Emily Mayo ’24 read her first full Shakespeare play when she was nine years old to earn a king-sized candy bar.
The teacher who led her elementary school’s 20-minute production of “Julius Caesar” used sugary bribes to encourage her students to read the full text. Mayo leaped at the opportunity and quickly became enthralled by Shakespeare. That summer, she read five or six more Shakespearean plays, igniting a lasting passion.
“I don’t think I understood really anything,” Mayo said. “But I kept reading it. When I came back to it and when I read them again, they made sense. Because I was exposed so early, I pieced together the very basics.”
Mayo has kept her passion for theater alive at Brown. So far, she has directed three well-known plays: “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Julius Caesar” and “Antigone.” She was stage manager and assistant director of the musical comedy “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and acted in “Twelfth Night.” She is currently playing Philario in “Cymbeline” while studying abroad at King’s College in London.
The first show Mayo ever directed, “Much Ado About Nothing,” gave her the confidence to trust her artistic intuition and to “really do this,” she said.
“It’s a really scary thing to direct (and) to create a vision of something different — especially a classic work that’s been done nine thousand times — and really make it your own,” Mayo added.
With a newfound sense of confidence, Mayo was inspired to return to one of her “old friends”: “Julius Caesar.” As a director, Mayo put her own twist on the very show that ignited her love of Shakespeare. Instead of featuring Roman politicians wearing togas, her production was set in an all-girls boarding school. She said that she originally conceived the concept when she was preparing for the role of Marc Antony in her high school’s production of the show.
“I had no idea how I, a 14-year-old girl, was going to be this 45-year-old Roman politician who’s also a crazy partier who has a really significant background in the military,” Mayo said. “I ended up writing — which sounds totally embarrassing — a fanfiction equivalent to put the situation into something that I felt I could relate to more.”
Mayo said that there is something special about “exploring an ancient story through a modern lens,” and that she often approaches her directing from this perspective.
For example, when directing the Greek tragedy “Antigone” in fall 2022, Mayo read through more than five translations before picking what she described as an “aggressively, deeply modern version.” It was her first time directing using theater-in-the-round — a staging technique where audiences surround the performers — and she wanted to make sure that the audience could connect with all aspects of the story.
“The characters’ plights and the way they talk, even if it’s disguised in more formal language, really do resonate with experiences and emotions that we have now,” she said
Grace Miller ’24 has acted in all three of the shows Mayo has directed at Brown. She said that Mayo finds balance as a director between producing her own vision and incorporating feedback from the actors. Miller added that she admires Mayo’s dedication to theater.
“She puts a lot on the line for these shows,” Miller said. “She gives up so many hours just to direct this and it’s really incredible. It’s all a lot, but it’s all worth it because she really cares about it so much.”
Mayo said that as a history concentrator the opportunity to experience and tell the human story is what keeps her coming back to the theater.
“Theater in any capacity… is all fundamentally about telling human stories,” she said, “That is at the core of all I do. That’s what I really hope for when (audiences) come out of productions, that they see a story that moved them in some way.”
Currently, Mayo is creating her own theatrical story in tandem with Northwestern University student Matthew Millin, a friend of Mayo’s. After meeting in sixth-grade chorus, the pair hit it off and quickly became friends, matching each other’s enthusiasm for theater, according to Millin.
They have been working together on a musical adaptation of Madeline Miller’s ’00 AM’01 book “Song of Achilles” for five years, with Mayo writing the script and Millin writing the score. What started as a “silly passion project” is being staged at Northwestern this summer as an unofficial not-for-profit production, according to Millin.
“It’s been an incredible learning experience just to go through this process of adaptation and writing new music, and there’s no one else I would rather have shared it with,” Millin said.
“I really love to make art with Emily,” he added.
Mayo said that this production simultaneously feels like the culmination of years of work and the beginning of an exciting and uncertain journey. “We don’t know if it will stop here or go further,” she said.
Regardless, Mayo said that she will pursue theater in the future. She wants to become managing director of a theater and do theatrical administration to oversee the logistical elements that “make theater happen.”
Mayo added that theater will always be a part of her identity.
“When I came into college, I didn’t know if I wanted to do a lot of theater anymore,” Mayo said. “Then I did ‘Much Ado (About Nothing),’ and I remember turning to someone and going, ‘I think I have to do theater in the future, don’t I?’ and they said, ‘Emily, everyone knew that but you.’”
Dana Richie is a senior staff writer for Arts and Culture and the photo chief. She enjoys using multiple forms of media to capture peoples’ stories and quirks. In her free time, she loves knitting, learning about local history and playing ultimate frisbee.