Alum spotlight: Emily Smith May (BFA ’86) and David May (MFA ’87)

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Emily Smith May, BFA Performance, 1986 

David May, MFA in Performance, 1987 

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When Emily started at VCU, the department rule was that students couldn’t perform for their first year. She became Assistant Stage Manager for The Merchant of Venice, directed by Dr. James Parker, former Head of Graduate Studies.  David was playing Bassanio and quickly noticed Emily, “I just saw her and thought ‘Holy Crap, she’s so beautiful!’” 

(center on one knee) David in The Merchant of Venice (VCU, ’84-85 mainstage season)

Meanwhile, Emily had no idea that he was interested, until Leslie Byers, who was playing Portia, said, “David’s interested in you.” 

They dated for four years before being married.  This included three summers at the Charlotte Shakespeare Company. In 1989, they tied the knot, in the Arlington, VA church where Emily’s parents were married. She remembers, “Lots of our VCU classmates and friends from Charlotte all came!”

David again in Merchant (right)

Even before this, David was pretty clear that he was going to seminary. Emily’s initial reaction was, “Me, of all people, married to a preacher!” David continued to do shows at TheatreVirginia (under his stage name David Sexton), and Emily did Theatre IV tours (Theatre IV merged with Barksdale Theatre to become Virginia Rep in 2012). Emily also worked at TheatreVirginia as the Advertising Coordinator, “And that’s what made me fall in love in graphic design.”

Another of David in Merchant (on stairs with hand on hip)

After David was ordained, they moved to Charlottesville, where their second son, Ben, was born. Then it was Richmond for 10 years and Kilmarnock for 12 years. Since then, David has been rector at St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Goochland for 2½ years. Emily is a manager at local upscale shop Thistles, where she also handles Digital Marketing and Graphic Design for the store. 

When asked about how his acting career helps him in the pulpit, David’s answer is not what you might expect. “People assume ‘this means your time as an actor translates into being a priest. Oh, you’re performing.’ That’s not it. What has been valuable is that you have to be able to read the house, which has been super valuable as someone who stands up in front of people to understand where we are as a group.”

As for Emily, “I love the creative rehearsal process in theatre and that translates into my current work which is appealing to people’s thought and emotions. I want to people to feel good and welcome. It’s a part of who I am, as I relate to people.”

Circling back to her initial response, Emily reflects back on her initial response to David’s calling, “The stereotype of a preacher’s wife ended up not being true. All I had to do was be honest and be me and I was accepted. It’s an honor and takes a lot of faith and energy to live life in fishbowl.”

Compiled by Liz Hopper, professor emeritus, and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the February 2021 Theatre Alumni Newsletter