Emily Kitchens and Travis Smith in the Alliance Theatre's world premiere production of "The Tall Girls," which runs through March 30. (Photo by Greg Mooney)
ALBANY — Few things in life are as fulfilling as being able to make a career out your passions. Former President Theodore Roosevelt offered that “far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
At least one former Lee County resident agrees, having found success in her chosen “profession” fairly early. Emily Kitchens, a graduate of Lee County High School (LCHS), has been pursuing a career in acting for most of her life, and says that despite the fact that she’s been able to find steady work as an actress, the true measure of her success is that she is doing what she loves every day.
“Acting is my job, but it’s also my passion,” Kitchens said during a recent phone interview. “It’s where I find a lot of my spiritual life. Acting is totally what I want do. I’m very blessed that I’m able to do what I want to do.”
Throughout the interview Kitchens said that she feels a lot of things that have happened to her on her way to becoming a working actor seem to worked out in a somewhat divine manner.
One example she used is landing her current role of Jean in the Alliance Theater’s production of Meg Miroshnik’s depression era play “The Tall Girls.” Set in the fictional town of Poor Prairie, “The Tall Girls” follows the story of a group of young women who find hope in the game of basketball, a game that, interestingly, had an important impact on Kitchens’ own life.
“I have this belief that roles and characters come for a reason,” Kitchens said. “They sort of land in my life somehow. Basketball is kind of a profound part of my life. It’s really an amazing thing. It feels a little bit meant to be.”
In fact, it was her father’s career as a basketball coach that helped shape the course of Kitchens’ life as the family moved “from small town to small town” before finally arriving in Leesburg when Kitchens was a young girl.
It was while attending LCHS and being involved in the school’s drama program that Kitchens’ childhood passion for putting on performances with stuffed animals in her backyard grew into the real possibility of becoming a professional actor.
“I was very supported and encouraged by Robbie Davis and Lee County theater,” Kitchens said. “Being there I was able to focus on something I really loved. I was blessed to be with people that believed in me. Probably somewhere around my sophomore year, I really started to believe I could become an actor.”
After auditioning for a college drama program while on a class trip to the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb., after her junior year at LCHS, Kitchens was granted entry into the theater program at the University of Evansville in Indiana after graduation.
Upon graduating from Evansville with a BSA in Theater, Kitchens’ next adventure took her to graduate school in California where she earned an MSA from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Able to book work during school and directly after, Kitchens stayed in the Bay Area for another six months, before performing took her to New York.
Since arriving in New York Kitchens has been able to stay busy and already has another play lined up after she finishes the Tall Girls run in Atlanta at the end of March.
Kitchens said when Tall Girls wraps she’ll head back to her place in Manhattan for about two weeks before heading to Rochester, N.Y., where she’ll be starring in a two person play called “Tinker to Evers to Chance” written by Mat Smart, where she will be playing multiple characters.
“It’s a beautiful new play,” Kitchens said. “I think I play three different characters in the play. It’s exciting. It’s my first ever two-person play.”
Kitchens said she feels fortunate she’s had fairly steady work and is quick to point out that things have worked out well for her considering many actors experience lulls in between productions and don’t typically go from one play to the next.
“If you do two to three professional shows in a year, that’s definitely a working actor,” Kitchens said. “There’s a lot of hustle. It’s a rare occasion when you go from one play to the next. I consider myself infinitely lucky.”
Where Kitchens remains humble and feels that fate or some other divine intervention has had a lot to do with her success, Davis, her high school drama teacher, feels that Kitchens is the one who is responsible for the success she’s had.
Davis said that from the first time he encountered the budding actress as a freshman at LCHS there was something different about her, something that continued to build as she progressed through school.
“It was obvious there was an incredible talent,” Davis said. “But there’s more important things going on with Emily. There was a seriousness and a commitment to the art that you don’t see very often. Without having to be told or assigned the task of having to prepare performance pieces, Emily through the years was constantly working on her repertoire. She was constantly collecting performances.”
Davis said that while many teenagers get into the drama department because they want to be famous and be in movies or on TV, it was apparent Kitchens was interested in the art form and was always striving to get better because it was something she truly loved.
“Emily had a kind of wisdom about her,” Davis said. “She knew and understood what being an actor meant. She embodies what we mean when we talk about an actor. She understands the craft and what the craft entails.”
When talking about the talented young student, Davis went so far as to say that while he knows Kitchens would try to give him some credit for her success, he feels that she is not only responsible for her own success, but for the success of others, including himself.
“I’m not going to take any credit for her; anybody could have been successful with her,” said Davis. “She made me a better teacher. I had to rise to the challenge of Emily. I don’t know if it really mattered where she went to school. Acting is her life. It’s what she does.”
If her recent string of success is any indication, acting is going to continue being “what she does.” Kitchens said that even though she doesn’t have anything lined up immediately after “Tinker to Evers to Chance”she knows she’ll continue to work on her craft and continue to pour herself into her passion to act.
Considered one of the main hubs of the theater world, New York offers Kitchens a variety of options for workshops and readings and small productions, things she feel are necessary for her to maintain her acting skills.
“Those have become part of my networking and building my career,” Kitchens said. “It helps me keep up my chops when I’m not in a show. I’ve been very fortunate to have groups. I feel like I have my footing. An actor has to use emotional muscles. That’s what we need to use most days. It’s very important for me to stay proactive in an active way.”
In addition to workshops and readings, Kitchens will also continue to audition for acting jobs not only in the theater, but in film as well. Having already performed in a few smaller, independent films, Kitchens is open to the idea of pursuing more work outside of the theater.
“That’s of a lot of interest to me,” Kitchens said. “I’ve done some smaller film projects and I like it a lot. It’s a different set of skills in a way but it’s still acting. I’m going to keep my main focus on theater because that is where by passion, where my training is, but acting is acting.”
Even with a bright future ahead of her, Kitchens is keeping her attention more short term, focusing on upcoming performances of “The Tall Girls”, and keeping an eye out for a couple of her biggest supporters.
“I know (Robby Davis and his wife Dotty) are coming up to see the show,” Kitchens said. “I love seeing them whenever I can. They’ve been so instrumental and important in my life.”
Whether it’s help from others, divine intervention or merely chance, one thing Kitchens is sure of is that she is living her dreams and doing what she wants to do, something she doesn’t take for granted.
“I think I’ve had a real stroke of luck.” she said. “That might sound naive, but it seems to be that way for me. I really am blessed.”