Local Actress, Emily Townley, Talks About the Upcoming Production of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Twelfth Night”

Heath Saunders, Derek Smith, Antoinette Robinson and Hannah Yelland
Photo by Tony Powell

By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor

Setting up for my interview with Emily Townley, an actress I have long admired, I realize that just being here in the auspicious Shakespeare Theatre Company offices in SE Washington, coupled with meeting such an accomplished actress, I feel like an excited school girl. So many questions, so little time because she is deep into rehearsals for “Twelfth Night” and her time outside the rehearsal studio is limited. Anticipation is building! I saw and really enjoyed her performance in Signature Theatre’s “The Mystery of Love and Sex” several years ago, and know that she has been working in and around the DMV for many years, been nominated twice for Helen Hayes Awards, and is generally considered to be an “actor’s actor.” She grew up in Alexandria, graduated from West Potomac High School and will be playing the pivotal role of Maria in Shakespeare Theatre’s “Twelfth Night.” And now, here she is…beautiful, relaxed, accessible and humble about her background and her current role. She immediately asserts that she loves being in the Metro area and intends to stay here. We’re off…

Emily Townley

What’s the difference working for Signature Theatre as opposed to Shakespeare Theatre?

“To be fair,” she says, “’The Mystery of Love and Sex’ was my first show at Signature because I don’t typically do musicals and that’s their bread and butter.” However, she tells me, for that production even though it was a straight play, they treated her very nicely indeed. She works mainly at Woolly Mammoth, where she is a company member but has done many productions at Studio Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Folger Theatre, Olney Theatre, and MetroStage.  Shaking her head, she says, “Shakespeare is a much bigger machine, and while you’re in the rehearsal room you feel that your opinion is very valued by whatever director you happen to be working with, but outside the rehearsal room, Shakespeare Theatre is a pretty regimented machine. You show up when you need to show up; you call the correct people you need to call; and you’re expected to be where you are expected to be. It feels a little like working for GE as opposed to a mom and pop shop, where you are more involved in the administrative aspects of it. Woolly is sometimes like, ‘Hey, can you come to a fundraiser, or hey, what do you think about this marketing campaign, or hey, can you talk to us about many other aspects of the theatre?’ I have a particular role here and I stick within that role, which is actually comforting, but very different.”

What’s it like onstage here with this level of actors?

“I’m thrilled to be in a cast in which I can learn so much from the other actors. It’s so great to work with so many accomplished people, so I can go, ‘Oh great, I’m going to steal that; I’m taking that with me!’ I’m grateful about that; but I’m intimidated at this point by the actual physical space [Sidney Harman Hall]. Not only is it huge, but in this instance, Ethan [McSweeny] has decided to blow it wide open. So he’s getting rid of the proscenium, lifting out two sets of chairs and putting a thrust stage right down the center of the audience. This situates us on the gallery level backstage and we’re performing all the way to the back wall of the theatre. It seems huge to us! People have to run to make their entrances. I went through 5-6 pairs of shoes in my costume fittings, ‘Sorry, I can’t run in these; sorry I can’t run in these!’ until they found a pair of heels that I felt comfortable enough to literally run up [and down] stairs in.”

Are you able to make a living from working in the theatre in the Metro area, and if so, how?

First Emily clues me into the fact that the DC Metro area is now considered to be the “third largest Actors’ Equity non-office city in the country, behind San Francisco, in terms of the number of active Equity members living here…meaning we don’t have an Equity office here in the city. And of those non-office cities, we’re one of the largest markets. This is a big deal,” she says. She then says that she wants to make very clear that in her case, she truly can’t make ends meet with just the salary from the theatres, even though she works fairly consistently year round. “And,” she says, “It’s not the theatres’ fault. This is an expensive town in which to live and unless you are an associate of a particular theatre and appear in most of their season’s productions on a recurring basis, an actor simply has to supplement his/her salary with outside work.” In Emily’s case, she supplements her theatre income with retail, administrative and coaching work at local high schools, like Lake Braddock High School, when she is available. This is disturbing, but not necessarily surprising news. I wish it could be different for the sake of all the amazing talent in our city.

But now it’s time to wrap up and I, for one, can hardly wait to see Emily Townley as Maria in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” on that thrust stage in Sidney Harman Hall (610 F Street, NW) from November 14-December 20. Oh yes, Emily encouraged me to say, “This is going to be a big, gorgeous production! And everyone is going to want to see it!” For ticket and performance information, call the box office at 202-547-1122 or go online at

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