Emma Williams: meeting An Officer and a Gentleman

Fri 2 Mar 2018

“Are you ok?” he asks.

I’m collapsed in a heap on the floor outside an audition room at The American Church, London. 40 minutes earlier I was stroking the church cat (for luck) and walking in with my folder of music, a friendly smile and numerous well-highlighted and noted pages of script. Behind the desk sit eight welcoming faces, most of whom I know very well. This should be easy… or at least easier than an audition where you know no-one. And yet… my heart is racing, my palms are sweaty and the words on the pages are swimming.

This is the scene of my second of three auditions for Paula Pokrifki in the new musical of An Officer and a Gentleman. For fans of the movie – Paula was played by the brilliant Debra Winger. For newcomers – Paula’s a factory worker at the local paper mill who has aspirations of escaping the prescribed mundaneness of small-town life by becoming a nurse. She’s a small ray of determined hope in a town beaten back by life and the changing socio-economic scene of 1980’s America.

For me, Paula is an ‘alternative’ romantic lead. She’s gritty, independent and unwilling to compromise, which in a genre that has been dominated by women who need ‘rescuing’ is a breath of fresh air. I’m from a family of strong, feisty women hence I love playing them, and I’ve been fortunate enough to create several onstage – including Jenny in Love Story and Maureen in Mrs Henderson Presents. Add in the chance to belt out a killer 80’s pop and rock score? I didn’t want this role, I needed it.

You would think that auditions get easier the longer you’ve been in the industry but for some reason they don’t. Maybe it’s because you understand the pressures and pitfalls more with age. Maybe it’s because there’s a whole raft of fresh graduates each year who are still joyously fearless. Or maybe it’s simply that when those rare jewels of jobs turns up, the desire to land them becomes all-consuming.

If the prospect of being in an original company wasn’t enough, there was the added draw of reuniting with director Nikolai Foster (who is responsible for introducing me and my soon-to-be husband James on White Christmas). Officer also meant the opportunity to play my first ever production at Curve, a space I’ve only visited and taught at previously. It was all proving a little overwhelming for a rainy Thursday afternoon in October… which is how I ended up curled in a tiny ball on the corridor floor, shaking with adrenaline, having just belted my lungs out to ‘Alone’ by Heart.

I hug my knees to my chest and drop my head down onto them, trying to bring my breathing back under control and stop myself from throwing up. I blot out the hazy murmurings of dozens of other lined-up hopefuls going through the script before their own feats of endurance beckon. A voice breaks through.

“Are you ok?” he asks. A hand reaches out and I’m hauled to my feet.

“Thanks… sorry… thanks. Emma.” We shake hands.

“No worries,” he smiles, “I’m Jonny.”


Paula. Meet Zack.


Emma Williams

Jonny Fines as Zack Mayo and Emma Williams as Paula Pokrifki in An Officer and a Gentleman – the Musical