STLN staff writer Parker Mumford ’22 chats with Ethan Embry ’19 about his experience acting in his final Skidmore Theater production, Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, directed by Sarah Marlin ’20.
PM: So, would you like to give us a quick introduction?
EE: Sure. My name is Ethan Embry. I’m a senior theater major. I do a lot of different things, but primarily acting and design.
PM: It’s your final year at Skidmore. How does that feel?
EE: It feels really great. I feel pretty prepared to go out into the world as a theater artist. Something that I feel really grateful for is the fact that, thanks to Skidmore, I now am able to call myself a theater artist, as opposed to just an actor or something.
PM: Could you tell us what The Baltimore Waltz is about?
EE: Sure. It was written by Paula Vogel, who experienced the death of her brother due to AIDS. This play is sort of a metaphor for that. It takes place during a dream that Carl’s sister has about the two of them going to Europe and having a good time before Carl’s sister passes away due to a fictional illness. It’s all about what the AIDS epidemic was like, presented through the metaphor of a fake illness.
PM: I believe this illness is called “Acquired Toilet Symdrome…” Is that right?
EE: Acquired Toilet Disease.
PM: That’s right. Now, I’ve heard this show described as “a fun escape from reality,” but that synopsis makes it sound a bit heavier than that.
EE: Totally. The show really runs with the joke-y vibe that you often find between siblings and that’s where a lot of the levity in the show comes from: the relationship between the brother and the sister and the way that they poke fun at each other. It is a sincere play that has some heavy drama to it, but there is also some camp that comes with it. Throughout the show you have to remind yourself of how serious this problem is because it’s told through the lens of a dream, so everything is distorted.
PM: You mentioned some campy elements in this show. I heard Sarah describe the play as “not as campy as it once was.” What was it like at the beginning of the rehearsal process?
EE: Sarah has been working hard to drive honesty and sincerity through the scenes, especially in the characters’ relationships. It’s important not to forget what is at the core of this: a true-to-life story about the passing of one’s brother due to an illness that was highly stigmatized, something that people couldn’t really talk about. I think that, at first, that vibe was lost because we were just trying to have fun. There’s a dance sequence in the middle of the play, and that was one of the first things that we worked on. I think that the dance sequence set us up into a mode of trying to be fun, light, and engaging in that way. Sarah has been continually reminding us what this is really about. It’s the conflict between those two forces that makes the show so interesting.
PM: I saw a piece of the dance sequence. Was that in the original versions of the play?
EE: I don’t think so. I think that the dance, this little interlude, was entirely Sarah’s creation.
PM: And do you support these changes she’s making?
EE: I’d say so, yeah. It keeps the play fresh, it keep the play funky. It makes it feel like Sarah created this production of the play, as opposed to a production of the play.
PM: I think I heard Sarah say that, on the first day of rehearsals, she played the music that goes along with the dance something like eight times.
EE: Right. Eight would be an understatement. I think it was more like fifteen or twenty times, and it damn near drove us crazy. But I think that was for our benefit, because the play should feel that way.
PM: So, now that we have a feel for the tone and structure of the play, what can you tell us about the character of Carl?
EE: Carl is very intelligent in the sense that he knows a lot of things but has trouble seeing how they connect, what the meaning behind those things is. He knows dates, he knows people, but in terms of being in reality and connecting and relating with people, he can be very one-sided. A “talking at you” person as opposed to a “talking with you” person. He’s a mansplainer. He’s a bit of an ass. He can be pretty holier-than-thou. But underneath all that, there’s a huge heart and a yearning for connection that he is ultimately not only too afraid to achieve, but too afraid to confront himself – he is too afraid to admit that he has these issues.
PM: When you say “connection,” do you mean in the context of the play, or are you also thinking about the audience?
EE: I think that, definitely, the audience will understand what is being said through the character. There’s a scene in the play where he talks about a stuffed animal that he got when he was very young and what it means to him. He carries it around with him into old age. It’s basically a vehicle for him to feel like he can touch other people and other objects and feel that intimacy he wants without the threat of being rejected. That’s something that he talks about explicitly in the play, so I think that the audience would be able to feel that.
PM: How important do you think it is, in theater, that the audience actually “relates” to your character?
EE: I think that “relate” is sort of loaded in that it assumes that, if I relate with something, I either see it in myself or sympathize with it. I think that a lot of the qualities that Carl showcases in the play are things that people will relate to the most when they aren’t being their best selves. It is my hope in my performance that what people actually relate to is what’s underneath all that; what causes his less glamorous sides. But do I think that that’s important? I’m just gonna say no. I think that it’s important for an audience to come in with their own baggage and then figure out in what way they specifically relate to the play. I feel personally frustrated when a play or a piece of art is asking me to relate with it in a certain way. So I hope that the audience sees something that they relate to. I just hope it’s not something that I prescribe to them.
PM: How did your time at Skidmore shape the way that you performed and interpreted this play? Is this your final performance at Skidmore?
EE: This is my final performance in a play that is affiliated with the school. I plan on doing other things independently or with my friends in this coming semester, but I feel very grateful for the training I’ve received here at Skidmore. Especially in acting. I’ve been taught how important it is to recognize not only the character that you’re portraying, but also the character that is yourself. In the context of this production, it would be about how Ethan’s portrayal of Carl is very different from how anyone else would portray Carl, and honoring that in a way that lets you inject yourself into your character. You can have it be Ethan as Carl under the circumstances of the play, but also under the circumstances of Ethan’s life. That was something I never thought about before. I thought it was just that we “get into character;” that I have to leave all of Ethan behind and step into this entirely new person. Integrating those two things – the character and my real-life self – and being able to channel both of them in a performance has really inspired me and opened my mind to what a performance really can be.
PM: Looking back, what would you have changed during your time at Skidmore?
EE: My whole time at Skidmore?
PM: In the context of theater.
EE: Everybody always says that it goes by in a flash, and it really did. On the days when I think to myself, “I’m so tired… When will this rehearsal end? I just gotta get through this…” I would go back in time and tell myself, “This is all gonna be over before you know it. You’re surrounded by some of the most incredible collaborators you’ve ever met. Savor this time. Dig deep. Acknowledge that your friends and collaborators are just as eager to create things as you are.” I think that I often wanted to go out and make theater, but I figured that I was the only one who wanted to do that, or that I couldn’t, or that it wasn’t feasible. I wish I had taken more risks in that way.
PM: I think those are all the questions I have. Any last words?
EE: I feel very, very grateful for my time at Skidmore. We were told, as first years, that we were going to be annoyed. They were going to make us take classes in lighting design, in costumes, all of these things. They said that, even if we only wanted to do one thing, we would still be grateful for all that when we were seniors. I absolutely feel that way. I feel so proud to call myself a theater artist, as opposed to just an actor. I hope that the tradition continues.
The Baltimore Waltz runs in Studio A February 21-23 at 7 PM each night, with an additional performance Friday at 9 PM. As of today, February 19th, all performances have sold out. Email email@example.com to get on the waitlist and plan on arriving ten minutes early to the performance you are trying to attend.
Parker Mumford ’22 is a staff writer for the Living Newsletter.