Several weeks ago, I introduced you to Eve Ensler‘s feelings-drenched new Off-Broadway play, Emotional Creature. To recap: the play chronicles what it is to be a teenage girl through a series of international stories, songs, dance and monologues and inspires girls all over the world to speak up, follow their dreams and live out loud. As I came home to research the phenomenally talented singer and dancer who embodied the lone queer character on stage, I stumbled upon Emily Grosland‘s essay, What It Means to be A Pangendered Actor, and knew the Auto-universe would develop a collective crush on her.
I chatted with Emily about scoring her dream role as Peter Pan, working with Eve Ensler, coming out as gay and later pangendered, and why Ellen is her personal hero.
Where did your roots in the performing arts begin?
My mother put my sister and I in dance class, starting at three years old, and every year my parents would ask us the same question: “Do you want to do the dance recital or do you want to go on a family vacation?” Because we didn’t have enough money for both, and every single year without any hesitation my sister and I would decided to do the dance recital and take dance classes. That’s where I really got started, and all my stage experience, it was dancing on stage in various tutus and sparkly things. I then started doing children’s theatre, I was very lucky that my home town had a great children’s theater program, The Children’s Theater of Elgin in Illinois. My first play I was a fork in Beauty and the Beast, and I wore yellow pajamas with a big silver fork attached to my head in middle school and later in high school and throughout college I did community theatre.
When I went into college at Washington University in St. Louis I kind of decided that I wasn’t going to perform anymore,mainly because I’ve never been the best – the star of the show.I was always the fork in the background.Within two weeks I saw a posting for auditions for the school musical and I couldn’t help myself and I went. And I got cast in it, I was one of two freshman that got in, and that kind of sealed my fate actually.
How did you wind up with your first big role as Peter Pan?
Every time I enter an audition room — I could be auditioning for Romeo and Juliet — the people behind the table will be like, “Oh my gosh, have you ever played Peter Pan, you’d be the perfect Peter Pan.” I think that’s what automatically pops into people’s head when they see an androgynous female. So I just felt that Peter Pan is sort of my place. You know how most girls in musical theater are like, ‘Oh, I’m going to play Lori in Oklahoma, etc? That’s never been what people see in me. So I guess we’re sort of a natural fit. If I could play Peter Pan for the rest of my life, I would.
What led you to audition for Emotional Creature?
When I first moved to New York three years ago I was auditioning for everything, and trying to fit in with the other girls at auditions. I would put on my little dress, do my hair and my makeup, and stand in line and try to be on par with everyone there. Then I started taking classes with a wonderful woman, Jen Waldman and she has just really inspired me and made me very comfortable. After a while I began bringing in audition pieces that I never thought I would realistically be cast in, but things I dreamed of being cast in — like Dodger in Oliver. I was kind of expecting her reaction to be like, ‘well that’s fun, but its not going to happen’, and it wasn’t. And everyone else in the room was encouraging and supportive of these unconventional male/female roles as well. There was something that shifted in me, having other people see what I really want to do and actually be OK with it, and not think I was a crazy person. It made me sort of realize the thing about me that I felt like I had been trying to hide in auditions, because I thought it was the thing that made me not right for specific female roles, was actually the thing that I think it is my strongest suit. I think that the thing that’s quirky about me, I think that this is true of all actors and people in general, is the thing that I thought would keep me from getting work, it was the the thing that actually is what makes me stand out, and it’s what gets me work.
I had that epiphany right before auditions for Emotional Creature took place. I had already started going to auditions in my full-on “boy” getup and the Emotional Creature character description stated “androgynous to feminine girls between the ages of 16 and 19″ so I really fit perfectly! I didn’t have an agent so I wound up going to an open call and at like my 5th callback I show up there’s Eve Ensler, one of my heroes and I have to do her monologue in front of her! I did the audition in my vest and my button down and my tie and my spiky hair with ukulele and they liked it!
How would you describe Eve Ensler?
She’s just an incredible human being and I think that’s the thing that I’ve taken away from knowing her, is her bravery. I love how when we’re in a middle of a rehearsal, and you have an idea of a crazy thing that should happen on stage and you suggest it to Eve, a lot of times playwrights or director’s will hesitate, “Well, let’s think about that, maybe this will happen, maybe that would happen” but Eve’s response almost always is “that is so brilliant, let’s try it. Go.” Everything is “let’s try it”, and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work and we move on, but she is so willing to go for it, and she believes so much that what she’s doing is important and that she’s going to change the world and its going to save people’s lives and it s going to move people, and its going to start a movement. It’s not that she’s unrealistic, it’s just that she’s willing to leap off the cliff and make a mistake. And that is so inspiring. I think the greatest lesson I’ve learned from her, is even if you are afraid to do something, you have to do it anyway.
Have you seen The Vagina Monologues live?
Yes, I was part of — I designed the set actually — for a production of The Vagina Monologues in college. It was in our church on campus, and our church had stained glass windows on the outside, so my set was a giant stain glass window of a vagina, it lit up.
Amazing. How did you feel about the Vagina Monologues when you were first exposed to it?
Up until that point, I had been exposed to much more musical theater than anything else, and in the musical theater canon, the roles are pretty standard, there’s a girl in a dress and she’s falling in love with the boy in the cowboy hat, and a bad guy who wants to ruin it. Sometimes there’s a wise old lady, that’s usually the standard. And I don’t really fit any of those people… The part that I usually fit in standard musical theater is the comedic sidekick on the side. But, The Vagina Monologues was one of the first times that I really felt I really experienced that sort of connection to characters and roles that I felt like really were describing me. The production that I saw, the production that we did at my school, there was a trangender MTF person in the show, and she was the first experience I had ever had with any transperson and I was just so incredibly moved by her willingness to just be 100% herself in front of everyone. The fact that she didn’t apologize for it, and the fact that Eve had written a show that she could fit into it.
What do you identify most with your character in Emotional Creature?
You know, when received my first audition monologue in the show called “The White Rug” I was pretty blown away. I had never met Eve Ensler before, but reading it I was literally thinking, “How does she know me? How does she know my voice?” It’s a hard question to answer because I developed the character around who I am, so to me the character is a younger version of myself. Back when I wasn’t as sure of who I am and what I am. My character knows that she’s gay although, like me, she doesn’t really like labeling it. She’s still sort of figuring out the gender thing. I personally identify as genderqueer and my character I feel is sort of on the way figuring that out.
I’d love to hear your coming out story.
Okay! Well, after dating a guy throughout high school (who is also gay and now one of my best friends) I fell ridiculously in love with a girl freshman year of college. I went about experimenting with my feelings in sort of an unusual way… At the time I was dancing all the time and taking a choreography class so I actually choreographed various a pieces on figuring out who I was. My first piece was about her and we became really good friends. This was a very liberal arts college! I know it sounds like I’m a crazy person.
No, that’s so fascinating!
It was like how I admitted to myself, and I choreographed this piece and I kind of realized it was about being in love with her. And I was like, “Oh my god I’m in love with this girl, I am totally gay.” I then wrote a second piece that was about telling everyone, which I then proceeded to do. I told my parents, they were wonderful about it, I was just so lucky. My coming out story is so much better than anyone else I had ever heard. I figured out freshman year and within a few months, I had told everyone, I mean it was really fast. Then I dated a girl in college, for about a year and half, my first relationship, we met at gay straight alliance, and then I proceeded to date boys and girls off and on a little bit. I believe very strongly that my sexuality is not black and white, just like I believe my gender is a panorama of identities, I think that my sexuality is as well. And although its been a long time since I’ve been attracted to a guy, I still reserve the right to be bisexual if I want to be. I did a lot of marching when I was living in California for Prop 8 and that was really the first time I had really felt what it was to be hated for being gay. I felt it firsthand, walking down the street and actually have someone holding the hand of their child on the other side of the fence yelling horrible things at us. It made me really realize how lucky I was, that I had been raised on the other side of that fence, that I had grown up with supportive people and I had grown up in the community theater world and, I just didn’t have that internalized homophobia that so many people have and I don’t know if I would’ve been strong enough to overcome it like some people struggle with.
It’s funny because when I wrote it and put it up there, I didn’t even think anything of it. Because I always been kind of been a tomboy but I kind of go back and forth. I can be the girliest of girls and wear my little sundress, but I also am more comfortable wearing my sweater-vest and tie. I love my short hair and I walk a little more masculine than most girls, and I have always identified with being the white knight and not being the princess. Everyone knew this about me, it was never a secret.
So when I wrote the bio piece for my website, I didn’t think it was going to have any reaction… so I was a little surprised when my mom read it she was like ‘so what is this pangendered thing?’
I realize now that it’s so engrained in peoples minds what is male and female. I’m continually surprised by that, and so when I do tell people I’m pangendered or genderqueer, it has more affect on people than I thought it would. I think because it’s so important to people what color blanket the baby has on them, and it just seems arbritary to me to be honest. As far as making it public, I want to make it clear to casting directors that this role in Emotional Creature and roles like Peter Pan are the ones I want to be playing. I’m perfectly happy playing the girly girl as well, but I think a shift happened in me and made me want to work in a way that I feel like I’m doing something, that I’m representing something important, and I just felt like putting that on there puts out to the professional world, that thats important to me, and hopefully that will lead me to jobs that I also feel strongly about personally.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations or someone you greatly admire?
You know this is going to be so cliche, and I know that every lesbian out there is going to roll her eyes at me, but Ellen DeGeneres. I used to watch Ellen, the sitcom with my mom but we never talked about Ellen being gay. It was just something universal that my mom and I could enjoy and laugh at together and the fact that Ellen was gay was beside the point. I think that’s how I was raisedto be accepting and open-minded. So Ellen had a special place in my heart because of that, because of when she came out, watching that, and not even knowing that was who I was, I just knew that I loved her, I just knew that I identified with her, I didn’t know why, and growing up as she had a talk show, and her mom wrote a book called Love, Ellen, that I wound up giving to my mother after I came out. I think what I now appreciate about her as an adult is the fact that people from everywhere love her, like people who hate gay people love her, and I notice that part of it that pisses me off on some level, but on another level it’s a stepping stone. I think the fact that she is who she is, in the public eye, she doesn’t apologize for it, she doesn’t make it her main identifying factor, it’s just a part of who she is, I think that’s the best thing that she could do, for the gay movement.
So, our readers will be dying to know… are you single or taken?
I just got engaged! Her name is Nell and we met out in San Francisco. We actually met on match.com and we’ve been together for 6 years. We’ve lived in San Fran, LA together and now we drove across the country together for New York. We actually each proposed to each other and gave one another rings at two separate times. One in Berkeley by the beach where I first said I loved her and then again in Minnewaska State Park upstate New York in the fall. So we kind of got engaged twice.
What does your fiance do for work?
Nothing even remotely related to theater, she works in a laboratory, she’s a science nerd.
Do you have wedding plans?
We’re kind of positive that we don’t want a big wedding…we’d rather save the money for a down payment for a house, or something practical. So right now we’re enjoying being engaged and at some point we’ll elope or get married in my parents back yard or something like that.