Having a conversation with internationally renowned theater artist and activist Lisa Wolpe is a feast for the mind and imagination. A lover of words and their power and a fierce passionate woman, Ms. Wolpe is an award winning actress, director and founder of the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company, a professional company that produces Shakespeare's plays with all-female casts. In New York for July and August, Ms. Wolpe is performing two shows in repertory at HERE, Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender, a solo show weaving together cross-gender Shakespeare roles and her own personal story of survival, and MacBeth3, with Ms. Wolpe playing the title role.
In the downstairs theater at HERE, the set for MacBeth3 hovers around us as we sit in the front row seats and talk about the power and beauty of Shakespeare’s language, the training needed to do Shakespeare with excellence, gender parity and cross-gender Shakespeare. I remind Ms. Wolpe that I’ve been an ardent fan of her visionary work, having first met her at Shakespeare & Company some 20 years ago, when I was doing their intensive training. She reminds me we share a "connection to a tribe that is life changing," theater training supportive of "an open heart, rigor, technique, a way you can thread text, movement, politics and personal together" and that she’s still working on it; it’s what her solo show is about, the fruition of a lifetime of doing just that. She also reminds me that she speaks in 60 word sentences, her complex and eloquent thought process a direct result of being steeped in Shakespeare for the past 40 years. I’m grateful I’ve brought a recorder!
Can you describe the process of creating Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender?
I’ve tried to take away the performative aspects of it that just lead to applause, this isn’t actor audience, it is actually critical thinking, but has that openhearted "I’m going to stand and deliver the truth as best as I know it, admitting to the truth as a story" that I weave and mend out of my fragments, and then fragments of Shakespeare also float through to inform the beauty of expression, because who could write better than Shakespeare? (Laughs) In this piece I’m threading Shakespeare’s words with my own experience to express how Shakespeare changed my life.
So personal stories?
Yes. I had an original script that was two and a half hours long that went into great detail about the esoteric principals underneath Shakespeare’s work and great detail about my mother’s life and then I had to edit it down. I took it to an international festival and they needed something that was an hour long, so I began to cut it. My research on my father’s life was revealing all kinds of lovable aspects that I hadn’t known. He died when I was four. All I knew was he was a Jewish war hero who killed himself. I purchased my dad’s genealogy off the internet and because I did that, it tagged surviving members of my family that I had never met and they called us and said, “Aren’t you the long lost children of Hans Max Joachim Wolpe? I am the rabbi Jerry Wolpe, my son is the rabbi David Wolpe. We are the most famous rabbis in America. You must come to our family reunion. You must find out who we are. We must tell you how we loved your father.”
I’m getting shivers down my back!
That’s what happened to me. So I went from a rather ignorant Christian-raised theater maker to this profound depth charge about who the other half of my family was. 90% of all the Wolpes had been murdered. We all came together at the Holocaust Museum for the first Wolpe family reunion ever. And from there, I researched, through the methods that exist, what had happened to specific members of my dad’s family. I found what numbers were tattooed on them, what cattle car they were murdered upon, in what way they died, on what day. I have the transcripts from the Nazis with their names crossed off, the only one not crossed off is my dad. He’s the only one who survived. A very sad, shocking and challenging document to gaze upon.
And then at the same time, at the family reunion, there was the old man that shook his fist at us and said "Never Forget" was dedicated to vengeance and hatred. That anger was something I didn’t want to put into my body. I’d spent a lifetime trying to heal from being an orphan of two parents who committed suicide. The theater tribe was my home. But the idea of trying to shake my fist at Nazis who were now dead didn’t acknowledge the fact that the German people were not all Nazis. It’s like who are you shaking your fists at? So there is a complicated question. What is the point of revenge? And as we look across the planet, the carnage is so great. What are the causes of war and what is the cost of war? And what can we say in the theater that has any meaning about how that impacts human beings? This goes back forever, the cruelty and lack of empathy in a human being that wants your stuff or wants power. But the incredible beauty and love of the artists have also always existed to uplift us and guide us, the music, the poetry the art.
I wanted to be an artist because I wanted to help and also because those are the people I wanted to hang out with, the people who make me happy.
I became a theater artist because as a writer I felt constrained by the dimensionality of the format, which at that time was newspapers, which I was working on in high school and college and intended to form a magazine as a career choice. But then I met some incredible mentors. First it was Alan Schneider. He premiered every Beckett, Albee and Pinter play in this country. He became like a father to me. I was an undergraduate at University of California, San Diego and he took me into the graduate program, featured me in the MFA rep and took me into the graduate directing class. I was in love with words. I was working a lot with plays like David Hare’s Fanshen, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, but then Kristin Linklater came to our campus for a semester. And her work was so powerful and it really unleashed in me this possibility that I could express the big things in life without funneling it through the expletives of misogynist work like David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which was the first play that I did. I thought, how great to be in a play and be selected and chosen, but this story doesn’t fundamentally make me proud. Or Fanshen, which is the story of the Chinese revolution, but I’m not Asian and it felt like I was appropriating someone else’s culture. But when Kristin said, “We are going to free your own natural voice.” Well, then any piece of Shakespeare would be related to when do you howl? When do you grieve for your absent child? When do you feel “nothing will come of nothing”? And then I thought you can personalize this work, you do Shakespeare to run your life light through a prism - this incredible text - and then it refracts into this rainbow, which has the integrity of the prism but it is almost like a scrying tool, where you can see your future and your past. It feels like magic to me. Every line of Shakespeare is referencing the macrocosm and the microcosm so that when you evoke Mars it has to do with courage, which lives in your gut. You create this core of meaning which makes it personal, but not just about you. As I taught more and more as a master teacher at Shakespeare & Company over a 25 year period I started to realize that modern actors were making the text more and more self-involved. They weren’t able to reference anything outside of themselves. I encouraged them to find: what is the difference between God and you? And then: where is God in you? "Oh God" doesn’t mean "oh shit." (Laughs) It means OH GOD! Which is invoked in every sentence of Shakespeare. In spirit, in the divine, also in animals and humans in relationship to the animals and the divine.
I revere ritual and respect the earth. I am never more happy than when I am in nature. Or with my puppy dog, who is all open heart. Or with the Shakespeare tribe. We can find ourselves as intelligent beings on a planet that is alive as opposed to this consumerist, materialist trend which has erupted in the last 15 years in a way that didn’t exist when we were kids. We grew up playing in the dirt with a stick which is very different than playing on a gizmo and becoming somewhat inured to feeling as it applies to murder and genocide and climate change. It just feels doing Shakespeare is a way to stay alive not only for myself but also in helping other people find an avocation rather than a money job. It is so much fun for anyone to run Shakespeare through their system because you find yourself thinking deftly in complicated patterns that mirror your actual experience and you find yourself feeling alive.
My training has been in voice through the Linklater approach, in clown through Merry Conway who created a very interesting thread from clown to fool to shamanism to alchemy and back to Shakespeare. Merry Conway was the clown master for Shakespeare & Company and we worked together in Red Nose Clown here in New York for several years. Tina Packer [founder and former Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company] helped Merry get an NEA grant to study the role of the fool in Shakespeare, so we worked on the fool for a year and we presented a show called In Praise of Folly at St. Clements. A year of looking at fool, at wit, at wordplay was really an experience in holding the mirror up to nature. And we see it today in Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee and Rachel Maddow. They’re the modern fool! But we want to see it in the theater also.
And I worked a lot with Neil Freeman and his understanding of the folio texts. He was a great mentor in terms of decoding what was on the page, like music you could read. My teachers made all the difference. I hear people say, “Oh I read Shakespeare in high school and I hated it.” And you just have to know that that teacher wasn’t equipped. You have to find an access point for this great writing and for us we spoke it, we played it, we danced it, we fought it. When I got to the school of the Shakespeare tribe, I thought I can work on this for a lifetime and never master it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
So yes, back in the '90s, that’s when my aesthetic was being formed with you and with students that I had and teachers that I had and it continues to this day. What we do is we fall in love with each other by working together. We go, "what a courageous person," you know as the snot falls out of their nose, the sweat…even now working through MacBeth3 which is a hell ride, it’s so sweet to have two great people [Nick Salamone and Mary Hodges] on the ride going "we got each other, there’s three of us and we don’t know each other very well but now we do, because we’re working through this." And this is a showcase, so it’s not a fully supported situation but it is supported by a lifetime of work and that’s all you really need. Just stand there, do the best you can and know that tomorrow is going to be even more interesting. (Laughs) There is a lifetime of work in Shakespeare’s 37 plays, in terms of unpacking what can be understood.
One of the things you are known for is that you have played more of the Bard's male leading roles than any woman in history. Was there a catalyst that propelled you into performing men’s roles in Shakespeare? Or was it more of an evolution?
It started when I was a kid. My stepfather was a sexual predator and by dressing as a boy I felt like I was avoiding the attention I was getting. And that continued throughout my career. Like when I was in my twenties in New York and I’d walk to an audition in my mini skirt, past the workers who would hoot and holler, I actually didn’t enjoy that. And then when I dressed in my jeans and big shirts, people would say, “Are you a boy or a girl?” People I didn’t know, they’d challenge me on the street, for me to declare my gender. This was long before I knew anyone who was transgender and long before I knew any performing women who were lesbians. It’s really about liberating identity, not having to play the victim, the girlfriend or the mother. Ophelia and Gertrude combined have 350 lines. Hamlet has 1500 lines. So there is a chance to explore a range of thought and feeling that I wouldn’t have with the girl roles. It was actually my co-director for MacBeth3, Natsuko Ohama, who at a workshop years ago said to me, “Why don’t you work on Malvolio?” Everyone says I want to play a strong women which means it’s either going to be Margaret, Cleopatra, Viola or Rosalind. I had already done Viola and Rosalind and I was too young for Margaret and Cleopatra. But doing Malvolio was fascinating. Then I played King Lear at age 32 in L.A. in an all-female production. I was playing the Fool, and the lead got a television series. Again I called Natsuko and she said, “Well that’s a rare opportunity, you might as well do it.” I’d been training in the Linklater technique for twelve years and just blowing through Lear on vowels and consonants was more than most people knew how to do. Just the way the words are constructed, where the vowels carry the feeling and the consonants carry the intellect can shape a performance. Then Kristin Linklater included me in an experiment called The Company of Women. It was an all-female multi-cultural company that she created and I played Henry V in our inaugural production, after a 3 year explorative process. We explored clown and violence and Carol Gilligan [author of the groundbreaking book In A Different Voice], who was the co-artistic director, encouraged us to write about what we knew, write in our voice.
Money. And finding people who are interested in management and not just acting.
Gender parity in the theater?
Certainly there are more women running theaters now than ever before, but it’s not 50/50. And we’re working for 50/50 in all areas. And then there’ll be more jobs for everyone!
If you could go back in time and talk with a great theater artist from the past, who might it be and what would you talk about.
I would love to sit down with Charlotte Cushman [acclaimed American actress 1816-1876] and talk with her about being the greatest actress in the world, playing Hamlet and Romeo and Macbeth with her sister and her friends. What it was like to tour the world and have 100,000 people come out to see you when you come out on your balcony in New York City, that kind of respect. And also the difficulties that she had. She was the most highly paid actress in the world at the time. She bought a property in Rome and called it Casa Cushman. She brought women from America and all over the world to live there for free so that they could write, so they wouldn’t be under the economic strictures and censorship of their husbands, brothers and fathers. So they wouldn’t have to get married at all. And I think that was world changing. There is a statue of her, sculpted by her wife, sculptor Emma Stebbins [best known for her sculpture “The Angel of the Waters” aka “Bethesda Fountain,” in New York’s Central Park.] And I found that the docents at the Players Club didn’t even know who Charlotte Cushman was. I pointed to her bust and said, “Do you know who that is?” And they said no and it’s because she was a better actress than Edwin Booth and when she died they turned her bust to the wall and said let’s all just forget that she existed. And unfortunately people did. But I bet she knows some things. I’d love to sit in a room with her. Just be there to say, wow you are awesome!
Through August 14 at HERE.