Actor and musician Emily McKnight is one of the talented cast of Ensemble Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. She sings, she puppeteers, she’ll bring to to laughter and tears, all in under two hours!
We sat down with McKnight to hear all about the production, her journey into acting, and of course her wine pairing for this classic Christmas ghost story.
What made you decide to become an actor, and how did you establish yourself in Australia’s theatre scene?
Gosh, I don’t know that I am established – it was but a few years ago I was classified as emerging! I wonder if that means I’ve emerged!? This show is also my main stage debut.
I guess for me, I love acting so much that I will just keep at it. That has meant lots of creating things myself, and doing plays for the love of it (and to continue to practice!) I love meeting other artists, and try to attend as much theatre as I can, and work with lots of different people too.
One of the moments I remember thinking ‘I want to be an actor’ was when we had Bell Shakespeare education team visit our school. That was at Newtown Performing Arts- and so the love of acting was certainly nurtured there.
I actually did an Arts Degree before drama school though, to dabble in other career concepts, but I kept coming back to acting. Being onstage gives me a sense of fulfilment unlike anything else.
So I’ll keep at it with the establishing!
You’ve performed in a variety of canon performances, including Shakespeare and this Dickens classic. What about classics attracts you?
I certainly have a love of classic texts – not just to perform them – but to read them and watch them be performed too.
What I love is the perfect mix of learning and joy. There’s something new every time you look at them, the way they often make you reflect, or indeed reflect something back on you… and I just find speaking poetic language really enjoyable!
I credit a lot of this love to my late Gran, who took me to Shakespeare plays as I was growing up, and shared her favourite poems and stories with me. It’s a life dream to perform onstage at the Globe one day!
I love the way Hilary has adapted A Christmas Carol – picking out elements of Dickens’ brilliant descriptions and combining that with her own incredible writing. And listening to Valerie Bader speak much of the narration each night is a perfect example of this- the words themselves are beautiful and perfectly structured, and I’m learning constantly from the way she performs them.
Tell me about the experience of developing A Christmas Carol with Ensemble Theatre.
It was an incredibly creative and detailed rehearsal process. We looked at every moment to figure out what exactly it needed in this world that Dickens and Hilary had written for us.
This was done through a great deal of experimenting with movement and sound as well as use of props. We all contribute in some way to every scene in the play.
Damien Ryan created a space that felt lead by his brilliant ideas as well as truly collaborative – and that collaboration extended through to everyone working on the show.
Hilary was often in the room occasionally tweaking the script as she watched and got to know us and heard her words spoken out loud. We had a puppeteer come in to teach me (thanks Emma DeVries!) and a choreographer for me and John… this is the first time he’s danced in a play! An unexpected honour to be his first waltzing partner.
I really felt stretched outside my comfort zone every day, but loved learning and growing and watching the show take shape from within it!
Worth mentioning the location of rehearsals too – it’s such a beautiful place to work! I enjoyed a daily lunch in the park, under the jacarandas overlooking the water.
One wonderful part of the process was also two dogs owned by the lighting designer that often came in to visit us!!
In A Christmas Carol you play multiple characters and music! How do you approach this type of role, and what complexities do you face?
In the first week I had terrible imposter syndrome – being in the room with that much talent! The task ahead of me (learning the songs, how to be a puppeteer etc) also seemed immense. I am a children’s singer (Emily Who) so singing in this show was also a new challenge for me. (Shout out to my singing teacher Peter Bodnar who gave me a few emergency lessons!)
Luckily, the imposter syndrome was dispelled quickly as I remembered that the not-knowing-if-I-can-do-it feeling is part of the adventure of creativity. I was also so supported by everyone to have the space to learn all these new skills.
I’ve played flute for something like twelve years, and had to play it for the audition, so was ready to contribute musically in that way.
I do a lot of voice work, so I also worked hard to make sure each character had a distinct voice – especially as three of them are children.
As we started running the show, my biggest challenge was not whether I would remember lines, but trying to remember everything else! The way the show is put together it’s a constant juggle of multiple characters, music, props- often needing precision and happening in quick succession- so it’s a bit of whirlwind!
What do you enjoy about the Aussie theatre scene, and what do you think needs improvement?
It has always been a huge dream of mine to have a career in theatre. I love the Aussie theatre scene – from community groups such as The Theatre on Chester in Epping (where I first treaded the boards!) to the thriving indie scene, to our mainstages.
I love attending as much as I can as it inspires me so much, as well as of course performing in it.
I hope that companies can continue the work they’ve been doing to include more diverse casts to reflect the society we live in, and I’ve loved that more people are calling them out when that doesn’t happen. It feels like a strong community working together.
One thing I wish could improve is more access – particularly to the professional theatre companies.
There’s hardly any auditions – and so therefore hardly any opportunities to actually be seen, let alone land a gig. The doors often seem very shut – and I think that can be very discouraging.
I know the MEAA are aware of this and working on it by the way! So hopefully change is afoot.
I also want to mention my podcast ‘An Actor Survives,’ where I chat with lots of different actors about how to manage the ups and downs as a career as an actor in Australia. That has been a great way to interrogate and explore the Aussie acting scene through discussion and experiences from all different people.
What type of wine would you pair with A Christmas Carol, and why?
I think a nice glass of mulled wine. A welcoming, warm beverage to sip while celebrating a white Christmas, and with the added spice… it’s perfect for a ghost story!