Emily Arata says that she was a sensitive, talkative child who had an opinion about everything and liked to be the center of attention.
She also claims that not much has changed.
“I was always interested in performing,” she says. “I used to act out the books my mom read me using props and costumes. I studied with the Fort Wayne Ballet until sixth grade and had the coveted role of Party Child in The Nutcracker.”
She also recalls coercing her family into annual Thanksgiving puppet shows (“heinously long, plotless and violent”) that she would produce, direct and star in.
Performing was almost inevitable for Arata, who comes from an enormously creative family. Her grandmother and several great aunts were involved with the Fort Wayne Ballet. Her mother is a visual artist specializing in “really tiny things.” Her father is a karaoke standout (“His ‘Mustang Sally’ is glorious”). Her younger brother Sean is “freakishly musically talented, both instrumentally and vocally, and is a very natural actor.” She also has a number of cousins who sing, act and play in bands.
While many performers cite their high school or college theater experiences as instigating their love for performing, Arata was inspired by her kindergarten.
“Weisser Park really made it happen for me,” she says. “There were, and are, so many opportunities there for kids to perform and express themselves artistically. I wanted it all. I took dance, piano, band, choir, everything they had. I ate it all up. I will never be able to express how thankful I am that I was able to go through that program.”
As easily as performing comes to her, she does not feel the same about auditions.
“I have always been the worst auditioner,” she says emphatically. “My first audition was for The Music Man at Memorial Park in the sixth grade. I sang ‘76 Trombones’ with a weird, fake slide in my voice. So gross. So bad. [Director] Kirby Volz didn’t cast me until a later show, when I discovered how to sing like a normal person.”
She earned her first theater role when she was cast as Lucille in No, No, Nanette during her eighth grade year. “I loved it,” she recalls. “I got to wear cool dresses. I had a solo, and my voice cracked in the middle of my song. [But] it was great.”
She went to Indiana University in Bloomington, initially studying criminal justice with a theater minor. She soon switched to elementary education, which didn’t allow for a minor, but she continued to take theater classes as electives.
Her first community theater production was Where’s Charley? at IPFW under the direction of Larry Life. “I didn’t have many lines but it was a great experience,” she says. “Larry just terrified me, but I felt so lucky to be working with him that it was okay.”
As she grew, she became enamored with the professional-level acting and musical talent of the Fort Wayne community.
“I still freak out when I meet people,” she says. “They think I’m joking, but to me, it’s like getting to hang out with celebrities.”
She cites several experiences meeting such talents as Abby Ehinger, Gary Lanier, and Christopher J. Murphy, who cast her in a show with some of her other idols, Jim Nelson, Rosy Ridenour and Jim Matusik.
“Murphy still makes fun of me about how much I was acting like a creepy fan,” she says. “I can’t believe I get to work with these people. I can’t believe these people are my friends.”
Despite her feelings of intimidation, Arata has garnered accolades for a variety of noteworthy roles, including Jenny in the Arena Dinner Theatre production of Company and Marcy Park in the Civic Theatre production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The latter role was a particular challenge, as Arata was called upon to “do a cartwheel, twirl a baton, play trombone, do karate and even to do the splits – which I unfortunately could not do,” she says.
An even bigger challenge was to interact with audience members in a surly fashion.
“I had to be really mean to random audience members every night,” she says. “I caught up with some of them in the green room and apologized later.”
The empathy she felt for the audience members translates to her acting.
“I think if you have empathy for your character,” she says, “you can understand how and why they react like they do.”
The other key to acting, she says, is to study and learn from other actors.
“Jim Nelson is the king of facial expressions and holding the exact right time for laughs,” she says. “Joel Grillo is so good at body language on stage. Emilie Henry’s got these big, expressive eyes and this amazing, maniacal laugh. Clare Ramel is totally fearless on stage. In every show I do, I try to pick up something like that from someone and then use it in my acting.”
She says that if she were to be typecast, she would most prefer to be “the hilarious sidekick. Less pressure than being the lead, and usually more laughs,” she says. “That’s my jam.”
Her current leading role as Meredith Parker in Arena Dinner Theatre’s production of Bat Boy: The Musical does not exactly fill that niche. But she isn’t complaining.
“I love this role,” she says. “I play the wife of a veterinarian who has been taking care of a bat boy that some kids found in a cave. She really takes to the boy, but not everyone feels the same.”
Arata has enjoyed the challenge.
“It’s the biggest role I’ve ever had, by far,” she says. “The music is hard, and [Meredith] goes through a lot of emotions in the show.”
She is also proud of the production itself.
“We’re doing things that haven’t been done in Fort Wayne,” she says. “We’re pushing boundaries, and we might offend some people. We’ve all worked together to find the humor in this really dark script. Audiences have responded very well to it. It’s been amazing.”
As soon as the Bat Boy run ends, Arata will return to work as a teacher at Weisser Park, the fine arts magnet that fostered her love of performing. This fall she will start a new position there as the drama teacher, and she is looking forward to teaching and inspiring a whole new generation of performers.
She is replacing Bruce Hancock, who is also taking a new position as the fine arts liaison this year.
“Bruce is one of the most eloquent, kind, brilliant people I’ve ever met,” she says, “and he is an enormously difficult act to follow.” Fortunately, she says, he has agreed to mentor her as she learns the ropes.
Her love and respect for theater education are a great start, however.
“Theatre is the great equalizer,” she says. “It teaches you to empathize. It teaches you to speak in front of people and not be scared. It teaches you discipline. It lets you just be who you are and hang out with people who are different from you, because they’re busy being who they are. Kids need that. Our society needs that. I get to teach kids to have more kindness, creativity, diversity, and self-confidence all at the same time. How could a job be better than that?”