I was able to catch up with Vivien Emsworth who is appearing in The Australian Opera’s production of THE KING AND I which has just finished its Brisbane season at QPAC on the first leg of a national tour. As a first-year-out-of-drama school graduate from the Queensland Conservatorium’s Musical Theatre Program, Vivien is still coming to terms with being cast in such a big production – she is covering for the role of Tuptim and appearing in the ensemble. We did a little stocktake of her background before covering some of the questions I like to use to spark conversation with artists. We got started.
Vivien was both in Sydney. “In Blacktown, actually and I moved to Queensland in Grade 2. I started out with violin in primary school at Burpengary State School – music was always part of my life, but I wasn’t passionate about the instrument. I used to sing at home but was way too shy to sing in front of people. I played saxophone in the school band in primary school and then later at Narangba Valley SHS had to audition to become part of an academy of music so I auditioned based on violin and sax.
“It wasn’t till high school that I started to sing more. We began learning music and I began writing my own songs. From there I ended up singing for an assessment – playing guitar and singing – and my singing grew from there. I got vocal lessons in Grade 9 but it was still not something I was serious about, and I was still heavily involved with instruments. By Grade 10 I wanted to learn classical singing, and my new singing teacher said, “Right then, let’s get you ready for the Con!” Soon afterwards, the school asked me to audition for THE WIZ but at my audition I was still so nervous. I was cast as Dorothy in that production, and learned and grew so much during the process. From that time onwards, I knew I wanted to be in the musical theatre.
“I began doing shows with Brisbane Junior Theatre during the school holidays – BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL – and then (again) in Grade 12 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. I got to play Belle once more. I was also involved from Grades 10-12 in Creative Generations for all high school students. I was backing vocals for the first couple of years and then featured vocalist by the end. By Grade 12 I was doing music extension and focussing on performance – classical and jazz as part of the Con preparation – but it wasn’t until the week before the auditions that a friend told me I had to audition for the MT Program which was beginning that year.
I went to the audition but I didn’t read the date correctly and went a day early. I was so upset and started to head home. I went to the train station but, before the train arrived, I got a phone call to bring me back, and I got in!
“The three years of my training at the Con changed my concept of why I perform. It made me grow as a person; I grew more confident in my abilities and also as a person.
Vivien admits that she still to this day struggles with nervousness. “It’s something I need to overcome. There are new things thrown at you all the time in this business, and often they are not things I’ve done before. In THE KING AND I I’ve learned to trust the work I’ve done to get me where I am, and to work things out for myself from that point onwards. You have to let any anxiety go, accept the nervous energy but keep working through it. There will always be things that you are a little worried about whatever the work you’re doing.
“It was really lovely to open THE KING AND I in my home town here in Brisbane – I wasn’t expecting to nor were the rest of the cast – but it was wonderful to perform on the stage that I had aspired to from the get-go from days at the Con. Of course, it is so rewarding having close friends and family come to see the opening and then to have a few close friends and my mother come to see the cover call (the run with costumes by the understudies or ‘covers’) that was lovely to share that with them.
“Performing in THE KING AND I has been a wonderful challenge, and it’s really nice to be part of such a unique cast. There are only four of us in my dressing room and we have bonded together so well. In the cover run where I had my own dressing-room I really missed them.” She talks a little about things that took her by surprise during that run. “I’d tried the costumes on so hadn’t done the movement – Tuptim’s costumes are elegant but heavy and awkward – and I had to be very poised. I got a note about being more elegant when I stand. Of course, the injury wasn’t helping,” she laughs. She’s ‘resting’ an ankle injury for a few days – one of the hazards of the triple-threat performer.
The only thing to me that makes sense is the work I am doing now. I do get enjoyment from it but being in the show has really established that I am doing it for other people. Even though I am only playing a small role, I am part of the bigger picture. It would be nice to be a lead one day but it’s lovely to have a foot in the door to start my career. I cannot imagine what else I could do.
And for the future? “I would relocate if I had a job or if there was interest for me and I do want to move to Melbourne because that’s where the musical theatre work is at in Australia. I would eventually love to work in London just because I think the musical theatre there would suit me – my ‘classical sounding’ voice type – I don’t have that commercial, contemporary sound that Broadway wants.
“I received an email from the head of Musical Theatre Paul Sabey when I was going through the audition process for THE KING AND I. He said how proud he is of me, and told me just to ‘be myself.’ I was so worried about being too shy but he encouraged me and told me that others who were involved in the casting thought I was wonderful. Hearing that made a huge difference; it meant so much to me. It was also a thrill after the cover run when people said it was lovely to watch me; that I meant every word and it made such sense.’ It was so good to know I was affecting someone.”
And what, in a fellow performer, does she admire? “A selfless performer, one who is willing to help in anything. I’ve really noticed that with this cast, and how their hard work has paid off for them. The bonus is they are also nice people. It makes you want to go to work and brings a positive energy to the ensemble. They have been really supportive during the past few days when I haven’t been able to perform. I have been getting little texts that wish me well and say how much they miss me.” We chat for a bit about how often we forget to encourage and compliment our fellow artists; that act of kindness can mean so much.
I want to know what support systems Vivien believes are important to her as a working artist.
“It’s definitely important to have a good routine whether it’s just planning my day – for me it means starting it with a bit of exercise to get me awake. Having a really good mentor is vital, I think. Mine is John Peek who is also my vocal teacher. It’s been great to touch base with him after the rehearsal period and to nut out any issues I’ve had with the process. There are also loved ones and friends and also my former teachers at the Con. It’s great to have them come to support you and to hear them say that what you are doing is OK, and that they are always going to be there for me. It calms you a little to know you are not doing something selfish.
The advice she would give herself when starting out in training – one of those letters to myself? “Don’t focus on what people think of you. Don’t focus on the grades. It’s what you get out of the classes and the friendships you make with friends and colleagues that will last for the rest of your life. There are days when training can become like a competition but there are no numbers out there in the professional world. They don’t matter; what matters is whether you get the job or not.”
Image: Jackie Gith