The title character in Lucy Kirkwood’s Hedda is cold, brittle and manipulative. Emily Belvo, the actress playing her at Jobsite Theatre in Tampa, is none of those things.
The drama about a bored newlywed without empathy or the ability to love is, of course, a contemporary adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. It’s set in London’s West End.
“I’ve always wanted to challenge myself as an actress,” Belvo says. “On paper, Hedda can come off as a very unlikeable person. But there’s a reason. I’m interested in learning ‘Well, why would she react that way? Why is she talking this way? What made her the way she is?’”
Hedda plays complicated games of cat-and-mouse with each of the other five characters in the play, with different results each time.
The secret, Belvo believes, is right there in Ibsen – and in Kirkwood. “All of these big moments in her life have got her to this one moment: I’m trapped. I don’t know what to do.” So she lashes out.
Belvo has been a strong presence on the Tampa Bay theater scene for a decade. Much of her work has been with Jobsite, the professional company housed in the Straz Center complex. Recent roles there like Dancing at Lughnasa and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and As You Like It were squarely in her wheelhouse: Gentle, kind, compassionate young innocents (she played similar characters recently in Wait Until Dark at Hat Trick, and Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche at Stageworks).
Her Hedda Gabler rarely if ever smiles, and delivers many of her barbed lines through clenched teeth like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Her wide eyes scream “What am I doing here?”
“That’s kind of why I liked Hedda,” Belvo says. “I’m the 180 of who that person is.”
Far from caricature or cartoonish, however, Belvo’s Hedda is a fully-formed human time bomb, impossible to look away from. She is riveting; every scene in the play is electrically charged, emotionally, sexually, sometimes in ways the audience feels but doesn’t understand.
Still, it’s acting. During the early days of rehearsals with Christopher Marshall, who plays Hedda’s new husband George, “Every time I would say something snappish to him, I would look at him and say ‘I’m so sorry!’” Belvo laughs. “He’d say ‘Why are you so mean to me?’ and we’d giggle about it. I felt so bad!”
Although she was born in Bradenton, Belvo spent most of her pre-teen years living on an air base in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked as a project manager. Since that was pretty much the only life she knew, coming back to the States actually gave her a kind of culture shock, she says. Emily finished out high school in Maryland, performing in plays and thinking about her future.
At St. Leo University, just north of Tampa in Pasco County, “I was undecided and didn’t know what I wanted to do, so it was between psychology and business,” Belvo remembers. “Weirdly enough, my psychology teacher had an audition notice for a play. I didn’t even know they had theater at St. Leo.”
She auditioned for the play The Good Times Are Killing Me, got the part, and was hooked.
But St. Leo did not offer a theater major, so she went into English with a specialization in theater. “It was perfect, because I got to learn different types of storytelling all over the world,” she says.
After graduation, Belvo joined the Eckerd Theater Company, a children’s troupe that traveled up and down the east coast of America. It was during this period she met, and became friends with, other Tampa-area actors.
“I just like to learn off of people,” she admits. “That’s how I work best. I feel that if you’re open and honest with your character … honesty is key. What are your stakes? What are our stakes in this scene? It’s just feeding off your partner – what can we make here? What are the circumstances? Let’s ask questions.”
Her early psychology training has served her well, especially when she approaches a complex character like Hedda. “To be in the mindset and try to make somebody relatable when things are so hard against them has been one of the biggest challenges,” Belvo says. “But I couldn’t ask for a better job because you need that stretch, you need that imagination.”
Never forgetting, for a nanosecond, that there’s always something relatable, in every character.
“Even though she’s saying these horrible things, I feel like at the same time there are moments where the audience can see why,” Belvo explains.
“It’s funny, when I do my little speech about marriage, and how I’m stuck with this person, literally I see couples in the audience look at each other. It’s so fascinating to me.”
Tickets and info here.