Under the tent, Emily Ota portrays Henry V

Last fall, Davis McCallum, the artistic director of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, suggested a role to Emily Ota that left the actor at a loss for words.

Would she be interested in playing Henry V?

“I knew very well how few women have this kind of opportunity, and I couldn’t wait to jump in,” she recalls.

McCallum says he imagined Ota in the role after watching her portrayal last summer as Prince Escalus in HVSF’s Romeo and Juliet. “She brought to it a mix of natural authority and moral complexity and emotional vulnerability that made me think she’d bring a fresh approach to a portrait of a king as a leader,” he says. He also was confident “she would handle the language of Henry’s great speeches brilliantly.”

Ota with Omar Shafiuzzaman in Henry V
Ota with Omar Shafiuzzaman in Henry V.

Ota emphasizes that she is portraying Henry as a man in her performances — which continue under the tent at the former Garrison Golf Course through Aug. 21 — “though in a way, I’m never fully able to achieve this. Because I’m a mixed-race woman [Japanese, German and Irish] playing a man onstage, it maybe results in a different way of seeing the man, the myth, the legend.”

Ota, 32, has aspired since childhood to be a classical actor. “I’m deeply in love with Shakespeare,” she says. “I love the writing, the universality of the stories. It doesn’t matter where you come from; these stories bring to life the human complexities of being alive.”

Repertory theater is a great teacher, she says. “You’re learning how to be a universal actor when you’re playing a maid, guard, Juliet, Hamlet,” she says. “My goal was to become an actor with the biggest range I could reach for; in repertory, you’re important if you’re playing any role in any show.”

Ota, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and joined HVSF in 2015 as a member of its Conservatory Company, says she believes that she has found success in classical acting because it’s “based more on skills than on looks. As a mixed-race, mid-sized woman, I’ve had fewer opportunities than my white counterparts. But you have to have an exceptional skill set to do this. If you don’t know how to command the language, you won’t have much success. If you can channel the language, you’ll have work the rest of your life.”

Emily Ota appeared in 2015 in HVSF's production of "The Tempest"
Emily Ota appeared in 2015 in HVSF’s production of The Tempest

Among her past roles, including during three seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, are Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Marianne Dashwood in Kate Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility and Alice in an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. She says she enjoyed “bringing to life women who, despite their circumstances, took their destiny into their own hands. I would love to think of ways to do that in my own life.”

Before auditions, characters are often described in ways that don’t reflect her appearance, she notes. “If [role] breakdowns are described in an offensive way I won’t even submit,” she says. “I want to represent myself and people like me and also represent a part of the world I want to see, where casting is based on merit, the type of person the actor is, and who they want to be. It’s far more interesting to watch someone’s complexities being a human rather than being an object.

Ota, then a member of HVSF's Conservatory Company, in the 2015 production of The Arabian Nights
Ota, then a member of HVSF’s Conservatory Company, in the 2015 production of The Arabian Nights.

“I’m interested in their hearts, minds, souls and intelligence, and how they approach the world and the challenges in the play. It’s not as common a way to approach the work, but I think typecasting is changing, which is wonderful, phenomenal. There is still pushback, but there are a lot of people opening their minds to the range people have inside of them.”

Ota says she would love to play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, although her favorite Shakespeare play is Titus Andronicus, “which is weird because it’s dark and gory and appalling! I would love to play Tamora [Queen of the Goths] — she’s incredibly flawed, very intelligent, a fascinating person. I might still be too young to play her, but hopefully in a decade I’ll get the chance.”

In the other HVSF production this summer, Love’s Labor’s Lost, Ota plays Maria. She says she will miss the tent, although it can be “a challenging beast to try to tackle every night, from the phones [that weren’t turned off] to the outdoor elements. They all make it harder, but the challenges are a great unifier. Everyone’s sweating, but we decided to be here at this moment. I love it because it means that the audience really wants to be there and we want to be there, too.

“It’s kind of how it should be. It brings the poetry to life in a way that it can’t in a super-controlled environment,” she adds. “At Oregon Shakespeare, which has both indoor and outdoor stages, while performing Juliet I could see the moon, and to be able to reference the elements Shakespeare so often uses in his work, to feel immersed, is such a gift.

“Freak rainstorms during Henry add to the environment,” Ota says. “At one performance, while the soldiers were going into Agincourt, you could hear West Point cannons. It’s those happy accidents which, along with the audience, contribute to a beautiful art form.”

Tickets for remaining performances can be purchased at hvshakespeare.org.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Rooney has been writing for The Current since its founding in 2010. A playwright, she has lived in Cold Spring since 1999. She is a graduate of Binghamton University, where she majored in history. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Area of Expertise: Arts