There were a few years when Emily Gunyou Halaas was everywhere. Fringe Festival, check; Guthrie, check. Latté Da, Mixed Blood, Frank, Park Square. Check, check, check and check. Her busy schedule and consistently strong work won her the 2009 Ivey Emerging Artist honor.
Gunyou Halaas is no less accomplished these days, but she agreed that she has been less visible lately. Last year, she said, she was in only two shows — and not being on stage did not set particularly well with her.
“I found myself getting into a bitter place when I was not working,” Gunyou Halaas said in an interview last week. “I got myself into a better place, hustling around for more things.”
One of the things she has hustled into is “Or,” by Liz Duffy Adams, which opens next weekend at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. The play focuses on Aphra Behn, a playwright who reveled in the freedom of Restoration England. Behn dallied with King Charles II, played secret agent for him and became a symbol for women. Virginia Woolf wrote that “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
Park Square’s production, directed by Leah Cooper, also stars Matt Guidry as the king and Mo Perry as actress Nell Gwynne — the monarch’s secret squeeze.
Gunyou Halaas met with a reporter at a south Minneapolis coffee shop that she likes to haunt. It’s a good place to read, she said, and it gets her out of the apartment — away from the distractions of television, computer, two cats and her knitting hobby.
“Or,” she said, locates the spirit of the 1960s in the 1660s. Certainly, there was no Haight-Ashbury, but England did swing after the Cromwell years. Behn reveled in that freedom and embraced her elevated profile.
“I feel like Aphra,” said Gunyou Halaas. “I crave glory — but I don’t know what that looks like.”
Theater veteran at young age
Gunyou Halaas is a product of the Minneapolis South High School theater program. She palled around with Nathan Keepers, Brian Balcom, Ben Tallen, Sarah Holmberg and other Twin Cities actors and directors. Josh Hartnett was a senior when she was a freshman, so while she was on stage with him, she was stuck in the ensemble. On a bus ride back from a high school visit to the Guthrie, she had her first “real kiss” with her future husband, Per Halaas.
“I’ve kissed more people on stage than off stage,” Gunyou Halaas deadpanned.
She also apprenticed at Children’s Theatre Company and then went off to New York for several years to work and study at Circle in the Square.
In 2005, Gunyou Halaas first caught our attention when she returned to Minneapolis with a Fringe production. It was a small show but Gunyou Halaas had a confidence and presence worth noting. The next year, she raised the stakes with a solo show at the Fringe and started catching on with small theaters.
Her first stop at Park Square was 2007’s “Trying,” a lovely little two-hander in which she played the young, helpful secretary to the aged Francis Biddle, portrayed by Richard Ooms. Gunyou Halaas demonstrated her commitment to finding characters from the inside and then letting them rise subtly to the surface.
Her Guthrie debut came in Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third,” with Sally Wingert and Angela Timberman. Soon, you could not turn around without seeing Gunyou Halaas. She was in “Deception” at Jeune Lune, “Bessie’s Birthday” at Latté Da, “Vinegar Tom” with Frank and back at Park Square in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Even while piling up credits at larger stages, she took time to portray activist Rachel Corrie in a solo show for Emigrant Theater. Then there was the dry spell of 2012.
Gunyou Halaas is shy, self-aware and as honest as she can be without betraying confidences. In her rapid rise, she said, she might have come to assume a sense of privilege. She got out of her longtime habit of hustling for work and let other parts of her life occupy her time — such as doting on her nephew, born last summer. That’s important stuff, she said, showing off photos on her phone, and the family time has made her incredibly happy. But where was the work?
“I’m trying to keep my integrity as a playful human, rather than think about how I can get every job I can get,” she said. “It’s very complicated. When I go too far one way or the other, it makes me unhappy. I’m always trying to find balance. Being an artist is terrifying. It’s a leap of faith.”
Well-read and intelligent, Gunyou Halaas leans on the insight of Thoreau, who wrote of how men live lives of quiet desperation.
“When I find I am living in quiet desperation, I try to find a way to shake things up,” she said.