From her home in New York, Tony-nominated actress Emily Skinner told me about a little girl who was extremely unfocused – we’re talking bouncing-off-the-walls hyper – growing up in Richmond. The polar opposite of the woman I was speaking with on the phone. A woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. A woman who is comfortable in her own skin, sophisticated, composed, and purpose-driven.
Back then, she was so hyper that there was a good chance teachers wouldn’t move her on to first grade. In an attempt to corral the little girl’s boundless energy, her kindergarten teacher gave Emily ten minutes every day to entertain the whole class. After those ten minutes were over, she would have to sit down at her desk.
“That was opening Pandora’s box,” Emily says. “I would go home and wrack my brain to see what I would do the next day. My mom had a collection of Broadway albums. I would bring them into class and sing to them. My kindergarten teacher told Mom, ‘You have a performer on your hands.’ Those ten minutes allowed me to focus for the rest of the class. I needed that focus.”
Now 44, Emily is an accomplished Broadway actress with credits that include Jekyll & Hyde; James Joyce’s The Dead opposite Christopher Walken; The Full Monty; Dinner at Eight, for which she received an Outer Critics Circle nomination; and Side Show, which garnered her a Tony Award nomination with her co-star Alice Ripley. She also received a Drama League Award for her role in Side Show as conjoined twin Daisy Hilton.
This month she will be back on the Richmond stage as the star of Mame with Virginia Rep, a role she covets. “If Mame shows up on your radar, you can’t say no,” she says. “It’s one of the great roles for women in the theatre.”
Emily’s mom, Melinda Skinner, recognized Emily’s penchant for entertaining when she was a toddler. She knew her daughter was destined to be on the stage. “When she was two or three years old, she did a Christmas program and sang ‘Up on the Rooftop,’” recalls Skinner. “Everyone applauded and something went off in Emily’s head. Her teachers had to chase her off the stage. She didn’t want to leave.”
The next year, she was given a role in the first-grade production of Really Rosie, a musical based on the books of Maurice Sendak with music by Carole King. “Emily had the record and knew everything by heart,” her mom says.
Emily grew up in Church Hill where her parents still live today. At home she was surrounded by talent. Her grandmother was an artist and her father, Ernest, was a filmmaker. Her mother loved the theatre and would often attend productions. Emily soaked it all in. “She was singing and dancing from the time she could stand up,” her mom says.
At eight, Emily played Belinda Cratchit in A Christmas Carol at TheatreVirginia. By then she was hooked on acting. “She would drag the Saturday paper in and ask me ‘Where is the green section?’ That is where they would have things about theatre auditions,” her mom says. “At one point I would hide it. I liked that she did it [theatre] but I didn’t want her to put all of her eggs in one basket.”
St. Catherine’s creative arts program served as Emily’s summer theatrical outlet. She also attended the School of the Performing Arts in Richmond (SPARC). “As soon as kindergarten, I figured out that this was what I was going to do,” Emily says. “This was my focus from very early on. It’s both a blessing and a curse.”
Emily participated in SPARC all through her middle school years. By the time she attended Richmond Community High School she was performing in shows at TheatreVirginia, Haymarket Dinner Theatre, Swift Creek Mill Playhouse (now Swift Creek Mill Theatre), and Barksdale (now folded into the Virginia Rep family). “I started with musicals, but I did both musicals and drama,” she says.
Richmond actress and director K Strong first worked with Emily in A Chorus Line at Swift Creek Mill. Emily was fifteen; Strong was ten years her senior. “For her age I was so impressed with how dedicated she was,” Strong says. “This was the most important thing to her.”
Strong remembers one night when Emily was upset by some comments someone had made concerning the show. Strong asked her why she cared so much about what someone had to say and told her to be confident in her abilities. “She was grateful
I told her that,” says Strong.
Director John Glenn recognized Emily’s talents and cast her in To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday at Theatre IV in 1984 when she was a young teen. Emily played Rachel, Gillian’s daughter. “We had known Emily from around town,” says Virginia Rep’s artistic director, Bruce Miller. “John and I were both delighted.”
Miller found Emily to be both talented and gifted. “Talent is that thing you can’t identify other than you absolutely believe her and connect with her. She was somebody you wanted to watch. She makes you believe her and care about her,” he says.
She was one of a few young actors with aspirations for a career in New York who Miller felt could really pursue that goal and be successful. Her comfort on stage carried through to every performance. “She was exceptional even at the age of fourteen,”
he says. “There are some people that walk into the room and everybody looks at.
They have charisma.”
Emily’s determination to become a professional actress took her to Carnegie Mellon where she majored in theatre. “Broadway was always in the back of my head,” she says. After graduating, she moved to New York and signed with an agent right away.
“I got a great job the first month,” she says. “I did a workshop production of Jekyll
and Hyde and then I didn’t work for
She says working in the theatre has taught her “slow and steady wins the race” above all. “It’s a stamina game. If you can stick it out, you can work. It’s about who has the grit to stick it out.”
She’s also learned that landing a part has “so little to do with you and so much more about the people in the audition behind the table,” she says. “You can’t take rejection as a personal thing. Everybody in New York is talented. It has so little to do with that and so much to do with other factors.”
“Perhaps the director was having a bad day,” she offers as an example. “Or you happen to look like his ex-wife or someone he doesn’t care for. They are things that are out of your control,” she says. “And knowing that is so liberating.”
Emily never had to work as a waitress like many other acting hopefuls, but she did serve as a temp in various offices. She also worked at Macy’s as a perfume girl. “I would hustle around to do auditions on lunch hours,” she says. “It took a while for casting directors to get to know me.”
She was cast in her first big role, as young Scrooge’s fiancé in A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden. “That was my first Broadway cast album,” she says.
She landed her 1988 Tony-nominated role in Side Show while she was appearing on Broadway in Jekyll and Hyde.
“I knew that Side Show was an interesting piece,” she says. “When you are working with an original show, the role is developed on you. You become part of the creative process. I loved being part of that. ”
Her mom recalls seeing the show on opening night. “It was so exciting for me,” she says. “That was the night I thought my heart was going to burst.” Later Emily asked her to accompany her to the Tony Awards. “The Tonys were great fun,” her mom says. “It was great when they read her name and then when she and Alice [Ripley] sang.”
Emily and Ripley’s nomination marked the first time two actresses were nominated as a team for the Best Actress in a Musical category. “We were up against amazing women like Natasha Richardson,” Emily says. “They nominated us together. It was amazing to be acknowledged and that they realized we did a tandem performance.”
Her success in the theatre has allowed her to pick and choose her roles. “When you are starting out you have to take what is offered to you,” she says. “Now I am more particular about the roles I take. I’m stingier about where I put my energy. You have to like it and the people you work with because it becomes your whole world.”
She knew that Mame in her hometown with Virginia Rep would give her that level of comfort. Miller had been looking for a show that would perfectly showcase Emily’s talents when the production came up. “It’s an ideal part for her,” he says. “We called her up and said, ‘How about Mame?’ and she liked the idea as well.”
In the musical, the character Mame is a star in her own universe. “She celebrates the entire world,” Miller says. “We needed someone that could walk onto the stage and control that stage; someone that people will say, ‘Wow, who is she?’ In theatre, Emily owns the stage. She is one of our nation’s top talents and she happens to come from Richmond. We are ready for her and she is ready to come back home in a starring role.”
For Emily, this was a chance for her to do a show that is rarely done because of its magnitude. “There hasn’t been a New York revival of Mame for quite a while,” she says. “I played Agnes Gooch [Auntie Mame’s personal secretary] at Kennedy Center eight or nine years ago.”
Because Mame appears in every scene and every large number, the role can be challenging, she adds. “You have to have the stamina to do it. There are thirteen costume changes.”
She is thrilled to be coming back to Richmond. “I’ll get to see everybody I love and grew up with,” she says. “I’ll get to spend time with family.”
Even with her success, Emily has remained “down to earth,” says Strong who is looking forward to spending time with her friend. “I think she feels fortunate. She doesn’t have that I-am-better-than-anyone-else thing. She works really hard and she is confident.”
Emily’s mom is extremely proud that her daughter is a “very kind person. Both she and her younger sister, Eliza, are smart, clever, and quick,” her mom says, adding that Eliza is a standup comic in Los Angeles and a comedy writer. About her talented daughters, Melinda Skinner says, “They are doing what they want to do. I remind my husband ‘We always told them you can be whatever you want to be’ They have certainly kept us entertained.”
The rest of Richmond will soon have that experience from Emily in Mame.