She’s Ready for Her Close Up

Here Emma sings “Shy” from the musical “Once Upon a Mattress” at the Platinum National Competition held at Lexington High School last spring. She was named best junior vocalist for her performance.

Emma Imholz is only 11, but her career as an actress and singer is already blossoming. A veteran of nine community theater productions, she’s performing as Teen Fiona this fall in the Village Square Theater production of “Shrek: The Musical.” She’s also cast in an upcoming episode of HBO’s “Eastbound & Down,” and has a callback for a lead role in “Elbow Grease,” a Screen Actors Guild movie that shoots later this summer. She recently snagged roles in an indie feature film and a country music video. In the meantime, she’s crewing backstage for the Town Theater production of “Tarzan.”

You could say she’s found her passion.

The Blythewood tween, who lives in Cobblestone Park with her parents, Julie and Mark, keeps an intense schedule of acting, singing and dance classes. But her instructors say they are only building on her remarkable, natural musical talents. Those talents were evident from babyhood, according to her parents.

“Before Emma could even talk,” Julie recalled, “I’d hear her quietly humming little melodies to herself in her crib. It was actually on pitch – not baby noises. The tonality was really pretty. It just blew my mind!”

Julie, a former surgical scrub nurse, recognized the quality and pitch because of her own musical background.

“I was in chorus, and sang in a few pageants in high school. My mother also likes to sing. But,” she added with a laugh, “Emma is a whole lot better than either of us!”

Emma began taking voice and dance lessons as a toddler, and by five she’d débuted at Town Theater, singing a lullaby in a Christmas play. Soon she was writing her own songs, playing piano by ear and creating elaborate shows with parts for friends and cousins.

“I always loved performing,” Emma told The Voice. “My first-grade teacher at Round Top Elementary, Mrs. Hererra, even let me sing before class each morning for the rest of the kids, which was awesome!”

Emma took a variety of performing arts classes over the next five years – from guitar and piano to the Broadway Bound program at Workshop Theater to this summer’s Girls Rock Columbia rock star boot camp.

Vicky Saye Henderson, the Director of Education and a teaching artist at Trustus Theater, works with Emma on singing, acting, camera work and other aspects of performance.

“Emma has an indescribable gift,” Vicky said. “She has an innate understanding of music in many ways. And she’s a ‘thinking’ actor – during lessons she’s often a step ahead, already making a discovery that I’m trying to lead her to.”

She added that Emma is also strongly self-motivated.

“I’m particularly amazed by her ability to teach herself at the piano. She writes music – she’ll sit down at the piano and play around with chords and notes, get the melody down, the lyrics. It’s a pleasure to watch,” Henderson said. “I think she’s going to have a lot of success both on stage and on camera.”

Emma said that branching into TV and film work this year has been fun.

“I had a great time doing an indie film this summer called ‘Love Letters’,” Emma said. “My character was in a water balloon fight. There were two takes, so I dried off and then got to do it again!”

For that role, Emma travelled to Wilmington, N.C., a studio hotspot known in the industry as “Wilmywood.”

“A lot of TV shows and movies are filmed there,” Emma said, “like ‘Under the Dome’, ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Iron Man 3’.”

She was back in Wilmywood again a few weeks ago, to film a part for “Eastbound & Down” where her character watches and cheers for a boat race.

Her work and travel schedule, while exciting, can also be exhausting.

“It’s hard to get enough sleep,” Emma said. “When I was in ‘The Little Mermaid’ at Village Square Theater last year, I’d be on stage until 10 or 11 at night. Then we’d drive all the way home, and I’d have to get up early for school. I barely got five or six hours of sleep.”

So, after Emma finished sixth grade this year at Muller Road Middle School – where she won the talent show in April – her family decided to try homeschooling in hopes of having a more flexible schedule. Emma credits her parents for doing a lot of the heavy lifting that’s necessary to, well, keep the show on the road.

“They do a lot,” she said, “like driving me where I need to go, when they would probably rather be relaxing or watching a movie or something!”

The family moved to Blythewood from Atlanta in 1997, when Mark took a job with CSC. Emma’s older sister, Jessica, is graduating from Coastal Carolina this year with a degree in Exercise Science, so for the most part she’s been spared the family’s frenetic schedule.

Emma said that despite all the rigors of the acting life, though, she loves it.

“Writing songs and singing and performing,” she said, “makes me really happy.”

Emma will next be performing in “Shrek: The Musical” at the Village Square Theater in Lexington, Sept. 20 – Oct. 6.