During the course of The Turn of the Screw, currently onstage at freeFall Theatre, the unnamed governess at the heart of the story never laughs. Oh, she cracks a smile or two near the beginning, before the story has descended into full gothic darkness mode, but for all intents and purposes she’s a rather grim customer.
How nice to discover that Emilee Dupré, the actress in the role, laughs – and laughs a lot – in real life. Dupré, who wears a perpetual smile, is the virtual opposite of her onstage doppelganger.
Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is a atmospheric, indigo-hued ghost story, set in a Victorian-era English country mansion, with two mysterious, parent-less children left in the care of Dupré’s naïve character. The director is Timothy Saunders (Buyer and Cellar).
FreeFall is performing the Jeffrey Hatcher adaptation, which includes just one other performer – in this case, the theater’s artistic director Eric Davis – appearing in numerous roles. Without ever completely leaving the stage.
Dupré, who’s worked before with the chameleonlike Davis, is thrilled to play it this way.
“I’m in the trusted hands of Eric Davis,” she says, with a knowing smile. “I know that I’m in the hands of somebody that’s so smart, and quick on his feet – so if I mess up, he’s going to have my back. If he messes up, I’m going to have his back. We’re going to take care of each other.
“It’s like tango dancing, right? There’s always that resistance, that push and pull. We’re doing a tango the whole time. You can’t dip yourself. There’s a little danger when you lean back into somebody’s arms. But then it’s like oh, that’s thrilling.”
Still, the gut-wrenching emotional physics of this spooky exercise leave her drained after every performance. Becoming the governess, and riding James’ emotional roller coaster, takes skill – and it takes a toll.
“I would not say that that’s in any way who I really am, but at the same time I can’t do something that I don’t believe in,” Dupré explains. “So you have to find your own truth and do the character. To me, it becomes like an out of body experience. But it’s a totally in-body experience, and you have to let go of all the things that make you exist peacefully, and in society. You have to just go for what you want, in Joan of Arc style. With great conviction.
“I can’t allow any judgement in, or else the story suffers. Then it becomes a gratuitous performance, and I don’t want that.”
She’s up at the crack of dawn every morning, practicing Ashtanga yoga at The Body Electric. “When you have access to all those wild emotions,” she says, “you have to take care of yourself. And you have to make sure that you can put your boundaries back on.”
Emilee Dupré grew up in Tierra Verde and dreamed of the stage from childhood (“I think I knew that this thing had a hold over my heart unlike anything else”). Her mother is choreographer and dance instructor Cheryl Lee, who instilled a love of dance in the girl in her tiny-tot days. Emilee spent the last four years of her tenure at Shorecrest Preparatory acting, singing – and dancing – in school plays.
At first, she was bashful, introverted … and pigeon-toed. “I fought my way out of it through theater and storytelling,” she believes. “Because otherwise I was so shy – ‘I don’t want to say anything wrong’ – and I’m still that way.”
Summers were spent at the Broadway Theatre Project, an intensive (and hard to get into) training program launched in Tampa by, among others, Bob Fosse protégé Ann Reinking.
There, she was mentored by the likes of Reinking, Ben Vereen and even Gwen Verdon – Dupre cherishes the memory of learning, from the legendary hoofer, the famous “Who’s Got the Pain” dance that Verdon and Fosse immortalized in Damn Yankees.
Immediately after her graduation from Shorecrest, Dupré decamped for New York and joined the national tour of Fosse. She’s also toured with A Chorus Line, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and High School Musical.
In 2012, she became an ensemble member of Chaplin on Broadway, and understudied the key role of Hannah, Charlie Chaplin’s mother (performing it more times, Dupre recalls, than the actual star Christiane Noll).
Chaplin overlapped her own star turn in freeFall’s Davis-directed Cabaret, in which Dupré had the lead role, troubled chanteuse Sally Bowles. Her mother designed the choreography for the innovative, acclaimed production of the Kander and Ebb musical.
At freeFall, she’s also appeared in Mame (2017) and last year’s Crumbs From the Table of Joy. In 2016, she co-starred in the utterly charming independent film Waiting On Mary, made on location in St. Petersburg. Also featuring a half-dozen local actors, it’s currently available on Amazon Prime.
Dupré doesn’t get to St. Petersburg – and her family in Tierra Verde – as often as she’d like. As a working New York City actor, and a triple threat at that, she has to be free to fly (or drive, as it were) anywhere in the country, for professional theater gigs. That’s the life she chose.
In the city, she teaches – acting, singing, dancing and yoga – and is a member of the Upstart Creatures, a nonprofit theatrical company with a twist: “We cook gourmet five-course meals, depending on whatever play we do, for our audience of about 120, 130,” Dupré says. “We do it all for free – it’s a metaphysical feast – but we bring the community together through food and art.”
She holds a BFA in Theater from New York University, and received additional stage training via the Atlantic Theatre Company. Which, she explains, continues to serve her well. “A lot of the training there is getting down to the truth, the essential nature of the human story that you’re telling.”
Digging deep into Henry James’ apparitional apparatus, The Turn of the Screw, has been an essential part of Emilee Dupré’s journey this time around the old hometown.
Happily, she says, she has Eric Davis to take the head trip with her.
“I think he’s an enigma,” she gushes. “He’s so amazing. He’s a magical theater unicorn. Eric brings people together that say ‘yes’ to a challenge. They have a willingness and endurance to take risks and rise up.”
Tickets and info here.