Genius Awards 2016
Acted in all kinds of plays, from George Bernard Shaw to Annie Baker, for all kinds of theater companies.
Nail the accent.
Serve as associate artistic director of New Century Theater's forthcoming season.
Most of an actor's life consists of not getting work. As a consequence, not every actor—not even every exceptionally talented actor—has the good fortune to be able to say no when opportunities do come along. Emily Chisholm is exceptionally talented, as anyone who has seen her perform can attest. Superlatives attach to her like iron to a magnet.
In 2004, critic Bret Fetzer pointed out that her performance in Psycho Beach Party turned what would have been a merely funny show into a "fantastic" one. Playing a surfer girl with multiple personalities, "she practically explodes out of her own impish body as she bounces, scampers, and writhes all over Northwest Actors Studio," Fetzer wrote. In 2015, critic Brendan Kiley wrote in a review of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play The Flick that Chisholm "owns the stage... flirting through her scowl and sneaking morsels of compassion through the bars of her sarcasm."
Her performances have drawn many more accolades besides. Another Stranger critic still talks about her performance in the 2012 production of Keri Healy's play Torso. We've been talking about nominating Chisholm for a Genius Award for years.
At the moment, she's taken a bit of a pause. After years of making all kinds of theater, "I want to be more selective about the plays I agree to work on," she says. "And I'm interested in working in other areas as well." For example, she's the associate artistic director of New Century Theater's forthcoming season.
Having found a groove as a working actor, playing lead roles at New City, Seattle Rep, and Seattle Shakespeare back-to-back-to-back, does it feel okay to choose not to act for a while?
"No!" she laughs. "It's interesting, because for me, even beginning this career was about giving myself permission to do the work. So now I've had to give myself permission to stop. And I've had to turn a few things down for the fall, and it's like everything in my body is saying 'yes!' And I have to stop and rethink the decision. Which is great, forcing myself to consider why. That's something I'm really interested in as a producer: Why we choose to tell the story, why we're telling the play. The work I'm the most invested in as an actor is when I have a very strong 'why' behind doing the show beyond just this is a smart choice, career-wise."
So what kind of "why" leads her to decide to take a role?
"A lot of them have been based on fear," she says, surprisingly. "I find after I've said yes to something that terrifies me, I learn the most from those experiences—there was something in this story, this play, this character that I needed to explore but probably couldn't articulate to myself at the beginning."
Her fears usually involve "whether or not it's relevant to anyone, whether or not the director has a sensitivity to it to make it really sing, and whether or not I think I can actually deliver the performance the play deserves." It is this deep sense of the material that yields such masterful and revelatory performances. "The fear," she says, "is the greatest instinct."