Growing Up Among Grown Ups // By Emma Orelove
Actor Emma Orelove made her New York debut at 12 years old, and 20 years later its impact remains fresh as ever.
February 11th. A date that needs no calendar reminder. A date that for the last 20 years has transported (no pun intended) me back to East 4th Street between Avenues A and B. A date that can simultaneously make me smile and well up with tears.
Rewind to February 11th, 2002. We were in our third performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at The Connelly Theatre at 220 East 4th St. in the Lower East Side. I was a skinny, wide-eyed teenage girl playing the Stage Manager. I delivered this line with a little hint of a wink to Barbara Andres who was playing Emily, “All right. February 11th, 1899. A Tuesday.” If you know the play, you know that Emily chooses this date to revisit in Act 3 for it’s the date of her 12th birthday. What you probably don’t know, however, is that February 11th is also Barbara Andres’ birthday.
If you know the play, you know that the Stage Manager is (almost) always portrayed by an older man, generally touting a pipe and suit. Emily and George are (almost) always played by young adolescents, or young adults who can pass for teenagers. If you know this particular production by Transport Group, you know that Jack did a reversal of the casting to swap the ages of these three central characters, so Emily and George were played by actors in their mid-60s, and I was playing the Stage Manager in an age AND gender swap—the first time the role had been portrayed by a female, at least professionally in New York.
So how did this teenage girl from Richmond, Virginia, end up playing the Stage Manager in an Off-Broadway production of Our Town in New York? In true Stage Manager poeticism…
It’s three years prior. It’s 1999. Richmond, Virginia. I had been cast in a production of the musical Violet at The Barksdale Theatre as the Young Violet understudy. This production was directed by none other than Jack Cummings III, the man who would end up giving me one of the best experiences of my adolescent life. While Jack was already living in NYC at this point, Richmond is his hometown, so he occasionally came home to direct for The Barksdale. The one performance I was able to go on as Young Violet happened to be closing, and it was terrifying and exhilarating. While I only got to perform the role once, Jack entrusted me (for some wild reason) to take on the role of the Stage Manager in what would become Transport Group’s inaugural production, Our Town.
When he asked me if I was interested in taking this on, I wasn’t familiar with the play, so I didn’t understand how incredibly powerful and moving the choice was to swap the casting. Oh man, did I get it later. All I knew was that I had a lot of lines to learn and that was, again, terrifying and exhilarating.
It started out as a staged reading which served as a holiday benefit performance for The Lark, which we did for one performance for two consecutive years right around Christmas time. Even if you’re a cynical New Yorker, you have to admit that there’s something magical about New York during the holidays, so that little magical sparkle was in the air. My parents brought me up to NYC from Richmond and we stayed in The Hilton on 8th and 48th, one of the few places in Times Square I can pass and still get nostalgic for. I remember walking from the hotel to The Lark and thinking, “I am walking through Times Square. I am performing in New York City. I am a professional NYC actor.” I felt like the shit.
Fast forward to fall 2001, and Jack asked if I wanted to do the role in a 3-week run Off-Broadway. Um, obviously. Prior to starting rehearsals in New York, Jack would come down to Richmond to rehearse separately with me in an empty room at the preschool where my mom, at the time, served as the director. Sometimes his wife, Barbara (Walsh), would come down and help—an actor whom I deeply admired and looked up to. He would tape out the space and we’d start figuring out how I moved in the world and he would help me make sense of what I was saying. I had worked with a few directors by this point, but I recognized something really special in working with Jack. I could tell he was different and I knew how lucky I was to bear witness to his brain and creative process.
Next, I had to get the OK from my high school principal to take off school for two months or so in the first semester of my freshman year. Check. Shortly after, I was en route to move in temporarily with Jack and Barbara for the duration of the rehearsal period. I used those four weeks to soak in as much as I could from the brilliant cast comprised of seasoned actors, who could not have been more wonderful and supportive. They treated me like an equal and a professional. Tom Ligon, who played George, taught me to handwrite all of my lines, which to this day, I still do.
Some days after rehearsal, a fellow cast member would take me home on the subway. I remember envying them for this was their home, their domain. They knew how to navigate the MTA, knew how to get from point A to point B with ease, and then could go home to their NYC apartment. One night, one of the cast members let me have a sleepover at her Lower East Side apartment and I felt so grown up, yet so young and naïve. I wanted to be seen as a grown professional actor, yet I knew that I was going back to the apartment to do my homework for history class or send chat messages to my friends back in Virginia.
Once we transitioned from rehearsals to tech, I moved into an apartment in the West Village where my parents or family friends would take turns coming to stay with me. We would take a cab or walk across town to get to the theatre, and again, every time I thought, “I am living out the dream. This is my life for these next few weeks.” Then from there, my memory gets fuzzy.
It’s so funny how memory works—I remember the overall feeling of the entire experience, that of extreme gratitude, and emotion, and oddly calm, but I can’t recall details of the run.
What I can tell you is how Barbara Andres’ eyeliner would gather in the corner of her eyes when her eyes welled with tears as Emily. I can tell you how Tom’s nostrils would flare when he started to get emotional as George in the soda shop scene. I can tell you the shade of pink on Joanna’s cheeks when she was standing in the light on the ladder as Rebecca Gibbs. I can tell you the length of Julie’s fingers when they were resting on her lap as a deceased Mrs. Gibbs. I can exactly replicate the way in which Robyn would mime stirring a bowl as Mrs. Webb.
I could do this for every actor in the show. Maybe this is because I was so enamored with each and every one of them. Maybe it’s because I spent the whole show onstage and had the time to observe every detail. Or maybe it’s because for the first time, I was fully present with the humans around me and clinging on because I knew this experience wouldn’t last forever.
In Act 3, after choosing to revisit her 12th birthday on February 11th, Emily says, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” That was one of the biggest gifts Our Town gave me: the permission to be in the here and now with those around you. To have the courage to really see someone and let them see you. I hope that February 11th can be that little nudge for you, too.
Happy Birthday Emily…and Barbara.
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