The flowering of Emilia Sargent

A talented actress who's primed for the big time.

I've been watching Emilia Sargent act on various Bay area stages for years, and I've always been a) impressed and b) baffled. Impressed because she's such a talented actress and has such a superb soprano voice. Further, she's one of the most physically striking of area performers, with her long red hair and expressive face.

Baffled because I've never seen much logic in her career trajectory — here she is at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center singing the lead; there she is at Gorilla Theatre in an exceedingly small part; now she's at American Stage, looking like a star; then she's at Hat Trick Theatre, looking like an afterthought. How does it add up? Why is an artist of this caliber not better known? Why is she in the Bay area at all and not in New York or Los Angeles?

I sat down with Sargent in a classroom at the Patel Conservatory to discuss these and other matters, and I discovered a hard-working woman in her 30s who started out to make a career as an engineer and who only slowly came to realize that acting and singing were more important to her. She's also a family woman with a husband and two daughters, as well as a committed believer who takes God and church seriously. As for New York and L.A., well, don't count them out yet: She's cautiously considering relocating to one or the other and even has a dream of being "bicoastal."

Sargent chose engineering because she's the Texas-born only child of a former military man who worked for NASA as an electrical engineer and who is "the single most influential person on me academically." Her singing career started at age 14 in Fort Walton Beach (her father was by then working at Eglin Air Force Base) when her Nicaraguan mother caught her crooning in her room and decided a voice teacher was appropriate. Voice lessons continued through high school and naturally enough, Sargent performed in high school musicals. Once she became immersed in engineering studies at Auburn University, she felt she wasn't getting much opportunity to sing on stage. So she entered the Miss Auburn University beauty-and-talent pageant. She won, to her surprise, and moved on to the Miss Alabama competition, where she didn't fare as well (but used the scholarships to fund her engineering education).

She graduated from Auburn in 1991 and almost immediately went to work for Allen-Bradley, the oldest automation company in the U.S. Though based in the Tampa office, her job was to "go anywhere, fix anything, whether I've seen it before or not." One assignment was to program a machine to put Oreo Cookies in boxes; another was to upgrade the programming of the King Kong monster at Universal Studios. After three years of well-paid but exhausting 80-hours-a-week work for Allen-Bradley, Sargent "decided that's enough," left her position and almost immediately found a niche as a consultant.

Working part-time "made it possible for me to begin performing," Sargent said. Feeling the "need to get my feet wet again," she took on some musicals at community theaters like the Masque of Temple Terrace, then auditioned for and won her first professional job at Stageworks — a small part in Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles. (She also met her husband-to-be Jeff at Stageworks' acting classes). Sargent next acted in Webb's City: The Musical, followed it up with several shows at American Stage, played the Shepherdess in the rock musical The Song of Songs — "a chance to ... use the gifts that I feel are God-given, for God's glory." She then took a two-year break from performing in order to help her children — "one swimmer and one ballet dancer" — navigate through the demands of the elementary school years.

Back on stage, she was Vivien Leigh in Orson's Shadow at Gorilla Theatre, several characters in Jane Eyre, also at Gorilla, and a very funny busybody in The Underpants at Hat Trick Theatre. When I talked to her, she had just started rehearsal for a major role in David Mamet's Boston Marriage at Jobsite.

So will these next few years see the flowering of Emilia Sargent, or will she continue her eclectic ways on large and small stages? She has lots of projects: a two-woman cabaret that premiered at the Patel, a one-woman show where she can demonstrate her vocal talents, a CD of show tunes. But New York and/or Hollywood beckon — and last summer, in NYC, she auditioned for a Broadway show. "But it comes down to, I'm raising a family," Sargent says. "And Jeff's our sole support right now ... I'm working in and out of the industry. His job is here. If he were to be able to secure a position [in N.Y. or L.A.], I'd feel comfortable with moving. If we could move tomorrow, I would do it."

And so it continues — the uneven arc of one of the area's brightest performers. Where she'll be, say, three years from now, is anyone's guess.

But watch out for her, she's special. And her best times, I'm convinced, are ahead.

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