History and How It Brought Her to New Paltz’s McKenna Theater: Emma Reifschneider’s Story

Along with many theater arts students, Reifschneider frequents McKenna Theater and the Parker theater for classes, though some classes are taught online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo Courtesy of Kerri Kolensky.

“Then the lights go down and we finish by screaming strike and having this really powerful moment, and then there was absolutely nothing. There was no clapping, there was no murmuring, there was nothing. Just silence.” 

Emma Reifschneider is right; no in-person audience witnessed her performance as Miller in the staged reading of “Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets, one of SUNY New Paltz’ theater productions this semester.  

The audience, myself included, was at their respective homes. I watched her perform on television from my couch. There was no pre-show excitement, no waiting for the lights to drop, no rushing to settle in my chair. The broadcast started, and she appeared in the background of the opening scene, sitting in a chair and looking somewhat frazzled and unsure.  

“It took me a full ten minutes to really feel like we were doing it and it wasn’t rehearsal, because there was no one in the audience and usually you can’t see individual faces, but you can feel their presence,” said the actress.

We speak about the performance in her dormitory bedroom, a chaotic yet comforting and homey oasis nestled in a strangely quiet campus. She sits on her sky blue flowered bedspread, pillows and stuffed animals surrounding her cross-legged figure. A tapestry and string lights with clipped on photos cover her side of the wall. There are so many colors, patterns and moments captured that it’s hard to know where to look.

Reifschneider bursts with energy and laughter as her hands illustrate her passions while she talks of her hometown. The college junior is a native of Stuart Manor, a Long Island town. She lives with her two parents and brother, who are not surprised by her acting aspirations. It runs in the family.

“My dad was a theater major in college and still continues to act in community theater, so I kind of caught the bug from him. And my mom’s primary goal in life is to get me to do anything other than theater for the rest of my life,” Reifschneider said, a joking tone evident. “But they love and support me and I love them.”

Her father introduced her to theater, first taking her to a Broadway production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” He took her to the audition for what would be her first performance at age nine, a local community theater production of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” From there, Reifschneider performed in five of her high school’s productions before coming to New Paltz and double majoring in theater and digital media management.

Since starting college, she’s acted in the school’s Praxis productions of “Life’s Only Valuable Emotion” and “Henry IV, Part One,” a staged reading. She also appeared in “Fresh Act,” a student-run showcase of short plays, her freshman and sophomore year. “She Kills Monsters” during her sophomore year was her first Mainstage production and what she calls the “most rewarding.” 

“I was in the show as an ensemble member, but I was also an assistant director, an assistant choreographer and an understudy,” Reifschneider said. “That was cool to get to wear all those different hats and experience all those different roles in the theater.” 

Clothed in a bright blue suit with massive padding to resemble a monstrous creature, the actress was able to use her taekwondo background in several fight scenes. She leaped and pounced throughout the entire theater, enhancing the chaos onstage.

In “Waiting for Lefty” Reifschneider stands out for different reasons. Her scene is just one of several in the production. Each character must decide what they truly value in the midst of the Great Depression while attempting to organize a labor strike. Her character, a lab worker traditionally played by a male, risks losing his job to stand up for his morals against his boss’ wishes.

Reifschneider abandoned her jubilant personality during the show as her body grew more rigid and serious. The proximity of the camera gave a detailed look of her face; her eyebrows frequently furrowed in frustration at her scene partner, even with the black mask on her face. The anger only strengthened between the two characters as Reifschneider’s body reflected the emotion. 

She adopted a male persona, her spine rigid as she sat forward in her chair, legs wide apart and firmly planted on the floor. Even though the two actors were six feet apart, the space felt impossibly small. She demonstrated her awareness of her partner by looking anywhere but him as she reminisced about her character’s deceased brother. Her command of the space was mesmerizing as she looked out into an empty theater, searching for invisible faces.

While the role and the circumstances surrounding it may have been vastly different from what she’s used to, the actress said that her process in preparing for the show didn’t change very much. 

“I think every experience you do prepares you for something, whether you know it or not,” Reifschneider said. An important part of the process for her is familiarizing herself with the material and really getting into the headspace and life of the character. “I just think about it on walks, so I’ll go on runs, I think about my backstory in the shower. I think, ‘where was Miller ten minutes before this scene, where was he after this scene?’” 

Embodying the character and staying present is something the actress wants to improve on. “My brain never shuts up, even on the stage,” she said. “If I’m in the scene it’s a little bit better. I won’t be thinking of that homework assignment, but I’ll also be thinking, ‘oh I know my grandma’s watching this.’” 

Reifschneider also wants to work on different types of physical movements more to bring her characters to life. “Each character that you do should have a slightly different walk,” she said.

Reifschneider’s future aspirations are centered around theater, though they may not involve always being on stage. While acting full time is her dream, she is also interested in producing and being a part of theater in other capacities. “I really do love the management side of things. I find it really fascinating, and I’m not just doing it because my mom told me I need a second major,” she said.

The actress knows that theater will have an immense presence in her life, regardless of what she decides to do after graduation. She values the importance of theater and what it can teach others, especially during a time of turmoil in the world. “It’s really hard for people to change, but people can walk out with a new perspective. I love that idea. That your work influenced someone.”