The Art of Gender-Bending Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s works were originally performed by an all-male cast, because an acting profession simply was not considered a good one for a woman. Since Shakespeare’s time, the theater community has taken great strides towards diversity and inclusion, and one visionary artist has made it her mission.
Lisa Wolpe is the Founding Producing Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company and has been working on cross-gender performance since the 1980’s. Since the Company’s creation in 1993, Lisa Wolpe has played more of the Bard’s male roles than any woman in history, and always to superlative reviews. An activist as well as a celebrated actress and director, Wolpe’s work speaks toward liberation from the “gender box” of expectations.
Lisa Wolpe will be bringing her groundbreaking solo show, Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender to Orlando Shakes on Sunday, February 28th, 2016 at 7:30 PM. In preparation for this upcoming production, Lisa Wolpe sat down with Orlando Shakes volunteer Lyndsey Elizabeth for a candid interview about her unique theater style.
OST: Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender is performed in a new and groundbreaking style of theater. What kind of preparation went into creating the show?
LW: I spent about five years building what looks like a very simple, one-hour show. I wrote a 133 page thesis for an MFA I earned in Interdisciplinary Art, unpacking my process, which I completed in 2007. I was looking at why I felt such satisfaction in crossing gender onstage, and where that came from in my life experience. After that, it was a slow approach to performing the story I wanted to tell without all of the trappings of a traditional play. At one point this solo show was 2.5 hours long, including 150 slides, some basic costume changes, lots of tips on how to cross gender, and forays into topics including mystical wisdom, sacred geometry, the authorship debate, and the work of my all-female Shakespeare Company. In the last year or two, I have pared the show down to under an hour, in order to tour it internationally, and I decided to make it much simpler and shorter and rely mostly on personal stories from my own life to contextualize why I love to play Shakespeare. Along the way I have of course directed dozens of Shakespeare productions and taught many actors Shakespearean performance techniques, so my insights have continued to grow, but at this point I am not changing the text, and the performance is very simple—no costumes, no set, no special lights—just me and this story I want to tell, which is basically about how I came to understand and love my father so much more—by playing the male roles in Shakespeare.
OST: Do you feel that all actors inherently possess both masculine and feminine energy?
LW: I do feel that gender is no longer viewed as a male/female binary, and that most young people (to their own great relief!) accept a much wider gender spectrum of identity onstage and in the world than I’ve seen in my lifetime—one that is mutable, stageable, and performative to some extent—as is the answer to their own chosen personal gender labels. Obviously, some people are drawn to challenge the expectations of gender behavior more strongly than others, and some people have more shape-shifting skills than others, but it is encouraging that more people feel free to explore outside of “the box”, and liberate their internal terrain.
OST: Why is it important for theater to be diverse and inclusive?
LW: Our country is demographically very diverse, and yet our theaters are not all reflective of that diversity. Many of us are working fervently to challenge the white-male-dominated system that has perpetuated an exclusivity that does not favor our actual population and the stories that we (the people) may want to see, play, or present. I am excited to see the progress we have all made together in these past twenty-five years.
OST: When Shakespeare’s works were originally performed, all roles were played by men. Was this an important factor to you when you founded the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company in 1993?
LW: Yes, although gender-bending is trending now, it was seen as a gimmick when I was first working on cross-gender performance in the late 1980’s. Thankfully, it is quite a different field now for non-white actors, and for female actors, at least in the current practice of casting Shakespeare plays more consciously and diversely. But it has to be said that women have played great male roles like Hamlet for hundreds of years, and it really isn’t new or “gimmicky” at all.
OST: What was the very first male role that you played in a production? How was this moment pivotal to the rest of your career?
LW: I played Lear in an all-female production in, I think, 1989—that was terrific—having so many words to express so many thoughts and feelings. I played Henry V with Kristin Linklater’s all-female Company of Women soon after that. And then I played Romeo in my own production of Romeo and Juliet as the inaugural production of Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company in 1993, and that was great—directing myself was the final step in freeing myself from other people’s expectations of what my “ideal man” would be onstage—I was finally free to create my own cross-gender aesthetic onstage.
OST: In addition to your work as an actor, you are also a highly acclaimed director and teacher. What is the most rewarding part, as a master of your craft, to be able to do this type of work with other professional actors and students?
LW: I always love teaching the work to hungry young actors eager to begin to understand the writing and make magic onstage.
Watch Lisa Wolpe as Iago (Othello) at the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company, 2008:
See Lisa Wolpe’s revolutionary theater style live on stage at Orlando Shakes on February 28, 2016. Tickets for Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender are available online or by calling the Box Office at (407) 447-1700 ext. 1.
Lyndsey Elizabeth, Orlando Shakes Marketing Volunteer