For nearly two decades, Emily Scott Banks has been a favorite actor on North Texas stages. With jet-black curly locks, a voice that carries command and fragility in the same sentence, and a deep commitment to every role she takes on, audiences have seen the Fort Worth-based actress frequently at professional theaters.
In recent years, respect for her has grown, thanks to another role: director.
“I’ve always had a director brain and never listened to it,” Banks says, “but my mindset was always ‘I’m an actor,’ ” she says. “Turns out I like having all the crayons in the crayon box and taking them out to create something.”
This week sees the opening of her third show as director at Stage West, the area premiere of Aaron Posner’s play Stupid ... Bird (there’s an expletive in the middle of the title that we have deleted). The play is a riff on Chekhov’s masterpiece The Seagull.
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Banks previously directed An Iliad (2016) and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence (2014) at Stage West. Since 2009, she has added 12 plays in area theaters to her directing résumé.
“I didn’t know that at the time, but once I started directing, I became less satisfied with being happy with a prop part,” says Banks, 48. “I was getting frustrated with the roles available to me. How many others can you play? I decided if there’s not a challenging part, I can choose not to do it.”
Bitten by the acting mouse
Although Banks has been known to audiences at the professional theaters for the past 16 years, she has spent much of her life on stages in her native Fort Worth. At age 3, her parents took her to see the Fort Worth Ballet’s The Nutcracker.
“There was a mouse that died in the battle scene,” she says, “and I told my parents that I wanted to die onstage like that. Not that I wanted to play a mouse, but that I wanted to die onstage.”
She was soon signed up for ballet lessons, studying under Fernando Schaffenburg, who founded Fort Worth Ballet with Margo Dean in the 1960s.
She also performed at Hip Pocket Theatre in its earliest days, in the late 1970s. Through the ’80s, Banks performed onstage there and would also create plays with Lake and Lorca Simons, daughters of Hip Pocket co-founders Johnny and Diane Simons, often performing their skits after the main-stage production. (Star-Telegram critic Perry Stewart would write little reviews for them on pieces of paper.)
Realizing her love for acting, Banks attended Fort Worth’s now-defunct Professional Youth Conservatory, which had a complete curriculum with a focus on performance at Texas Wesleyan University. Jim Covault, who was involved with Stage West as a director and actor, taught there. She then pursued an acting degree at Loyola University in New Orleans, and transferred to the University of Texas at Austin.
“In my second year at Loyola, I played Lady Macbeth and was not sure what else I could do after that,” she says, laughing. After earing her bachelor’s degree at UT, she studied for a year and a half with Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts.
She returned to Fort Worth for the birth of her son, who is now 16. Her first professional play in Fort Worth was at Stage West. At WaterTower Theatre in Addison, she began studying under artistic director Terry Martin, who told her that she thought like a director, and asked her to direct the following season’s production of A Feminine Ending.
“Through her acting, she proved to be an exceptional storyteller with strong opinions and insight on good acting and how it serves a play,” Martin says. “She has grown tremendously over the last few years and has developed into a director of great skill, bravery, and versatility. Her voice is strong and unique.”
The directing jobs kept coming.
“I’ve never put my résumé out as a director,” she says. “I feel very blessed. I can only attribute that to relationships I’ve made as an actor.”
With Stupid Bird, Banks might have her biggest challenge yet. Aside from Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov is arguably the playwright who has most fascinated other playwrights throughout the 20th century (Tennessee Williams riffed on The Seagull in The Notebooks of Trigorin), and especially in this century.
“I feel like he is one of those playwrights that demands everything,” Banks says. “He asks you to leave nothing uncovered. It’s incredibly challenging because there isn’t spectacle and anything showy to cover up the characters and language.”
This play by Posner mirrors The Seagull with characters that include a playwright and actors, and it becomes metatheatrical and wacky.
Stage West describes it thusly: “Dev loves Mash. Mash loves Con. Con loves Nina. Nina loves Trig. But so does Emma. Thus, the stage is set for sidesplitting heartache. An irreverent and unabashedly provocative riff on Chekhov’s classic tale of the timeless battle between young and old, past and present, amidst the search for the true meaning of it all — only this time, convention gets shot to ... hell.”
Chekhov considered many of his plays comedies, even though they often are treated as drama.
For Banks, it’s a perfect step on the ladder to becoming a director who’s not only in demand in North Texas, but, she hopes, in other cities across the country.
“I want it to continue to grow and challenge me and not get stuck in doing the same thing over and over again,” Banks says. “In the same way I couldn’t have predicted that I would be a director, so I’m going to trust that there’s something out there that’s a great challenge ahead.”
- Jan. 19-Feb. 19
- Stage West, 821 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth
- $31-$35 ($17 for previews Jan. 19 and 20)
- 817-784-9378; www.stagewest.org
- Contains partial nudity and strong language.