Artistic Director Emily N. Wells
On this episode, host Rodney Veals talks with Emily N. Wells, the Artistic Director for The Human Race Theatre Company, about the importance of art, storytelling, & access as well as how Emily’s origins tie back to the city of Dayton.
[00:00:29] Rodney Veal: Hello everyone. I’m Rodney Veal. I’m the host of the podcast. Rodney Veal’s Inspired By, and today I get to fan boy out from a theater perspective because we’re having a conversation today with the artistic director of the human rights theater, Emily Wells. Full caveat we have, we have a history because I was on the search committee to bring Emily to Tate and, and, and it’s the best decision I think we’ve ever made.
[00:00:56] And because she has proven that the human race [00:01:00] theater is a vital part of the community and revitalized it and brought. Joy and entertainment, a thought and provoking ideas onto the stage because she is that amazing.
[00:01:12] Emily Wells: Rodney, I’m blushing!
[00:01:15] Rodney Veal: well, you’re, you’re pretty amazing. And I’m a fan of the human race theater company. I love life theater. I, I may not be a practitioner. I mean, in that sense of being an actor, but I do appreciate. And so I can’t wait to have this conversation.
[00:01:31] Emily Wells: So thanks for having me, Rodney. I so appreciate it.
[00:01:34] Rodney Veal: My total pleasure. So Emily, you’re not a native native Daytonian.
[00:01:39] So we have to kind of go way back in the time machine. So we have to talk about. Emily, how did you end up in a life in theater? So that means you had to go way, way back. And it’s okay. It’s all good though.
[00:01:53] Emily Wells: That’s all good. I’ll try and be encapsulated as best I can. I was born in the [00:02:00] Midwest, not in Ohio, but our Near neighbors up in Minnesota, and my parents both encouraged my siblings and I to have a love for, for the art.
[00:02:10] So all 3 of us played instruments when we were small children, I retired from the violin at the ripe old age of 8 and switched to piano and voice. And so it was singing and playing piano all the way through college. And I started doing acting classes. I think when I was a teenager, maybe eighth grade, seventh or eighth grade, I kind of had this interest and did a summer camp and some acting classes after school and things like that.
[00:02:40] And I grew up in Rhode Island after we moved away from Minnesota. And we had Brown University and Trinity rep their high quality, professional, regional theater, and they started offering classes. And then 1 of their teaching artists branched off and started a children’s theater company that.[00:03:00] Did I don’t know, three or four shows a year and I attribute that to really giving me my start.
[00:03:07] I did a lot of theater in high school for my high school program on all sides of things. So not just on stage, but backstage and directing scenes and. Designing sets and really putting my fingers in all of the pies and of course, selling chocolate bars nonstop to help fund it because art funding was going getting gradually cut at this time.
[00:03:33] And so when I was looking for a college degree program, I knew that theater was going to be part of that. But I wasn’t sure what that was gonna look like and knowing that it’s kind of a risky field to hang your career hat on. What was I, what else did I want to have available to me? So I really looked at foreign languages and I loved learning and speaking different languages and things [00:04:00] like that in high school.
[00:04:00] And I had. Sort of an affinity and an ear for it. So, as I was evaluating college programs, I wanted to be sure that there was a really strong language department and a really strong theater department. I knew I did not want to be a bachelor of fine arts degree. My parents wanted for me, good academics, so I wound up going to Washington University in St. Louis, which is a far cry from Rhode Island. You know, it’s like 1800 miles away, halfway across the country. And I had the best experience there. I had a really terrific faculty that pushed us to do our best. They didn’t dole out praise.
[00:04:45] For every project, so it was hard won to get. Oh, that was really good. Or that was really thoughtfully done or well put together. And they really pushed me and my cohort to be our best, [00:05:00] the best versions of ourselves. And because it was a bachelor’s degree rather than a BFA, I had to take all of these other sort of general education classes and.
[00:05:14] Studied anthropology and earth sciences and gender and women’s studies and all of these different kinds of things, art history and all sorts of stuff. So I came out this. I, what I think of as a very well rounded experience, even though I spent a bajillion hours in the theater department and burning the candle overnight and at all ends and in the middle and…
[00:05:39] Rodney Veal: which is what every artist does when they’re starting. You just, it’s 24, seven, seven.
[00:05:45] Emily Wells: Yeah. But because of that, I got experience directing stage managing, producing a small festival of scenes for my directing to class. I designed sets. I performed a little bit. I did a [00:06:00] little bit of everything, which the reason I bring that up is because that’s sort of informed.
[00:06:06] A lot of the rest of my professional career is doing little bits of everything. Not that I haven’t committed now fully, but I think arts administrators, which I am certainly now are best served by experiencing the art themselves in some capacity or another, whether you’re super successful as a singer or an actor or a designer.
[00:06:35] Or a technician or any of any of the disciplines that make up theater having that experience as an artist helps me understand every single choice that needs to be made now in my position. So I finished my degree in St. Louis. I got my equity card, which is the union for professional actors and stage managers in the business.[00:07:00]
[00:07:00] Right after I graduated. Most people take a few years, get some credits under their belt. Nope. I just went feet first. And stage managed for a small company in St. Louis and then hit the road. And I was on tour with children’s theater for about a year and a half and decided to move to New York with 1 of my tour mates and then was freelancing in New York for 10 years.
[00:07:27] Rodney Veal: Wow. Okay. So, yeah, I mean, I mean, that’s a, that’s a journey. I mean, the fact that you toured the country, which, you know Yes. I mean, you, like, you were in it, like, it was like, you know how some people, I, I, I always have a tendency to think about artists and art makers, especially in theater, dance, anything that’s in the performing arts.
[00:07:45] He kind of, you kind of pay your dues by kind of doing the thing. And so, so what was, I mean, the thing is to get to New York. I mean, what, what was the, what was it like to tour with Children’s Theater across the country? I mean, that’s.
[00:07:59] Emily Wells: Well, [00:08:00] funnily enough, one of those tours, a couple of those tours, I think, actually brought me to Dayton, playing in the Victoria Theatre.
[00:08:06] Rodney Veal: Really? Yes. Okay, so you have experience with Dayton. Okay, there we go.
[00:08:11] Emily Wells: Yes, that’s my first connection, right? So touring with children’s theater is really unusual because you are in a van with your cast of five or six actors, and sometimes you have a truck that you also travel with that has your set.
[00:08:30] Depends on the scale of the show. Mm-Hmm. . But more often than not, you have a van or two vans. That your set is in the back. Everybody’s luggage is in the back and you’re just sort of smushed together driving maybe 200 miles a day after shows you get up early. I got to the point where we could get to the theater load in the show.
[00:08:52] I could give the actors half hour, which is a union requirement to give them 30 minutes prior to the performance time to get into costume, makeup, [00:09:00] hair, get their mics on, get warmed up, all that kind of stuff. So I could give them half hour, sit backstage, shut my eyes and open them when it was time to call 15 minutes to curtain and then do the same thing.
[00:09:14] Shut my eyes, open them 5 minutes to curtain. It was like my internal clock got so prepared that I could do this fast, fast, fast, load in the show, get us ready for a performance. Then the actors go off to finish getting ready and I could take this little self care break because it was 7 in the morning or something.
[00:09:37] Whatever that’s the thing about children’s theater is it gets you up early for sure.
[00:09:42] Rodney Veal: It definitely gets you up early because you’re not dealing with the fact. Well, yeah. I mean, just shows that there is children. So prime time school age,
[00:09:50] Emily Wells: they’re in the performance by 9. AM and off to lunch by 10 30 or whatever, whatever.
[00:09:55] Yeah, exactly. So, and I think one of the, the things that I [00:10:00] got out of that is the ability to evaluate a situation quickly. Problem solve within minutes, because there was really, it was me that was there to make decisions and think of the best choices for the show. And so you have to do that, you’re just thrust into that role and it’s a, it’s a job that is taking care of other adults.
[00:10:29] Which is kind of strange, but I really found that I was good at that. And I, I wound up doing that sort of as a base moneymaker.
[00:10:39] For a long time getting started as a freelance director is really, really challenging. People will not hire you unless you’ve seen their work and they can’t see your work unless somebody hires you. So it’s kind of one of those in the arts industry that is catches a lot of people up. So [00:11:00] I wound up self producing a couple of times in New York and would.
[00:11:06] Raise and put my own money in so that I could get a project going. And. That meant that I was managing the budget of my expenses. And I could say, well, we’re doing this on this amount of money, because that’s how much I saved for my previous contract. And then can put that forward towards giving actors a stipend or a Metro card. That was a way for me to get some experience going and to prove to myself and to others that I could do it.
[00:11:37] Rodney Veal: I love that. Well, that, that speaks to it. It’s really interesting when we, when we’ve done this podcast and we’ve talked to artists and other fields, it’s exactly the same thing.
[00:11:47] It’s like, you know what, you gotta sometimes do the work of making the cardboard cutout of the motorcycle on the cover. I mean, which obviously is a thing that happens. So as a [00:12:00] reference point. And so that’s, it’s the same thing. It’s like, well, You do realize that’s going to be a part of it. And so I think a lot of people don’t really, it’s universal.
[00:12:09] I, even a comedian that we did a podcast interview with was the same thing about comedy. I found out that the writing was the most important part. Of comedy. It’s not the actual performance. It’s the writing. And I went, of course it is.
[00:12:25] Emily Wells: Well, and how are you going to take your audience on a journey through the story that you’re telling it as part of your set, it makes perfect sense.
[00:12:33] Rodney Veal: Perfect sense. And that’s why we had, that’s why it was such a great conversation. Cause I was like, Oh, then I started to put the linkages together. And you sort of think about why some comedians are such great storytellers are also great dramatic actors and actresses. And it was like, see, this world is all.
[00:12:49] It’s all connected. So you’ve taken all this and you’ve gotten in New York and you’re doing the, the hustle as we all hustle, the hustle that we all call, but surviving and thriving in New York [00:13:00] city, which is, yeah, that’s a trial by fire.
[00:13:03] Emily Wells: So I worked on and off Broadway and taught a little bit while I was there to taught some stage management and musical theater, history classes, and, you know, whatever I could kind of scrape together to, to make a living.
[00:13:18] And New York was expensive then, but nowhere near as expensive as it is now. So you were still able to sort of have only one roommate and make ends meet and things like that, as opposed to maybe six now, which is. So I did that and then I knew I was ready to dive into something more and thought I’m ready for a change from New York and started looking at graduate school because I knew I needed to make a, as clean of a break as I could manage from stage managing and producing and really spend some time focusing on my directing skillset [00:14:00] and leading shows.
[00:14:03] Thinking about conception, working with designers, working with a variety of talented actors and really investing in that creative side of myself. And I went through a period of applying for grad school where I was often shortlisted and wait listed. And because I had been in the business and long enough that I think that maybe some of those institutions weren’t quite sure where to put me.
[00:14:29] And so I just kept looking, and then I remember working with a designer on an off Broadway show, and he was a faculty member at a institution that had both a bachelor’s program and a master’s degree program. And I said, help me, I need to figure out how to break through this barrier. I’m not quite sure what to do because I’m getting really frustrated and I know I need this to cultivate [00:15:00] my voice as an artist.
[00:15:02] He said, well, really think about what it is that you want to get out of it. What are your criteria? Whether it’s logistical, creative, artistic, what kind of community do you want to be in? All of those questions really, really think about those things and prioritize them on a list. And I hadn’t thought about it that way because I was applying it, you know, some of the top institutions getting frustrated and more and more frustrated.
[00:15:31] So I sat down and I made my list and I knew that
[00:15:36] I knew that I wanted to come out of graduate school with no debt or as little as possible. So that meant someplace that was going to offer a stipend, tuition waiver, some combination thereof, right?
[00:15:51] I wanted to be able to teach a little bit, not just in stage management. I wanted to be able to work [00:16:00] professionally while I was in graduate school, which is unusual. Right? Right. Because a grad school, especially in the performing arts will try and clamp down as much on your time as possible so that they’re.
[00:16:12] There’s a little bit more control over the environment that you’re working in. Yes. And I knew that was something that that didn’t, that wasn’t going to serve me and why I was doing this experience.
[00:16:25] Rodney Veal: Because you’re at a different place. You, you’ve had these. Professional experiences. Yeah. And that’s why they have a hard time adding to it.
[00:16:33] Yeah. That’s the idea. That’s why the graduate study programs have a hard time because it was I had a similar situation. I had already, I was already teaching. I was already in higher ed. I was already past performance and choreography. And so they were like, how’s this going to work? You know, like, how do we use this for bringing this person into our fold?
[00:16:53] So again, I, it’s the same thing. It was like, I’m like, they’re frustrated with me. I know. I don’t. I didn’t understand that [00:17:00] you articulated it so well. I mean, that was my situation too. It’s like, what? I mean, like, why is this such a, this shouldn’t be a problem. I, I knew this was going to advance what I wanted to do.
[00:17:10] My, my agenda was so right. Yeah. Grad school. I mean that. And I love the fact that you still wanted to do professional work. I mean, that’s pretty amazing.
[00:17:22] Emily Wells: In the professional world, especially academic practice and academic theater serves one set of needs. And it’s not necessarily valued in the same way as professional experience and vice versa, because they do, they operate very similarly.
[00:17:41] But there are some significant differences that make a project in the academic space and in the professional space have 2 different sort of worlds around them not making either 1, not making a value statement on either 1, but that they serve [00:18:00] 2 different purposes. Right. Right. Right. So I built a spreadsheet.
[00:18:08] Rodney Veal: You did. You did the spreadsheet. I love that.
[00:18:10] Emily Wells: I did. I built a spreadsheet and I started researching programs all over the country because city didn’t matter to me. Location didn’t, wasn’t necessarily important to me because one of the things that touring also did for me is to be able to sort of find myself settled wherever I was.
[00:18:29] It didn’t matter.
[00:18:30] Rodney Veal: You, you were gonna make it work?
[00:18:32] Emily Wells: I was gonna make it home. I was make going to make it comfortable.
[00:18:36] Rodney Veal: Make it comfortable to, to do what you do. Yeah.
[00:18:38] Emily Wells: So I had my spreadsheet and I had all my columns about, you know, teaching opportunity, professional opportunities in the area. Cost, cost of living in certain locations also.
[00:18:52] Because even though I would get a stipend. That would cover my tuition and things like that. How far would I be able to stretch that [00:19:00] stipend for housing and food and all of these the normal things that 1 normal things. Yes. And I narrowed in on a handful of schools and apply to those and was accepted at those.
[00:19:15] It’s amazing what happens when you set your intention.
[00:19:19] Rodney Veal: Yeah. I was going to say like, that’s like a night and day. Like it’s, it just, it flipped the paradigm kind of shifted.
[00:19:24] Emily Wells: So yes, because I went in with a consumer mindset, but with really specific goals for myself, for yourself. I mean, and I think that is what made the difference because that came out in the things that I had to write in my application and.
[00:19:41] How I presented myself in interviews. It wasn’t like a, please, please, please accept me. It was a, you should accept me because of these reasons.
[00:19:51] Rodney Veal: And this is what you’re looking for. This is why the court,
[00:19:54] Emily Wells: this is what you get with me as part of your program.
[00:19:57] Rodney Veal: Exactly. And this is the why I’m here [00:20:00] because there’s, that’s a real important because there were, you have to kind of understand, I, I took it when I went to grad school was that it was the question of why, why am I here to, to re I, I said, I wanted to rethink how I approached choreography.
[00:20:18] And I think that’s, that resonated with them because I was at a place where it wasn’t like, Oh, please, I must get, I’m like, I had no idea. I just foolishly just threw myself into it into the audition process. But it’s like, that’s a similar thing. It’s like, and so, and I, and I love it because it’s like, you said this and every, like every artist we’ve interviewed has said, they all had a moment where they just kind of the pivot moment.
[00:20:46] And they just sat down and plotted it out. You did an Excel spreadsheet, journaling. And I think someone talked about talking to a mentor, like this pivot. So do you think that [00:21:00] that grad school, that making that decision was the ultimate pivot?
[00:21:03] Emily Wells: I mean, no, I think there were two actually. So that was pivot number one.
[00:21:07] Okay. That was really me committing to myself as an artist. Okay. And giving myself the gift of time to explore what that meant for me and what my voice was. And connection number two to Dayton, Ohio happens. Oh, when I go to grad school,
[00:21:27] Rodney Veal: oh my God. You have all these roads to Dayton, right? Okay. Right.
[00:21:31] Emily Wells: Okay. So the gentleman who was the chair of the theater department at the University of Memphis was Bob Heatherington.
[00:21:39] Who was one of the artists who worked frequently alongside Kevin and Marsha and Susie and Carol, all at the beginning of the founding of the Human Race Theater Company. Oh my goodness. Yes. So he directed many of the first productions in the first few years. He directed Angels in America part one [00:22:00] was his last project here before he went on to Memphis.
[00:22:05] So. He was the person who said, Emily, you should come to grad school here in Memphis. I loved it when I went to go visit and experience the campus and talk with the faculty and so he was my 1st, real directing mentor Bob, Hetherington and Gloria Baxter were the 2 that were at in the graduate program.
[00:22:29] Teaching directing while I was there and it was the best combination because Bob with his history, not only here, but up at the Shaw festival in Canada and teaching and mentoring and directing a lot of kind of plays that I like to to work on and then Gloria with her attention to writing and creating.
[00:22:55] Devised theater, specifically narrative theater work was like this [00:23:00] perfect fusion in my brain of art and community and where the 2 things can meet together really closely and make magic. So that really was pivot number 1. And that was 2007. So that was a while ago, 15 years ago now. And then I happened to be in graduate school when the economy took its big pfft in 2008.
[00:23:30] Yep. Took the dive. I took the nose dive, which was a blessing, but made coming out of graduate school in 2010, 2011, tricky. Because hiring practices were a little funky theater was affected. Then just as much as COVID has affected theater and now and so, and I needed health insurance, so I was like, okay, well, I guess I can stage manage a little bit [00:24:00] longer.
[00:24:00] And I got a resident position up in Portland, Oregon which is where I met my husband. And I had thought that I, while I was there, I would have time to direct projects in between shows. And I definitely tried. I pitched lots of things, but there I was back again, well, we haven’t seen your work and we’ll need to see your work before we can give you a thing. So that was a little frustrating time and, and Then we decided to move away from Portland. My husband got, had gotten a job for a theater company in Florida. And so we did that and it was, it wound up not being the best fit for him or Florida for us because we’re, I’m, I’m a Northern girl, mostly New England, New York,
[00:24:50] Rodney Veal: you kind of like your seasons.
[00:24:52] Midwest gives us the, you know, the real,
[00:24:57] Emily Wells: I like when the leaves change and you can enjoy them for more [00:25:00] than a minute. And while we were in Florida, we were blessed to have our daughter and here comes pivot number two. Because I had been at this point, I had been freelancing for nearly 25 years, which freelancing in theater means you’re doing a six day work week, probably 60 to 80 hours a week and you in, at least in the freelance community, you have very little say over your schedule.
[00:25:31] This theater company, their typical rehearsal hours are this or that or whatever. And I knew that I, that was not the kind of relationship with my daughter that I wanted to have. So I had just finished a certificate program in arts management through UMass Amherst. I did it online. Okay. And learned about creative economy and some of those things that you might like to be included in your ma MFA degree , [00:26:00] but are not there.
[00:26:01] Rodney Veal: But they’re not there,
[00:26:02] Emily Wells: which is so true. How do you talk with the board? How do, yeah. You know, all of those kinds of things.
[00:26:07] Rodney Veal: How the funding cycles actually do work.
[00:26:10] Emily Wells: And right now there’s a whole print writing, all of those skill sets. So I had done that and my husband said, okay, Emily, well, this was not a good fit for us to come to Florida.
[00:26:24] So you’re in charge of our next move. I was like, okay, no pressure. I’ve just had a baby. That’s awesome.
[00:26:31] Rodney Veal: Yeah, no pressure.
[00:26:33] Emily Wells: But I. Really thought again, not a spreadsheet, but close about what I wanted to be doing. And one of the people that I had talked with through my time in graduate school was David diamond, who’s worked closely With LaMama and in New York city and things like that.
[00:26:53] And he does a lot of artist coachings and one of his tools and his coachings is [00:27:00] thinking about what your obituary says about you when you’re, when you’re gone, which is dark. But if you think about it, if you roll back from the obituary part and what it is that you’ve been doing up to that point, that is what, where I started thinking.
[00:27:19] Is what is the last thing that I want to do before I retire? If I am ever able to retire in this business?
[00:27:27] Rodney Veal: Oh, that’s an interesting, huh?
[00:27:31] Emily Wells: So I thought about that and I was able to name that really easily. I knew exactly where I wanted to be, what kind of thing I wanted to be doing at the end of my career and before I’m able to retire and enjoy that part of my life.
[00:27:51] And I said, well, okay, that’s not too far from where I am now, but what I need to do is find a [00:28:00] way to take all of this freelance experience as a director, as a teacher, as a stage manager, as a producer, take all of it and find a way to. Quote unquote, legitimize it with a job title.
[00:28:12] Like if I, what is the position that increases all of those things
[00:28:19] Rodney Veal: where you are doing it all under one roof? Yeah. That, that sense of, cause freelancers having been a freelancer, I know like where you, I jokingly call it. I don’t want to leave my house. Yeah. I want it. I want it to all happen under this roof.
[00:28:35] And so then I realized the roof is. The thing where you get to be your maximum self.
[00:29:26] Rodney Veal: Is that what led you to Houston?
[00:29:30] Emily Wells: That is what led me to Houston. So I found a position. I had found a couple of positions that fit this mold because right around this time, theater companies were starting to borrow a little bit from film and television and putting into place artistic producers or.
[00:29:51] Really finding ways to incorporate both the artistic side and the business side of producing theater [00:30:00] and finding space for people with both of those skill sets. And that was most definitely me. So I found a few of those and my husband said, okay, but where are we going? Because the country is huge. We now have a baby.
[00:30:17] Where are we landing? And the answer to that for me was pretty clear. We wanted to be someplace near family. My parents at that time were thinking about leaving my childhood home. My sister was living in Europe and my brother and his wife were also starting their family in Houston, Texas. So I said, it’s either going to be Houston or it’s going to be New York city because I still have friends.
[00:30:48] I have connections. We can build our community there easily. And in Houston, we have family who can help us build our community [00:31:00] there as well. So those were the two places that I really started to focus my search on and had opportunities at a couple different places in both areas and this position at Houston Grand Opera.
[00:31:14] Came up and I read the job description and I thought, man, this might as well just have my name in it because it was this little unicorn job description of all of my skill sets over the years and. If you remember back at the beginning, what did I do? I played the piano and I say, so reading music, it’s easy.
[00:31:42] I grew up around classical music and things like that.
[00:31:45] Rodney Veal: So you knew, you know, the classical music and the art, you know, that when you, when you have that intimate. Awareness and knowledge of it. It just makes it, you’re not speaking two different languages when you’re dealing with the artists who are only working in there, I don’t want to say [00:32:00] silo because that’s just such a hard word, but they’re just, they’re laying there, they’re working within their lane and it’s all good.
[00:32:08] So yeah, that helps.
[00:32:09] Emily Wells: So I saw that job and I thought, okay, this, this meets all the criteria and. And it had the side bonus of being responsible for producing new work, which was another space that I had found myself in most of the shows that I did in New York were new plays or new musicals and I really loved that spark of creativity that happens during that time period, watching something brand new be born.
[00:32:42] And so I applied for the job and within a month we were moving to Houston and I was there for five and a half years and produced some incredibly rewarding projects while I was there. I think at the top [00:33:00] end, I had 13 new pieces of a variety of scales and scopes in my portfolio from a new children’s opera to digital operas before COVID was a thing.
[00:33:12] I produced a series of digital shorts short operas, and then doing community engagement around all of those things. So all of those little seeds were of things that I had done over the course of my freelancing time, we’re really coming together so beautifully, and it felt great to be in a position that.
[00:33:36] Was doing what I wanted it to do, which was legitimize my freelancing time.
[00:33:44] Rodney Veal: Cause no one roof, one roof. Cause no one wants to be like, you know, I did this thing and it didn’t really feed the next stages of one’s life. I mean, you know, that’s a, that’s a tough one. Yeah.
[00:33:56] Emily Wells: Yeah, that’s right. So I was very, very fortunate to be there and work with [00:34:00] incredible artists and writers and things like that.
[00:34:03] But at, at a certain point. I was like, okay, I have, I have achieved what I had hoped to achieve with this phase. What’s next? What’s next? And again, my husband said, you’re on a journey. You’re on a trajectory. We’re following you.
[00:34:21] Rodney Veal: Wow. That’s a, that’s amazing.
[00:34:23] Emily Wells: So having that kind of support is huge. And I want it to be intentional because, of course, now I have a five, six year old and moving would be impactful to her, not just to us.
[00:34:41] And I was certain, I thought it would be likely that I would go back to theater for sure, leave opera and come back to theater as the discipline, but I thought it would be an associate artistic director position. I thought it would be sort of [00:35:00] next step up on the rung for me. And then I saw this job description and it was exactly like what happened when I saw the job description for HGO.
[00:35:12] I was like, this might as well say me. 3rd point of connection to Dayton while I was freelancing in New York in 2004. I think the human race theater company brought a workshop of green gables. To New York to be performed and workshopped out in the Hamptons on Long Island. Okay. And I was the stage manager for it.
[00:35:37] Rodney Veal: Oh my gosh.
[00:35:38] Emily Wells: So I knew I had known about the company for a really long time.
[00:35:42] Rodney Veal: And you had these connections that, yes, that only the universe can provide. Like, I mean, I, I just, you know, one of those people who believe, but yeah, there’s no coincidences. Things happen for a reason. And they really do folks.
[00:35:57] Emily Wells: Absolutely. And. Cappy Kilburn, [00:36:00] who’s our executive director, she and I had met each other through directors lab West out in California while she was still out in LA and had maintained social connection since that time, and she posted the job description. And I saw it and I have really struggled over my career with putting myself out there.
[00:36:22] And pushing myself forward. So let’s say that
[00:36:25] Rodney Veal: and that is the number one artist problem.
[00:36:29] Emily Wells: I’m terrible at self promotion.
[00:36:31] Rodney Veal: I can promote, I can promote other people to the cows come home. But you know, myself, someone said, Hey. You know, you should probably make a flyer for that gallery exhibit. I’m like, yeah, I probably should.
[00:36:43] Yeah, I probably should. Yeah. For myself.
[00:36:45] Emily Wells: So I, I really struggled with that, but this time I was, I had felt emboldened and I reached out and I said, this kind of feels like you might be looking for [00:37:00] me. And she said, yeah, let’s chat about it. So we had an informal conversation about the position and talked for an hour and kind of just filled each other in on how we wound up where we currently were and how she got here and all of that.
[00:37:18] And at the end of it, she said, please apply. I said, okay. I will, I hang up and a week goes by and my husband says, Emily, have you sent in your stuff yet? I was like, well, I’ll get to it. So I did.
[00:37:38] Rodney Veal: I’m glad you did.
[00:37:40] Emily Wells: And then, you know, over the next six months, lots of back and forth and. Waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting on my end.
[00:37:48] Rodney Veal: There was a, I can say from this end of it, we were, I mean, God bless Cappy because that was hurting cats a little bit when you are. [00:38:00] Because of the way the human race is structured, but also the way our community is structured. There was a lot of buy-in and there was a lot of folks who needed to be,
[00:38:08] Emily Wells: Brought into the pool.
[00:38:09] Invited to the
[00:38:09] Rodney Veal: conversation. Yeah. Invited to the conversation. And so, yeah. I feel so bad for those who applied. Oh my gosh, this position. Like, oh, this is a long time.
[00:38:18] Emily Wells: And I had those feel like right from the get go. I was like, in my gut, this feels exactly right. Yeah. It felt exactly right and I came up for the final in person interview with the search committee and some of the invested members of the community and the success of the theater company.
[00:38:38] And even leaving that, I was like, oh, that says, yes, I loved Dayton. I loved. That the mission of the company that I felt so prepared to be in a role like this. And so it was just waiting. I had to wait another month after that. So between Christmas and new year’s, I think it was the day [00:39:00] after Christmas that Cappy called and it was, you know, 90 in Houston and cold up here.
[00:39:09] And I said, yes, right away.
[00:39:12] Rodney Veal: I, I’m grateful that you said yes, cause that was such a cool thing. And, and so talk a little bit about with effective, cause it was the mission. I mean, I, that’s what gets me excited about the mission with human race. I feel like they’re what they stand for. Just makes you just want to come and see theater.
[00:39:29] I mean, so what was it? You had these connections, these, I mean, the universe is speaking to you, Emily, it was saying Dayton, Dayton. So. What is it about, how is that empowering for you as an artistic director to have this values and mission statement that is so profound? I feel like it’s, it’s representing the human race.
[00:39:53] Like this is about human connectivity. These stories can be told in [00:40:00] varieties of ways. Yeah,
[00:40:01] Emily Wells: it’s, it’s a little, if I think too hard on it on certain days, it’s a little daunting. Because we must continue to earn our name, no matter what we’re doing, even if we’re doing a, a raucous musical theater comedy, like we opened the season with, it has to have some sort of connection back to why are we telling this story and And what relationship does it have to the human condition, the human experience who we are as living, breathing, feeling beings on this planet.
[00:40:42] Right. And so there are days that I feel the responsibility and the weight of that very, very heavily. And then there are days that like yesterday, we just closed. I know we’re broadcasting this later, but. Yesterday, we just closed. This is Tom Jones and I laughed my [00:41:00] face off and danced around in the back of the theater while they were finishing up the curtain call.
[00:41:05] You know, there are things like that that are just as important to the human experience and knowing when to say, let’s just laugh together. And enjoy and share space together in enjoyment. That is as much of my responsibility as it is presenting the latest thought provoking question of a play. So I think the charge of our name.
[00:41:35] Is to present all of the human experience, which may seem like we’re trying to serve everybody all the time. And we, we do our best through our casting choices and our hiring choices backstage for design teams. And really taking a look at our commitment to artists as individuals, as human beings, [00:42:00] as creative minds, as feeling creatures in our space and doing our best to take care of them as well as our audience and providing space for our audience to be provoked, challenged.
[00:42:17] Asked to reexamine. I’m not interested in telling you what to do with that question that I’m going to present to you. That’s up to you, the individual to say, oh, I answer it this way, or I answer it this way, or I don’t answer it, answer that question in the way that I thought I was going to because of what I have seen.
[00:42:40] So I’m not really interested in telling. My audience, what to think and feel and feel or any of those things. I just want to ask you to do those things.
[00:42:53] Rodney Veal: Be open to the question, because that’s what, which is what performing arts is. I mean, [00:43:00] you have to be open to the fact that you, you, you certainly were open when you got dressed, you bought the ticket, you sat in a theater and a seat.
[00:43:07] So audience’s perspective. To be open to the question. I love that how you described it as a question, because that was, I just applied for artist residency and they were asking me about my work. I’m like, well, I, I, I’m just curious about the question of, instead of sending the work on teenagers, what if I set this work on dancers over the age of 35, would that change the nature of what the work was about?
[00:43:35] I just want to pose the question and I’m like, you said that it went. Oh, wait a minute. The universe. Okay. Oh, this is what I’m doing. This is what we do. And so I don’t think people really, what I love about this conversation is in the podcast is like, this is what the process is. It’s not like we don’t, we don’t wake up in the morning, like.
[00:43:54] Boom. We got a fully formed production. It is, there’s a lot, [00:44:00] there’s a lot that goes into it. And, and, and I think that talk to people about what your day as an artistic director is like, because I don’t think people fully understand. It’s not, you had to. Great parts, but then there’s the work part, you know, that’s still great, but it’s a lot of work.
[00:44:16] There’s a lot of effort that has to go into producing.
[00:44:19] Emily Wells: So there really is no one day that’s exactly the same, which is one of the things that I love about. The life in the theater, as it were but on average, I like most of us when we get into the office, I look at my calendar, I see what’s happening that day, what meetings I have or what’s coming up in the week even more specifically than on a daily basis.
[00:44:46] What do I need to set my brain to this week? We have a very efficient staff and so 1 of the things that I usually do at the beginning of my week is [00:45:00] schedule social media and posts and things like that that are due for the week, whether it’s introducing the next cast, promoting some of our activities and events, things like that, promoting the show, or.
[00:45:14] Doing a post show roundup, whatever it is. So I scheduled those out. I have Tuesdays are my meeting days. So I meet with my our learning and engagement coordinator, Tiffany countrymen. I meet with her for about an hour and we talk about strategies for upcoming programs and activities, what some of our goals might be.
[00:45:35] I spend part of my day reading and that includes theater industry news, that includes reading scripts, that includes reading submissions of scripts from writers, which I usually get five of those a week. So, wow. I, you know, there’s a lot of different things that go into the day, checking in with the shop seeing how [00:46:00] they’re doing, making sure that everyone feels like I’m invested in those areas that they work on because I am, it all works.
[00:46:09] We all have to work together. No, 1 area of a theater company is more important than the other. So the shop is important because then there’s a stage and a set to perform on the rehearsal room is important because that’s where the actors prepare the material that the audience watches. Our community engagement and learning opportunities are important because that’s how we foster relationships with our audience and our community and make opportunities for new folks to come in.
[00:46:41] Our marketing and communication with the donors make it possible for the lights to stay on and, you know, our audience to come in and for us to have the materials to build the set and all of those things. So it’s really 1 big symbiotic relationship ship
[00:46:58] Rodney Veal: and it’s constantly going
[00:46:59] Emily Wells: and [00:47:00] it’s constantly going.
[00:47:01] Rodney Veal: It’s a perpetual machine. Yeah. Yeah, because you’re, you’re. Because you like, like you said, this podcast is, you know, after your first show of the season, which you directed, and I was going to ask you a question about that, about directing comedy, because you made a comment about directing comedy is something different, but I think it’s also really important for people to understand, like.
[00:47:21] You’re thinking about next season and the season after, and you’re thinking about what to do in the summer. What do you do? Like, where are the opportunities for theater to be a thing? And so it’s, it’s constantly going, but yeah,
[00:47:32] Emily Wells: I look at the calendar almost daily, I look at our sales reports every day and make some informed decisions based on the numbers that we’re seeing We’re revamping some of our audience surveying tools.
[00:47:46] So there’s some strategic planning that’s happening right now. Also and finding ways to make access to those surveys a little bit more open. So that it’s not just the same. You know, 30 people that respond to [00:48:00] them via email. How can we expand our impact with our data and really understand our audience a lot more?
[00:48:09] I have community meetings every week. There’s usually at least 1 with a partner or a potential partner. That we’re talking to about sharing space with or cross promotion or engagement or, you know, any number of things. So it is a varied, varied week. And I think that’s awesome.
[00:48:33] Rodney Veal: I think that that’s, we, we, we as artists love art in the arts.
[00:48:37] We love the variety of what we do. And so with, with that variety. You said something about directing comedy or like, was that the first time you had ever directed a, just yeah, that was laugh out loud, funny. So
[00:48:51] Emily Wells: I directed Putnam County spelling bee a couple of years ago, and that was a lot of fun. Great show. Very different and in tone from this is [00:49:00] Tom Jones. So I, I think for me, I,
[00:49:07] what’s the best way to describe it? I am a consumer of art and style and thought and Oh yeah. Tone and all of those kinds of things. And I think as a director you have to be mm-Hmm, , you have to watch and pay attention to all of those different kinds of things to be successful. And so when I read and listened to Tom Jones, I was like, Oh man, this is awesome.
[00:49:38] I wanted to direct it because it was, I think we’re always learning and we’re always challenging ourselves to do more and different and be better. And so.
[00:49:51] I loved so many of the sort of social references and style references that he includes in the script [00:50:00] that Mark includes in the script. And so I thought, yeah, let’s do this. Let’s take a stab at it. Let’s see what happens. Let’s make our audience laugh. Let’s us have a good time. Time
[00:50:09] Rodney Veal: while we’re doing it, while we’re doing it, which it came across, it did.
[00:50:15] I mean, I was so delighted by it. And so, I love the fact because after there was an after party and, and the, and the the writer of the play and the musical had talked about, it was a world premiere in essence, because you were taking a chance on a world premiere. And I was like, it struck me. I’m like, Emily, that is so cool.
[00:50:37] Yeah. Thank you. And I, and, and I, of course you know, you know, not, not to, it was just, I wrote about it in the daily news. Cause I was like, you know what folks, you can see quality theater in the Midwest without going to New York or LA or even Chicago.
[00:50:54] Emily Wells: We’ve got Chicago right here.
[00:50:56] Rodney Veal: It’s here. You don’t have to.
[00:50:58] Yeah. So, I mean, [00:51:00] I love that. Is that, is that, is that a thing that you, once you’ve had that. Bite of the apple. Are you now thinking, Oh, let’s just keep producing world premieres.
[00:51:10] Emily Wells: I think for me as an artist and because of my time spent in New York, working on a lot of new things, I think new work is how we continue to push.
[00:51:21] The art form forward, if we can continue to do Arthur Miller and Noel coward, and I love those classics, Tennessee, Williams, all of that. Lorraine Hansberry and oh, my gosh. So many great writers. I, I love those works and I think that they’re. Still is a lot to be said with them but especially post COVID there is so much more to be said about our current [00:52:00] worldview and the number of things that have happened over the last 5 years.
[00:52:07] I would maybe even say. Starting with 9 11, like if you look at pre 9 11 and through these last two decades and how much our social conversations have changed, how much
[00:52:25] social evolution has occurred between social justice racial justice, economic divide is wider than it’s ever been, you know, there’s so much happening.
[00:52:44] Rodney Veal: That it’s, you can’t help but not have it impact the work and the creativity that’s occurring. I mean, which is, which is what like I said, every guest we’ve had on the show, we’ve talked about this and it’s that, I love the universality of that so that people are aware that in [00:53:00] this creative realms, we are taking in the world.
[00:53:03] We are, we’re lenses in the world, but we’re also taking in, we’re absorbing what’s happening in the world. And, and you talk about those changes in theater. What I, what I love about the, the notion that the classics can be still done works that are still relevant, but then these new voices that just makes for a rich experience all the way around for everyone, the audience and those who are making so many so many.
[00:53:28] Emily Wells: Contemporary artists are riffing off of older stories in our season this year. It’s all, they’re all adaptations, whether a true story or an existing preexisting play or novel and, or folk story in the case of our holiday show reindeer sessions. So there’s all of this opportunity for artists to be looking at something in the past.
[00:53:57] Inspired by it and riffing on [00:54:00] it for our current time and audience and. Issues and some things never go away. Like people who are power hungry, that never goes away. Never. You know, I mean, we’ve been dealing with that since the dawn of time. Somebody is always wanting to take over the world.
[00:54:19] Rodney Veal: So it doesn’t matter.
[00:54:23] I want the whole cave. I want the whole cave.
[00:54:26] Everyone else out, you know,
[00:54:28] Emily Wells: so, yeah, so it doesn’t, it is universal. And I think finding ways as theater artists, finding ways to give opportunity to artists who haven’t had the platform to share their version or their perspective, their lens on a story is just as important as us preserving some of the historical.
[00:54:54] Legacy of our industry. So an audience for us, I [00:55:00] might do a title by a playwright that, you know, but it’s probably not going to be the title that you’ve already seen. I’m going to shake it up. I’m going to do something different. Just because it’s a way to not only. Mix up what we’re doing on our stage, but find a way to find a way into a piece, to a work that is, that speaks to right now.
[00:55:30] Rodney Veal: I love that. So as our final question, this is for, cause a lot of people, I, I I’m amazed at the, the, the broadness of the audience for the podcast. So this question about when you. What would be your advice to someone who’s seeking to be and do what you are doing? What would it, what would be the one thing you would tell them that they need to really [00:56:00] focus on that may not be something we would have ever considered?
[00:56:04] Emily Wells: That’s a really great question, Rodney. What I’m doing in terms of being a director or being an artistic director?
[00:56:13] Rodney Veal: Well, I think they’re both the same. One and the same. Like, yeah. One and the same. Yeah.
[00:56:18] Emily Wells: See everything. Take it in. Feed your imagination. Feed your taste level. Feed your… Because every theater person I know leaves the space and goes, I would have done this.
[00:56:43] But you don’t get to do that. Until you have seen as many things as you possibly can, we can. Yes. Not because that makes you go, oh no, I actually, I really liked that part of that thing. Or, oh, I really liked that part of that thing, or I [00:57:00] loved the whole thing, or I was able to sit back as an audience member and enjoy the experience for the night, even though I might have done it differently.
[00:57:08] I can still appreciate the work of everybody that went into whatever was created. And so see everything, whether it is theater, musical theater experimental stuff, dance, music, symphonic experiences, opera, all of it.
[00:57:26] Rodney Veal: All of it. Don’t even don’t even, and I, and I second that and everyone yet again, we’ve all said the same thing because I like, you can’t do this thing.
[00:57:38] Without knowledge and you’ve got to, and tools in your tool belt. And I consider knowledge to be the tool in the tool belt. So it’s like, you got to soak it in like a sponge and that’s what makes it rich. That’s
[00:57:51] Emily Wells: what’s going to really make the difference. And I think my, my footnote to that would be you do not know everything.[00:58:00]
[00:58:01] And you will never, even when you’re 80, know everything. So coming at it with a sense of humility and awareness of the things that, you know, and the things that you don’t know is the best way to be. And it makes you curious about the work and curious about the process, curious about the experience, curious about how your audience will respond.
[00:58:29] Those are my two guiding posts.
[00:58:33] Rodney Veal: And with that mic drop, we have concluded a great conversation because Emily Wells is that great and fantastic and awesome. And you need to see live theater. I’m going to put my plug in for live theater. You must see live theater productions. This will change your perspective on just about everything you encounter that’s artistic.
[00:58:55] So Emily, thank you. Thanks Rodney.