Alum spotlight: Emily Townley (BFA ’92)

woman smiling

Emily Townley, BFA  1992, Performance

Emily followed a classical music track in high school and played piccolo, flute and piano. She even had fellowships and studied at the National Symphony, “so my parents were deeply, deeply disappointed when I decided to go into theater.”

When Emily got to VCU, freshmen weren’t allowed to perform in mainstage shows, but she got her chance…kind of. They were producing The Boyfriend using two pianists, but one of them had to drop out. Emily, with her extensive musical talent, was tapped to step in. 

When she did get on stage, her two favorite shows were both, “eye-opening experiences with two directors who trusted me to play leads.” She says about Dr. Ken Campbell, who directed her in The Beaux’ Stratagem, “He was a very important mentor at school and after.” As for Gary Hopper, acting professor and director of Reckless, she says “Gary pushed me outside of what I thought I could do as an actor. He also insisted that we be off book on Day One of rehearsals, and that’s a habit that I’ve carried into every production. But I don’t tell the casts, so they don’t freak out.”

woman on stage in period costume
Emily and Spencer Humm in The Beaux’ Stratagem at VCU

After graduation, Emily planned to move to NYC, but within a month of graduating, she was cast at Washington’s Studio Theatre in a show directed by Joy Zinoman, then Artistic Director of Studio Theatre. “I found DC to be very livable and made lots of friends.”

Like many other alum, Emily also traveled to LA, but not to act. Her former husband was a chef and they opened a restaurant. “I was 30 years old and didn’t have a strong sense of myself in terms of how to market myself as a character actor, so I threw myself into the restaurant.” 

Promotional image from Skin Tight (Studio’s 2ndStage, 2013)

When she returned to DC in 2006, Emily “didn’t go back into theatre because it was too painful, and I figured nobody would remember me.” She was proven wrong—she was walking around Penn Quarter and discovered the new home of Wooly Mammoth. “I walked upstairs and found Howard Shalwitz, founding Artistic Director. He said, ‘Where the hell have you been?’” A year later Emily became a company member and has been in sixteen plays since then. She also continued to work in other regional theatres and on camera.

Emily had just completed the first week of a six-week run of The Amateurs by Jordan Hanson, when COVID shut them down. The irony is that the play is about actors trying to outrun the Black Plague. “If that isn’t meta, I don’t know what is!”

She’s worked with numerous alum around town, including Maury Erickson (now Leo) at Olney Theatre Center who played her father in Bad Dog. Emily was about to be working with Joe Carlson (see his profile this month) in Teenage Dick as a co-production with Huntington Theatre, but COVID abruptly ended rehearsals. 

During the interview Emily told a joke I’d never heard:

“How do you get an actor to complain?” 

“Give them a job!”

For her upbeat attitude and successful career, I’m not sure that’s the case with Emily.

three people smiling
Emily with retired faculty Liz and Gary Hopper

Compiled by Liz Hopper (Emeritus Faculty) and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the January 2021 Theatre Alumni Newsletter