Emma Pittman, a proud Wagner College graduate, is a teaching artist and actor based in New York City. Emma is most recently known for being the winner of Chicago and Broadway.com’s “The Search for Roxie Hart”. She is expected to make her Broadway Debut at the Ambassador Theatre in 2021. Nectar News in collaboration with STILL NY is interviewing New York based artists in an effort to celebrate their talents and experiences as theses artists fight for their dreams while surviviving and thriviving during the Covid-19 pandemic. We had the privilege of sitting down with Emma, socially-distanced over Zoom, to discuss her amazing experience auditioning for Roxie and what life in the theater looks like in 2020 and beyond:
Nectar News: So, let’s start from the very beginning.
Emma Pittman: A very good place to start. That’s what I’ve heard.
NN: Exactly! Tell us about your journey into acting and then what brought you to New York.
EP: I’m from Mississippi and I grew up dancing ever since I was two years old at a, well I say competition dance studio lightly because when I was younger competition dance team was not the same as it was now, like dancers with their legs and the high jumps-
NN: So, not “Dance Moms”…
EP: Yeah, exactly. We definitely were not anywhere near dance moms. But it was home. I loved dancing a lot. And when I was probably 10 or 11, I’d have to ask my mom, I don’t remember, we took our dance company up to New York and we took classes at the Broadway Dance Center. We also watched musicals and I was like, “I love that I can walk down the street and no one knows who I am.” Because obviously being from a small town, you go to the grocery store and you’re there for three hours because everyone’s like, “Oh my God. I remember when you were two and I changed your diapers.” It’s like a whole experience because everyone knows you.
So, that’s when I knew I loved New York City. Because it was like, everyone is driven. Everyone is doing their own thing. So you can focus on yourself. And performing is amazing. So then I changed schools in the ninth grade, I went to a school that had a theater program and I was like, “Okay, I want to give it a go. Why not? I’ve always liked dancing and this could be new. I don’t know.” And then when I did my first show, the Wizard of Oz, I was the jitterbug and I realized, “Oh my gosh, what I love about dancing is telling a story.” I’d always loved the competition pieces when there’s a message and a story arc. It didn’t resonate with me until I was doing it for a theater show. And I was like, “Okay, that’s what I like about dance. That’s what I’m vibing with.”
So then I started to shift from just dance to really getting into dancing plus singing, acting, directing, and choreography. I got a lot of knowledge from working with my high school teacher John Davenport. He is just so smart and has a wealth of knowledge in all different forms. He teaches directing, acting and then he also will allow the students to help direct and choreograph as well. I actually had a lot of opportunities to be on both sides of the stage, before I got to college, which was very helpful. From there I went to Wagner, which is on Staten Island, and studied theater.
NN: Lovely! How did you like your experience there?
EP: I love Wagner. I’m a Wagner girl. I’m a huge, huge, proud Wagner alum. And I owe a lot of my craft to Wagner because I knew I wanted to do it, but I didn’t know where my place was quite yet, what was in my wheelhouse. I didn’t know anything because I just didn’t do any research. I didn’t understand how to do that when I was in high school. So then I did some regional work over the summer between sophomore and junior year. I did a show at Clear Space Theatre in Delaware, which was super fun. Then I did Theatre by the Sea and then Legally Blonde, the Singapore Tour, which was two weeks.
NN: How was that?
EP: It was amazing. It was super, super fun, super fast. And we learned the show literally in six days and then we were on a plane! Singapore’s amazing. Very, very clean there. It’s absolutely beautiful. After that, I did some choreography for Clear Space. I did Mary Poppins, which was lots of fun. I also got to work at Park Playhouse at Albany. Then I went on a cruise and I sang and danced on a cruise for eight months.
NN: That’s amazing. So, you are living in New York because you went to Wagner. Tell me about how the opportunity to audition for Chicago came about.
EP: After the cruise, I came back and was subletting a little bit, hopping around, finding some jobs. I ended up doing a new musical called Aussie Song for a competition and it was really special. It was a true story about this girl’s journey to America from Australia during WW2. It was absolutely beautiful. During that rehearsal process, I got an email from my professor, Michele Pawk, a queen, and she said, “You should submit for this! You’d be amazing!” And I was like, if Michele thinks I should go for it, then there’s no question. I have to do it.
NN: Wow, sounds like an amazing mentor.
EP: Absolutely. You know, it takes that one person who believes in you, who knows what you’re capable of, to give you that nudge of confidence. I probably would have waited until the very ends to do it if it were up to me. But because I had someone reach out to me and say, “No, this is your brand. This is your jam. You need to do it.” I was like, “You know what? You are totally right. I’m absolutely going to do it.” And I did. I rented out a studio, learned the dance, came back a week later or so. And my boyfriend filmed it. I uploaded it to the website, and from there they picked out the top 10 girls, and I was one of them! I even got the call on my birthday.
NN: Oh wow! When’s your birthday?
EP: October 23rd.
NN: Happy belated birthday!
EP: Thank you!
NN: And what a gift!
EP: Yeah, I was such a cry baby. We were doing a road trip. My boyfriend and I were in Cashiers, North Carolina, it was absolutely stunning. The colors and the trees were picturesque and I was getting my nails done, thinking, “This is the best birthday ever,” and then I checked my email and saw the news. I immediately started crying. And then my boyfriend was like, “What is wrong?” And I was like, “I got into top 10.”
EP: It was crazy. Then I had to sign an affidavit. I had to get it notarized. So we were driving around in this small town, and I have no idea where I am, looking for someone to notarize this for me.
NN: How did Top Ten work?
EP: From there the voters got to choose. So you had to campaign and I want to say it was about two weeks of campaigning where you had to say, “Please go to this website and vote for me.”
NN: Ah, American Idol-style.
EP: Yeah, and then whatever top three had the most votes, they were the ones that were flown to New York.
NN: Whoa. What was your campaign like?
EP: Honestly, I felt like a businesswoman. I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to measure out every single day and I need it to be exciting. I need it to be different each day. Not like, “Don’t forget to vote for me. Don’t forget.” Right? Like, “How can I make it compelling?” And then my mom, oh my goodness. It was really humbling to see how many people remembered me even though I moved towns when I was younger. People from my church growing up, when I was a little baby said, “Oh my gosh, we’re getting everyone in the registry to vote for you.” It was really kind that everybody came together for me. It was really awesome.
NN: Sounds like you have wonderful community support.
EP: Absolutely. I don’t think I realized how many communities I was lucky to have been a part of until that moment. Even the theaters that I worked at were pulling out for me, my high school, people’s parents whose kids danced with me when I was little. Everybody was really rooting for me. And I was like, “Wow, this is beautiful in itself.” Whether or not I get it, if the audition even happens, it just made me feel really special to know that people were rooting for me.
NN: It is inspiring to hear about how you were able to receive that support as well and you were not afraid to ask for it. I oftentimes feel, especially for young artists, it’s really difficult to ask. There’s this cultural expectation that you go and you just make it happen. But no one talks about the art of asking and the art of leaning into those communities. And so that’s really beautiful.
EP: Absolutely the art of asking. I think, especially during this year, I know myself and a lot of my friends, have mastered the art of asking. At the end of the day, it just takes someone to ask. People are so much nicer than we imagine that they’re going to be. Asking for help or asking for a hand is so comforting.
NN: So true. Most people are honored to be asked. You brought your communities into your Chicago story and thus made them a part of the win.
EP: Yes! That is so true. It’s such a cultural, societal thing, especially in this business. I would also say that we, as individual artists, work really hard for our business which is ourselves. And we want to represent ourselves really well. But the community is powerful. It’s way more powerful than us on our own. It’s so much better to all be one working together.
NN: So all of your hard work combined with your communities supporting you paid off. Because then you fly to New York for Top 3. When do you fly to New York?
EP: I flew in on, I think a Wednesday. We saw Chicago on Broadway that same Wednesday night. It was amazing.
NN: Had you seen it before?
EP: Yeah. I remember seeing it as a teenager with my mom. I remember thinking “Oh, this is amazing.” To see the Fosse style is unlike any other dance style on Broadway. It’s just delicious. It’s something that I could eat a bowl of every single day.
NN: I know what you mean. So what happens next?
EP: So we got there and they got us a hotel room, which was amazing. It was on 45th Street, between eighth and ninth so we could walk to the theater and to broadway.com’s headquarters. It was really special because I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in Times Square before. I was thinking “Wow, this is fancy.”
The next day we did a workshop for the whole morning. We worked on dance first. The dance captain, David Bushman, came in and taught us the rest of the “Hot Honey Rag”. He really worked with us on what each movement means and how we can play with the dynamics of giving and taking, because that’s all that Fosse is. He never just lays it all out and is like, “Tada, here’s all the best stuff.” Right? It’s more like, “We have something, and if you want to come in a little closer, we’ll give it to you. Oh, but not right now.” Right? And to discuss the meaning of that number and the subtext behind the moves…It was amazing.
After that, we worked on the song with the music director, Rob Bowman, and we each got a chance to stand in the middle of the room while the rest of us sat on the sides to watch. And I just need to say, Kate and Khalifa, (the other two Roxie’s) could not have been any better people to work with, to be sharing that experience with. We were there cheering each other on and celebrating how each of our Roxie’s was truly us. They were unique and different, and we weren’t trying to be each other or trying to be better than each other. We were just trying to be our Roxie. And that’s why that role is so iconic. Because anyone can do it and you’ll see a completely different show, a completely different meaning to the story of Roxie.
NN: That is so beautiful.
EP: It really was. So we did the songs and we each had a chance to discuss why the song Roxie is such a big deal and why it means so much to her and why it turns into this big number with the boys and “they’ll lift you up,” oh, it was delicious. After that, we did work on the monologue with the Stewart/Whitley team and Paige Davis, who was the face of the competition.
NN: How was it working with Paige Davis?
EP: She’s so funny. And she’s just so real, as well. I think that’s what I remember the most about her. It wasn’t just like, “Hi, I’m Paige Davis and this is a gig I’m doing.” It was like, “I’m really excited for you. When they asked me to do it, I was like, “Oh, this is amazing.” And she just was on our level because she wasn’t trying to put on a professional front or whatever. It was just, that’s who she is. She was awesome. And so then after that we went to broadway.com to do Live at Five. We did some interviews. We did some B roll in Times Square, looking around at the signs and all that fun stuff. And then, we went home and prepared for the audition, which was the next day.
NN: The next day?!
EP: Yup. And, one of my favorite memories is at the end of the day of the workshop Paige was like, “All right, I just want to tell you guys something.” And they’re videoing so I’m like, “This is a big deal. This is a surprise. I feel like this whole thing is already one big surprise. What else can we add?” So she said, “Tomorrow you will be auditioning for,” and then she named the judges and I just started crying. She was like, “What’s wrong?” And I was like, “I’m just so glad you told me now. So I can have all these emotions and tomorrow I can be a professional
NN: Who were your judges?
EP: Bianca Marroquin, Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking.
NN: Oh yeah… big deal!
EP: Ann Reinking! Oh my gosh. They were almost not going to tell us, so I’m really glad they did because I would have probably pooped my pants if I didn’t know. I’d be like, “I have to turn around. I have to change my clothes.”
NN: And who could blame you! But luckily – that did not happen…
EP: It did not. The next day we woke up early, came to the studios. We got ourselves ready. We practiced together. They had us in a holding room and then they had the judges in a separate audition room. We got to do the dance all together once, which was really special. I was glad that we got to share those initial jitters as one. And then we went in one at a time to do the dance first, which I felt pretty good about. Basically we each had a chance to do the number once, and then they gave notes and gave us a couple of times to adjust how we did it. So we got to do it a couple of times, which was really generous. And some of the notes I got were like, “We want you to communicate more with Velma. I want to see that relationship more because that relationship is very complex and has a lot of layers.”
And then there was one part where Ann Reinking gave me the note, “I just really need you to travel.” Bebe Neuwirth was like, “Oh yes, on that part.” Because Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth did the show together. Bebe said, “I’ll never forget, Ann would always just zoom all the way across the stage with her long legs and I’d be trying to catch up behind her.” And she said, “I need you to give me that.” I was like, okay, done. And I remember going all the way to the wall and putting my hands upon the wall like, “I did it!” It was fun. I really, really enjoyed it. And we got to dance it with the dance captain as our Velma. So it wasn’t just us on our own. We got to do the Hot Honey Rag with a Velma.
Then we came back in one at a time, again, to do the monologue into the song. That was a really fun masterclass in itself because that monologue is iconic on its own, just the text. There are so many jokes. There are so many vulnerable moments. Ann Reinking said about Roxie that “a lot of people run over her relationship with Amos and how she says Amos never says no. But he’s the first person who’d ever been kind to Roxie.” So that was fun to just dive into all the dynamics in that monologue that I feel like at a first read, you don’t really see. Because you think, “Vaudeville, flashy and make everybody laugh.” But actually, there’s a whole person behind that monologue.
NN: What an amazing opportunity. What happens next?
EP: Then we all came in, the three of us and the judges said, “We just wanted to say first of all what a great job you all did.” Ann Reinking was incredibly kind and generous to us, and very encouraging too. It was a nice way to end the day, even though we knew that two of us were not going to get the role, you know? At the end of the day, people had to lose. So that already was a bummer, but she was really sweet and talked us through all of the amazing things that we brought to Roxie.
After Ann announced that I won, she said, “But Kate and Khalifa, I want to see you again. I want you to go home. I want you to work on this, and I want you to work on that and I want you to come back so that I can hire you because you’re amazing.” And I remember thinking, “That’s so beautiful.” That was so, so special. And then we had to leave and get on a plane home because our flight was that day.
NN: What a beautiful, amazing story, and it’s so exciting to talk to you because I’m sure this is just going to continue to flourish for you.
EP: Yeah. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me recently and say, “I’m so sorry. This is so awful this is happening.” And I say, “Oh no, the pandemic is its own thing. I want everyone to be safe. Especially the arts. We don’t want to put actors and musicians and crew or anyone in danger just to make money and have a job.” Right? Art is always going to be there. The theater is always going to be there. Yes, we’ve unfortunately had to say goodbye to some shows that we didn’t know were going to go. Some theaters that we didn’t know were not going to be able to survive. My heart goes out to those losses, but what matters is the health and safety of people in general and especially people here in America.
NN: Couldn’t agree more.
EP: Put my Broadway debut off for three years if we have to, I don’t mind, I’m not in a rush. This career is… It’s going to happen when it happens. Well, it is happening still. It’s not a pause, I’m getting to meet with you and have these conversations. I’m getting to be here to teach classes. It’s just making a fun little detour before the main event.
NN: Absolutely. What a beautiful perspective. I’m interested in hearing a bit about what the last nine months during this pandemic have looked like for you and for your community?
EP: It’s so interesting. Right when I won, I had to wait to get dates. Right? So I don’t actually have a contract. I’m not even a part of Actor’s Equity yet. So I’m still, non-equity fresh out of college, I’m that weird in-between space. So for me, it’s actually been a stepping stone growing process during these nine months, because first of all, obviously there’s no work. Period. So okay, we need to find another way to live our lives, but I try my very best not to stress about where the money is going to come from. Because especially in this business, it’s just going to come. And if it doesn’t, you go pick up a shift at Starbucks. This is the life we signed up for. And I love it. I really do.
NN: So my last question: what do you think are things that performers, that the theater community, is going to need moving forward?
EP: More representation of people of color in the rooms. I’m talking right at the beginning of the process like the first open call, non-equity and equity. I want a person of color at the table because there has been little to no representation of black people and people of color in this industry. Therefore black people and people of color are being misrepresented or aren’t being represented at all. They’re not getting a chance to tell their own beautiful stories. I think that goes also for writers and producers. I think we are ready for that step in this next opening. Definitely.
NN: Emma thank you so much for sharing your story with us today.
EP: My pleasure.