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APATA Member Spotlight: Meet Emma Louise Pursey

Posted by Jennifer (Jenn) Hampstead | Jul 21, 2021

Meet Actor, Producer, Educator and Founder of Suzuki-based Integrated Actor Training: Emma Louise Pursey.

It was while observing fellow students in masterclasses of such acting luminaries as Larry Moss and Howard Fine that Pursey noticed something of interest. Without fail these master teachers would critique an actor during a high stakes performance on such fundamentals as tension; voice; stillness; being centred; being grounded and would be thinking… there is a pre-existing system that teaches those exact skills. A method she herself had trained in and been a part of since 1997. The Suzuki Method of Actor Training.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Born in Brisbane to a schoolteacher and army officer, Pursey spent the better part of her childhood on the move, literally. Combining Ballet and athletics as a youngster it wasn’t until high school and becoming involved in drama and school productions that the spark we often talk about in the arts, kicked in.

Image by Sarah Walker, 2018

Volunteering at the Institute of Modern Art she became immersed in the vibrant Brisbane performance art scene, which was radically punk in its approach during the mid-90s. Watching incredible performance mingled with art Pursey knew she didn’t want to go down the conventional path with acting, but hadn’t found anything that really grabbed her interest. Until…

“I went to see a production of Frank Theatre’s ‘Salome’ at the Princess Theatre in 1997 and was absolutely blown away with the power and the intensity of the performers and the aesthetics of the design and delivery of the work. I had never seen anything like it. I remember sitting in the audience and thinking, I want to do that but also… how do they do that?”

Tracking down director Jacqui Carroll after the show and needing to know how they created such powerful performances Carroll simply put it down to ‘the training’ that they did multiple times a week, suggested she should come and train with them, and to ‘bring thick socks’ because they do a lot of stomping!

It was 1997 when Pursey started at Frank Theatre (now Oz Frank) the same day as colleague Leah Shelton. Remaining at Frank Theatre for the next decade she became one of their Principal Actors. As a repertory company Pursey says she was privileged in being given roles like Lady Macbeth; Jocasta; Juliette and Gertrude. Macbeth toured as a bilingual production internationally, multiple times and to amazing locations. A festival in Adana, Turkey for example, with one of Suzuki’s Principal Actors, Okubo Noriaki playing Macbeth in Japanese and Pursey as the English-speaking Lady Macbeth.

“It was pretty extraordinary what Frank Theatre was able to achieve. There weren’t a lot of Australian companies doing that at the time. It was quite pioneering for international Australian theatre, and I felt really lucky to be a part of that and to get that experience.”

Lady Macbeth – Frank Theatre

The Suzuki Method of Actor Training, Frank Theatre (Oz Frank) and The Brides of Frank

In a nutshell Tadashi Suzuki, Founder of the Suzuki Company of Toga, envisioned acting as more than just ‘talking heads’ and believed actors could make use of their whole body to manipulate time and space.

In Suzuki’s thoughts on the existence of stage actors he says, “There are four things that an actor must be aware of at all times. They are the centre of gravity, breathing, energy and voice. I believe that an actor’s abilities are proportional to the degree to which he has developed a stable centre of gravity, oxygenation through breathing, energy burning, the voice that is emitted, and concentration on these. In everyday social situations, if these physical abilities are developed, the range of action and the ability to adapt to a changing environment and to reach out to others is increased, as well as the safety of life support.”

John Nobbs was one of the original performers chosen to participate in Suzuki’s first visit to Australia in 1992.  He and wife, Choreographer Jacqui Carroll, both renowned in the Australian dance and theatre scene and having extensive knowledge of the body and movement-based work, resonated with Suzuki. Thus began Frank Theatre.

To balance out the classical repertoire of Frank Theatre Pursey, Caroline Dunphy, Neridah Waters, Leah Shelton and Lisa O’Neill forged their own theatre company called The Brides of Frank. (Watch a collection of The Brides of Frank performances below)

The Brides of Frank

“We did comic-based performances and became one of Queensland’s top independent theatre companies during the 2000’s. That was a great experience collectively – running a company with these four women and developing our own original work that was complimentary to our work with Frank Theatre.”

Integrated Actor Training

Moving to Melbourne in 2009 to explore more conventional modes of performance in film and television reignited that spark with the chance to explore characters and story. Undertaking training and masterclasses with some of the finest acting teachers from around the world and being a witness to performance critiques, Pursey began to understand that her foundation in the Suzuki Method of Actor Training was possibly the missing ingredient she could deliver.

In 2016 she reunited with Okubo Noriaki, to co-deliver a masterclass in the training, formulated from their own ideas about making Suzuki accessible to everybody’s body. While Pursey is grateful for her foundation in pure Suzuki, it can be a singular approach at times.

“I’ve modified the training so I can still illicit the same outcomes, but get there in different ways, to prioritise longevity of practice so everybody’s body can engage with the work. Accessibility and safety’s important to me. I have had multiple Scoliosis-related surgeries, so I am very mindful that every kind of body be catered for.”

Bodies and circumstances change week-to-week. Dealing with physical-based training and understanding and teaching the difference between the comfort zone, the danger zone and the growth zone, are paramount to Pursey’s work as an educator facilitating her Suzuki-based Integrated Actor Training delivered at Melbourne’s 16th Street Actors Studio. Encouraging emerging and experienced artists to integrate what they have learnt in their voice, acting and movement classes while in the high stakes pressure of performance is what her Suzuki-based training allows.  

My teaching approach has grown since that masterclass with Okubo. He was very encouraging of me to keep teaching and so gaining that experience has been wonderful in knowing which way I want to steer the work I deliver. Knowing innately how to change my approach when I walk into a class, because every single class is different. The energy is different. Every group of people is different. I always have a set idea of what I am wanting to do in a class, but I’m always ready to change things on the fly, and often do…”

Historically, she says, Suzuki has been associated exclusively with physical theatre training rather than the fact that it is something very beneficial for every actor. Working in the conventional modes of acting for more than half her career now, her Performances are proof that it works.

Belinda, The Man of Mode – Dirk Hoult | Prospero, The Tempest – Melbourne Shakespeare Company | The Process – John Gauci

16th Street Actor’s Studio

Cast as Harper in Caryl Churchill’s play, Far Away, by Ian Rickson, former Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre, a fellow masterclass actor remarked that Pursey was so still and creepy she made him nauseous. Coinciding with attending an Ian Sinclair MatchFit Masterclass at 16th Street Actors Studio, her performances caught the attention of 16th Street Artistic Director, Kim Krejus. Pursey was asked to teach a sample class, and, 3hrs and one standing ovation later, her Suzuki-based Integrated Actor Training became a part of 16th Street’s formidable offerings.

“In the middle of last year, I was invited to work with Rickson again for a Caryl Churchill retrospective and I was cast as Joyce in Top Girls, which was a phenomenal role. He chose that for me. Caryl Churchill herself was there, so I got to perform the role of choice for Rickson and Churchill themselves. Which was pretty high stakes! These qualities of focus, discipline and commitment to your craft as an actor are things a lot of actors struggle with. Thanks to Kim I’ve been teaching full-time and part-time students and, delivering workshops after hours. The ability to teach over time to a captured student cohort has been wonderful. These days a lot of people shy away from things that are difficult or that take time. We’re an instant society. And I get to watch these emerging actors 20 weeks down the track coming to a place of realisation within themselves. Not only is our industry fraught with challenges, so is life. Whatever’s happening in your work is most likely happening parallel in your life – explore what it is, because whatever you resist, persists.”

For an actor creating a strong pathway between the mind and body and allowing for a relaxation to come irrespective of what pressures are at play. For the breath to be grounded, deep from the centre allowing full availability to use that voice powerfully, “It’s like steroids for actors”, Pursey says, “If you commit it to the talent you already have, it will just work!”

Round of applause for the mentors.

Jacqui Carroll & John Nobbs and that old school discipline that I am so grateful for, it was my making, I can deal with anyone and anything now!

I relished my experience working with Ian Rickson, and The Brides of Frank were, and remain, an incredible inspiration to each other.

My colleagues are my greatest inspiration and to that end right now that’s: Sean Mee, Director of Fool For Love by Sam Shepard Produced by and starring Pursey and coming to 16th Street in September (TBC due to Covid restrictions). And Kim Krejus for believing in my work, giving me the opportunity to work at 16th Street and to work twice with Ian Rickson. She is a powerhouse!

Pursey’s advice to emerging actors.

“Find a mentor. Find someone to pay attention to and to develop and foster a mentor relationship with because it humbles you and keeps you learning, and curious, and outside of your own head. I always feel like I’m learning. I never feel like I’ve arrived. I’m not a master teacher, I’m a master learner. As an actor I’m always learning. I’m always ready for a conversation on how to approach the work. Staying openminded and staying humble and curious is essential.”

You can find Emma’s work at www.IntegratedActorTraining.com and Facebook @integratedactortraining

16th Street Actor’s Studio and classes with Emma: www.16thstreet.com.au

Wanting to see Fool For Love – If you’re in Melbourne subscribe to stay informed at: www.emmalouisepursey.com

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