ooh, a lady never tells ;)… but in actual reality this cast gets along really well. Probably not the saucy rumor you’re looking for, but we’ve had a lot of fun putting it together. It is also the thesis project for Brett Olson! Rumor has it he is one of the only graduate students who has directed on the Burtness mainstage.
Janessa: Well, that’s something. How long have you been doing theatre? Tell us about some of the roles you’ve played.
Emily: I actually didn’t start doing theatre until my senior year of high school. I was cast as Mabel in Pirates of Penzance and that’s when I got the bug. I didn’t revisit theatre until I transferred to UND in 2008 and auditioned for South Pacific to make some friends at the then ‘new-to-me’ school. I was currently finishing a degree in K-12 Music Education. While I enjoyed teaching very much, there was a certain niche that I found in acting that I had never felt before. So, I finished my degree and started auditioning for shows. It was a hard decision, but I eventually decided to audition to go back to school for theatre, and was accepted into the BFA Musical Theatre program in the Spring of 2012. Before I began at UND I was a part of a wonderful production of A Christmas Carol at the Firehall Theatre, and of course your darling daughter later that summer in Ruthless! Through my studies at UND I have had the privilege of working with amazing mentors and students. I had the opportunity to be a co-collaborator in UND’s original My Generation, and to play roles like Lenny in Crimes of the Heart, Little Sally in Urinetown, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Nan/Lina in Three Days of Rain, and Diana in Chorus Line. One of the coolest parts about these roles is that they are all so different! There has been so much opportunity to stretch and learn how to create characters in many different capacities. This spring I am putting together a collection of scenes from a lot of these shows for my senior capstone cabaret Emily & Friends on May 8th that I can’t wait to revisit!
Emily Wirkus and Brian Dempcy in Urinetown at UND’s Burtness Theatre
Janessa: Is there a favorite role that sticks out in your mind?
Emily: I would say it’s a toss up between Little Sally and Beatrice. Both incredibly different, but I learned so much through each of these characters that it is really hard to choose. I learned the most about what it meant to really commit to a character and their ideals through Little Sally. Urinetown was such a seemingly absurd world! Breaking her down took a lot of study and a lot of playing with different physicality and vocalism, which turned out to be a really fun process! Beatrice sticks out as a favorite from learning about acting in Shakespeare and about her power in strength and conviction as a female character in this time period. In a lot of ways her headstrong nature was unheard of in this time period. In the process of rehearsing Beatrice, I in turn learned a lot more about those qualities in myself, which was a fantastic growing experience for me as an actor and a person. Both characters were very rewarding and powerful to perform.
Emily Wirkus in Much Ado About Nothing at UND’s Burtness Theatre
Janessa: You’ve done both educational theatre productions and community theatre productions. How are those experiences different? Do you have a different prep process as an actor?
Emily: Educational theatre is just what it sounds like – part of the process is training actors and technicians on how to function in the professional world of theatre. That is huge! A big difference between educational and community theatre is that there is a lot more manners at school usually! [laughs] There are specific rules and guidelines to follow as well as a certain standard of work that is expected of you. All of these create wonderful habits to take with you when you work in the professional world or in community theatre too! Community experiences tend to be a lot more relaxed and collaborative through the entire process. While there are many students at school to help paint the set while you are at rehearsal at UND, sometimes you have to pitch in and help with set, props, etc. in community theatre. Each experience is unique, and collaborative in different ways. I have found that my preparation process has changed the longer I have been in school. I used to be so concerned with memorization in the beginning, but now I have learned that memorization is one of the easiest jobs for an actor. Now my preparation is a based a lot more in digging into the text and finding any detail I can to create a fully rounded character. This can range from ideas, to belief systems, and different kinds of vocal and physical variations that will make the character unique. To be honest, that is my favorite part of the process! Then you get to experiment with all of those ideas in rehearsal, and bounce your ideas off of other characters under the director. It’s really fun!
Janessa: What kind of off stage theatrical experience do you have?
Emily: I have been in two productions at the Firehall theatre and worked with the UND theatre company for two and a half years. I have also done Summer Stock work at Minot State University last summer and plan to return there this year as an actor and head costume designer.
Janessa: Is there a dream role you’re just dying to play?
Emily: I would love to play Cathy in The Last 5 Years someday. That show is absolutely perfect. It’s always been my favorite musical. I would also love to play The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot or Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie. They are more of the fun, spunky, girl power roles and have excellent music. All the musicals!
Daniella Lima and Emily Wirkus backstage during A Chorus Line at UND’s Burtness Theatre
Janessa: Sorry for the way I’m asking these questions, but you’re promoting a show called Rumors – that does seem to call for a more dramatic approach. I’ll get some scandal out of you yet!
Emily: I don’t know what you’re talking about…theatre people are very level headed and rarely dramatic! [shifty eyes]
Janessa: (singing creepily) “I’m so very lucky that you are my mother…”
Emily: And that’s enough of that! Haha! Ruthless! has more stories to tell…
Emily Wirkus in Crimes of the Heart at UND’s Burtness Theatre
Janessa: Ok, being serious now, what attracts you to theatre? Why is it important to you?
Emily: There is something incredible about getting out on stage in front of a group of people with a message or a story to tell. There is something challenging and beautiful about taking something that is on paper and finding a way to create that into a physical being. It is not just about the bookwork – it becomes about using yourself as a vehicle to become a character and say what the playwright is trying to say. Sometimes it’s as simple and hilarious as making people laugh under absurd circumstances like in Rumors. But there are also characters and playwrights that challenge you to look outside of the surface level and really dig into the core of human nature and what drives us to do things. That’s what keeps me in theatre. Acting is an opportunity to explore huge ideas and stretch yourself physically and mentally. Theatre is meant to reach and audience and make them feel something, learn something from the experience. Being a part of that process is incredibly rewarding for me, and I love that I never stop learning from the experience.
Janessa: And why is theatre important in a larger sense? What does having theatre, or even an arts scene more generally, bring to a community?
Emily: There is something about live theatre that you just can’t find anywhere else. Theatre is so personal – you see the bodies yourself right there on the stage! It’s hard not to get personally invested when you see another physical being going through the journey that a character is going through in a show. It is easy to then relate those lessons to your own life and have a somewhat cathartic experience that way as well. Even in shows that are lighter or a little less cerebral, being a part of an audience is like being a part of the show itself. You are physically there and your presence influences the actors too! No two performances are ever alike – live theatre is always constantly changing. Going to the theatre is a social event in communities that is so underrated in my opinion. It is especially wonderful going to shows when you know someone in the cast. Then you’re not just supporting a production or company, but you get to cheer and support your friends! Watching other people work and succeed through performance is incredibly exciting. Just like any other form of art, theatre in its many capacities is a form of expression. There is always something to be learned and something to discuss. Theatre teaches us how to work together like a community to put forth a final product with a message, whatever that may be. I don’t know of many other things that support community more than being a part of a show, and/or attending one.
Janessa: What are your personal boundaries for the roles you accept? Is there anything you think should be “off limits” to the stage, or to art in general?
Emily: Up until this point I have not had too many boundaries. I was prepared when I auditioned for Three Days of Rain that there would be some partial nudity, but the challenge of that kind of excited me. I think it mostly depends on the writing – if the play is good and there is some risky business going on onstage chances are there is good reason. And I am always up for the challenge of exploring that! As far is ‘off limits’ is concerned… I think that’s what the freedom of expression is all about. I won’t judge if you don’t!
Janessa: So in the spirit of Rumors, what would your celebrity scandal be? What kind of tabloid hijinx would you get into, on or off the red carpet?
Emily: My celebrity scandal would probably be being caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or tripping! I may have dance experience under my belt but I am actually a terrible clutz. I think that Jennifer Lawerence and I would be in good company. I’d fall up the stairs and share a bag of Doritos in a ball gown with her any day of the week.
Emily: Oh my gosh I know. I almost forgot that happened. Le sigh, my childhood idol at her finest…but, secret-not-secret, I get to read a whole lot of tabloids when it gets slow at work and I may or may not love it. Sometimes that drama is just so extreme…how can you not?!
Janessa: Although the whole Amanda Bynes thing was a close second. It would probably be my fave, but it got kinda sad, way too fast. At least with Brit, we got some great laughs before it turned tragic.
Emily: Agreed. I was sad to see Amanda go down too. At least both of them look like they’re cleaning up their act?
Janessa: We shall see. Any rumors you’d like to start while you’re here? About one of your castmates? Me? Hell, one of the Kardashians??
Emily: Love me some trashy Kardashians! But that would just be too easy… I hear that you stole half your wardrobe for your next show from the Rumors classy costumer Michelle Spencer Davidson…is that true? I know how much you love the sparkles!
Janessa: Michelle always does amazing work! If your outfit and Jacqueline DeGraff’s outfit from the show were in my size, I would totally jack both of them in the parking lot! Any final thoughts for our World of Champagne readers?
Emily: If you have the chance this week come support live theatre at UND and see Rumors! There is literally something for everyone. I love your blog reviews and reading your features! Keep supporting live theatre y’all!
Janessa: Emily, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It has been such a pleasure!
Emily: Anytime, Janessa! Keep writing! It’s been a blast!
Emily Wirkus backstage during Rumors at UND’s Burtness Theatre
Rumors, directed by Brett Olson, will be playing the rest of this week at the Burtness Theatre on the mainstage. Showtime is 7:30 pm and tickets are $15 for adults; discounted tickets for students are also available. Look for a review coming soon to the World of Champagne!
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