BWW Interviews: Lisa Wolpe's Rehearsal Process: A Study in 'To Thine Own Self be True'
Since 1993, the award-winning Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company (LAWSC) has carved out a unique niche in the landscape of L.A. theater. Led by Producing Artistic Director, Lisa Wolpe, it examines contemporary issues and cultural perceptions of women through an all-female theatrical lens. In many ways it mirrors the original all-male playing company for whom Shakespeare wrote, at a time when women were not allowed to perform on stage.
LAWSC once again enters the larger conversation within which it resides with its upcoming production of HAMLET at the Odyssey Theatre. It is an eagerly anticipated event, and an undertaking that offers unlimited new avenues for truth in the exploration of Shakespeare's masterpiece. I was interested in how this company of artists approaches a play, and although Wolpe was already deep in rehearsals, she graciously offered her thoughts about their work. I hope you'll find them as compelling as I did.
"Shakespeare's stories blossom right out of the text when you read them, regardless of gender, age, race," says Wolpe. "We lend our voices to them and they immediately offer up an overwhelming array of delights, discoveries, and time-honored decisions to make. HAMLET gives us such a beautifully complicated cast of characters to create.
We spend our first week working at the table, poring over the folio, adjusting the cuts, and opening up the story. There is an immense amount of wit, layered meaning, and verbal theatrics on these pages. They are dishes so complicated and rich that we have to taste them slowly. We all must come up to the huge demand of the language and at the same time make it original, spontaneous, and contemporary.
We work on many levels to cross gender: physically, we move without apology, we try not to give up ground. Breath is the center of it, the readiness is all - the play can seem completely new if the actor can stay in the moment.
We have a cast of talented, sensitive women playing killers and kings and clowns, and there are a thousand adjustments of physical behavior to consider in performing these very masculine roles. We begin to embody, in our imagination of who we are being, what it's like to walk in that man's shoes, carrying his ambitions, his passions, his fears, working to transform our progress into the uniqueness of the sway of a male body. As a movement pattern, performing the male gender can be explored simply by keeping the body strongly aligned and moving in a direct pattern.
As men we move in such a way that the head stays above the heart, the heart stays above the hips, the hips stay above the feet, the feet move out in a straight line from the hips as we walk. The head turns, and then the whole body follows as a block, an unbroken column of energy.
If we 'play women' in an all-female ensemble, we sometimes have to work to portray an indirect physicality, to break the angles of our bodies, and often weaken and lower our status consciously. We consciously create indirect angles with our ankles, our legs, our hips, look up demurely from under our eyelashes, lighten and soften our voices, break up the aligned posture of power into a scattered directionality and a subservient demeanor. We turn first our head, then our shoulder, then our heart, then our hips, making sure to send out energy in a lot of different directions at once in order to make sure that we are not a column of pure energy and intention, but remain in a more searching, indecisive modality.
Sometimes we create our feminine roles in concert with the more direct and powerful male characters, and try to fit our words and actions into what might have been possible for women in a patriarchal, Christian society such as exists in HAMLET.
Sometimes we rebel and force our current reality and sense of expanded selves to exist paradoxically with words that reflect the constraints of an older time. It is a meticulous art form, choosing to sort and braid our perceptions of gender stereotypes, archetypal characters, and original thought into the essential connection between this fantastic writer and the actor who says those words.
Sometimes we cling stubbornly to our habits and then are suddenly awestruck when we let the words take us away and show us new patterns of thought and behavior. Gender-play is fascinating to watch, and offers a refreshing take on identity. The Shakespeare plays were, of course, generated for gender-bending, and the flop works exceedingly well.
It's an honor and a pleasure to have HAMLET as our 20th Anniversary production, and to represent diversity and excellence in the Theater community. We all know how important it is to continue to strengthen women's voices and representation in our own community.