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Lisa Wolpe Uses Shakespeare To Bend Gender Roles

Elaine Avila interviews Lisa Wolpe, the director and artistic leader of the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company whose specialty is playing Shakespearean men.

Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet in 2013. (Photo by Kevin Sprague)
Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet in 2013. (Photo by Kevin Sprague)

Lisa Wolpe has probably played more of Shakespeare’s male leading roles than any woman in history. In 1993, she founded Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, an all-female, multicultural troupe, doing triple duty as actor, director and artistic leader. She has garnered accolades and numerous awards at LAWSC, including the 2008 Margaret Harford Award for Sustained Excellence from the L.A. Drama Critics Circle and a 2014 Lee Melville Award for outstanding contribution to the Los Angeles theatre community from Playwrights Arena. Now Wolpe is making a huge transition, putting her company on hiatus in order to move her work out into the world.

In the 2014–15 season, Wolpe will direct three all-female Shakespearean productions, in New York, Vancouver and Virginia. She has written a new solo show, Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender, which she performs in tandem with her directing projects. She’ll also tour her solo show to Prague, Berlin, London, Stratford, San Francisco, Oregon and New Orleans—a far-flung adventure melding Wolpe’s three great passions: social activism, travel and excellence in Shakespeare.

As Wolpe points out, exploring gender through heightened language and performance is the hallmark of the greatest theatrical work of the ages. Shakespeare’s plays were created for gender-bending, the original company being all-male. But women have not always been allowed to play male roles. In Shakespeare’s time, the act of females performing or writing for the stage was illegal and punishable by death.

All the same, there is a long, brave tradition of women playing men in Shakespeare. In his book Women as Hamlet, scholar Tony Howard maps a trail of female Hamlets from 1741 to 2000. The enthusiasm had its heyday in the 19th century, when nearly every actress of note tackled the role. Swedish actress Asta Nielsen, in a 1921 silent film, approached the role as if Hamlet were a girl raised as a boy. Russian actress Zinaida Raikh, wife of director Vsevelod Meyerhold, explored Hamlet as a reflection of the lives of artists under Stalinist repression. Lisa Merrill’s book When Romeo Was a Woman celebrates American actress Charlotte Cushman (1816–76), a superstar famous for her portrayals of male characters and a passionate supporter of fellow women artists among her family, lovers and friends.

At a workshop Wolpe recently led in Vancouver, B.C., it was surprising to see how profound the effect of women playing male roles can be. As the actresses worked to “play men,” they seemed unaccustomed to projecting the authority that male roles in Shakespeare demand, regularly breaking the lines of their bodies in more subservient, indirect patterns. When, with Wolpe’s intervention, they aligned their hearts over their hips, their heads over their hearts, and learned to place their thoughts externally, a new voice and a new energy burst forth.

Wolpe knows this dynamic to her core. In her acceptance speech for the Melville award in L.A., which she wrote as contrasting performance pieces in iambic pentameter, she paraphrased Shakespeare’s words for Cleopatra: “I dreamed there was a company, all Female / Our joy was poetry, and lit this little town, Los Angeles / With radiant fire from our collective souls / Our unique cause challenged the world / We spoke in harmony as all the tuned spheres / And we were friends… / Think you there was or might be such a company / As this I dreamed of…?”

Wolpe begins her solo show by playing both lovers in Romeo and Juliet, then deftly moves into the deepest themes of the play: a poisoned family legacy, war and suicide. Wolpe’s own father, Hans, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who killed himself, was no stranger to revenge or war, and Wolpe explores these themes in her deeply felt performances of Henry V, Hamlet (also haunted by his father’s ghost) and Shylock.

I interviewed Wolpe over coffee in Vancouver, with a view of the ocean unfolding all around us.


Lisa Wolpe as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" in 2005. (Photo by Steve Koeppe)
Lisa Wolpe as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” in 2005. (Photo by Steve Koeppe)


ELAINE AVILA: You recently made a change, from leading your company in Los Angeles, where you worked with more than 1,000 women and girls, to touring the world directing, acting and performing your new solo show. You have gone from 1,000 to 1, from one place to the world. How is that for you?

LISA WOLPE: I need space to dream and imagine right now. I enjoy talking to all the parts of myself about my deepest questions. I think associatively, and it takes me a while to distill my understandings.

I like being “one,” but it’s all about relationships. The experience of being seen and heard, being in dialogue with the community and the audience, opens up new answers and pathways. Sometimes producing for other people is a distraction from my artistic work. I am an activist. I want to make a difference. I can manifest projects with gusto because I believe in them. I decided to put the ever-constant yoke of fundraising for my company down so that I can run faster and lighter. The immediate response from my colleagues in the Shakespeare community was to invite me to come and direct all sorts of things at their companies, and to perform my solo show.

The three all-female productions I’m directing this year are The Winter’s Tale, this past summer in Vancouver for a brand-new company called Classic Chic; then December in New York City for Harlem Shakespeare Festival, where I’ll play Iago and direct an all-female Othello; and July 2015, when I’ll play and direct Hamlet with an all-female cast for Richmond Shakespeare. Wherever I’m directing a show, they’ve got a venue for me to do the solo piece. I can show up and tell my story and do some teaching, meet new friends.

LAWSC has been a huge endeavor these past two decades, and playing the great parts has made me a much stronger actor, director and leader. It has opened up my vision in many ways to have so many adventures as a guy onstage. Natsuko Ohama and I, co-founders of LAWSC, collaborated on our second Hamlet for the company’s 20th anniversary in 2013. The depth of the role is incredibly satisfying, and Natsuko poses excellent questions for me to ruminate on and struggle with. She is my Jiminy Cricket, and her questions offer such a depth charge that I really get expanded when I work with her. So many great and brilliant women have been kind enough to partner with me and nurture this work over the years—especially Natsuko, who is a genius Linklater voice and acting teacher; Merry Conway, a master in wit, clown and movement; and Tina Packer, a world-class female director of the canon. It’s vitally important to have wise, generous, hard-working teachers and role models. I pay that forward.

Playing Shakespeare’s great roles is an alchemical process about unpacking the vulnerability of a villain or a man in order to understand why men do what they do. I am poised between victim and villain, comparing without despair, having a kind of perspective on both. To do that, I have to build a bridge between my own vulnerability as a female victim of various kinds of behavior (like being molested, or being physically hurt or frightened, being paid less as a grown-up and an artist than other people, or being confronted with a glass ceiling). I have to flip the story—inhabit my vision of being strong and capable and a person of potential, walk my talk. If I select something to play like Hamlet or Richard III or Iago, then I have to step up to the level of Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey, say, on even footing about the seriousness of approaching the role. There are no excuses as to why one might not make one’s mark—certainly not gender questions. Once you have the role, you get to stretch, to gain the power and resilience to be present, moment-to-moment, for the world’s great poetry to flow through you. Stoppages are self-created and indicate fear or a lack of understanding. Not stopping means the Hamlet or Iago or Richard experience will run right through you and change you. It’s surprising to find out how many people and worlds one can create to inhabit, and how compelling it is to take on different worldviews.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is doing its first all-female Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the artistic director of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, Rebecca Ennals, has committed to 50-percent gender parity on their stages.

Yes, and the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden is doing an all-female Henry IV this season. Artistic directors are, at this point, looking to gender-bending to build their audiences, meet the need, and change the dynamics of excluding women from being celebrated as directors, actors, thinkers and artists. If you are going to talk about power and politics and victimization and gender, it is foolish to leave women’s voices out of the mix, because they have so much experience and knowledge in terms of being put down. All over the theatre world, women are being given opportunities to rise, or are simply making their own progress, regardless of the difficulties.

One cool thing I’m doing in London this fall involves teaming up with a group called the Gender and Performance Salon (GAP), run by Amy Clare Tasker and Annabel Williamson and a female collective. We’re going to put up my solo show and develop their ideas for a gender-flipped Hamlet. New language, new boundaries are being created. When I teach, for instance, trans people come in, which I find a really exciting new interstitial, liminal place to explore.

Twelfth Night seems to have the most gender switching.

When I think about Twelfth Night, it’s about the vulnerability of a girl’s experience at that time, meaning that if you were Viola, discovered as an unattached single woman, alone in a strange place like Illyria, you could be raped or killed.

There’s a certain kind of agency and excitement that Viola finds in being able to have a conversation with Orsino on equal ground—maybe not equal in terms of status, but there are plenty of things, man to man, that they can talk about. Clearly the play indicates this will change once Viola puts her “women’s weeds” back on. There are so many subtle and playable situations for a person to explore onstage—be it Mark Rylance, myself, or a trans person; the actor goes into the girl’s experience to play the female parts. For me, Olivia’s veil seems a little bit like a mask, or a message with which she’s saying to the masculine world, “You’re not coming to take my stuff! Your advances to me are not about romantic love. They are about a conquest of some kind. I have everything I need, except a partner’s open heart and honesty.” By coming to Olivia as a servant, as a boy, Viola is able to be present, funny, intelligent and witty with a woman who has her own money and power—not threaten her in any way. Viola can excite Olivia in the way that human beings want to be excited in terms of imagination, romance, potential, challenge, risk, presence, vulnerability, eloquence. Those two help heal each other—they’re basically heterosexual roles, but with a bit of je ne sais quoi.

I moved beyond a strict gender binary when I was seven. For me, it’s more about your GPS system. Not on a cell phone—your original GPS system is your body-mind. In Shakespeare, and in life, you have to be able to breathe and open your heart and know not just what you can see but six or eight different dimensions, at least. You have to apprehend the unknown with a certain curiosity.

What inspires you most about the transformation of the women you’ve worked with? Was it the agency that women start to get?

Yes. Multicultural women and girls, filled with curiosity and talent from the crown to the toe, delivering their gifts through the prism of this eloquence and reaching the heights of spiritual presence, grounded physical behavior and theatrical magic, filling the stage with radiant light emanating from their very bones. The Greeks believed your soul resides in the marrow of your bones. A great actor will be intricately alive and sending out influence from the core of their being—mostly through the heart, but also through every skin cell, through their eyes, through their ears, through their hair, through the way they position their imaginary genitalia. You can feel the waking up in the audience’s response. It’s electric.

Playwright Elaine Avila currently teaches at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

  • tambascot

    “In Shakespeare’s time, the act of females performing or writing for the stage was illegal and punishable by death.”

    If you have ANY evidence of that, I’d really like to see it, because I have thus far not found a single law prohibiting any of these practices from the early modern period, and nor have I come across any instances of such a ludicrously harsh punishment being executed for breaking them.

    • Rob Weinert-Kendt

      Elaine Avila wrote back to reply:

      “In the 16th century, Charles V of Spain prohibited the performances of women by special edict; Pope Innocent IX also forbade their appearance on stage. Women were only permitted to perform on the English Stage in the 1660s. I refer you to this 2014 Ohio State University symposium: “The First Actresses: 1660-1930” focusing on “hostility, censorship and bans” that these women endured. Other good sources include The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700 by Elizabeth Howe, published by Cambridge University Press, and a 2011 exhibit at London’s National Portrait Gallery,“The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons.”

      “I do see that my statement was perhaps overly strong. I was distilling a lengthy conversation with Ms. Wolpe. As you point out, it is difficult to find direct evidence that women who were executed during this period were specifically killed for being onstage. My statement also refers to women who dressed as men. That being said, women who step out of allowed gender roles, face all types of punishment all over the world, even today–some legislated, some not—including execution. For further information on the obstacles facing 16th and 17th c. women who dared to perform, write and/or dress as men, there are many books and articles on Margaret Hughes, Catalina de Erauso, Vincenza Armani, Vittoria Piisima, Aphra Behn, Nell Gwynn.”

      • tambascot

        I see several points of confusion here:

        “In the 16th century, Charles V of Spain prohibited the performances of women by special edict; Pope Innocent IX also forbade their appearance on stage.”

        These are not relevant: the English stage was neither governed by Spanish law nor papal law, and even then the papal edict is a poor citation since we have evidence of female players in Italy in the 16th century. None of Avila’s citations are evidence.

        “Women were only permitted to perform on the English Stage in the 1660s.”

        Permitted by whom? That’s the real question we’re getting at here. We know they did not appear on the public stages, but that is a far cry from justifying the statement “In Shakespeare’s time, the act of females performing or writing for the stage was illegal and punishable by death.” We have to be very, very careful about applying post-Enlightenment sensibilities to pre-Enlightenment works and practices, and the simple reality is that we just don’t know why there were no female performers, and referring us to a collection of eclectic sources doesn’t help build an argument. Without a specific law, or a specific recording of an instance of a woman being punished for playing on a stage, the notion remains a myth born of the fancy of poor historians.

        “It is difficult to find direct evidence that women who were executed during this period were specifically killed for being onstage.”

        It doesn’t help anyone if we’re building arguments on the absence of evidence.

        “My statement also refers to women who dressed as men.”

        In that case, I am willing to forgive the poor grammar that leaves no way of knowing that, but the statement is still patently false, and we have very good instance of that: Mary Firth was such a well known cross-dresser (“virago” in the parlance of the time) that Middleton and Decker dramatized her life in “The Roaring Girl.” We can also deduce from the “pamphlet war” that Early Modern was not so silently accepting of misogyny as Avila alludes to in her piece, which was, again, dramatized for the stage in “Swetnam the Woman Hater Arraigned by Women.” (see Katherine Henderson’s “Half Humankind” for more on the “pamphlet war.”

        “That being said, women who step out of allowed gender roles, face all types of punishment all over the world, even today–some legislated, some not—including execution.”

        True and unfortunate and in need of correction as that may be, it does nothing to establish the staging conditions in which Shakespeare wrote. I fully allow that my citations are from the post-Shakespeare era, and it is conceivable that there was a radical shift in the way early modern Londoners viewed women in the years following Shakespeare’s retirement, but the *illegality* of female players on the early modern London stage, let alone any punishment for it, has no direct evidence at all; none, at least, that I or anyone else seems to be aware of. We’re not doing anyone any favors by relying on fabrications of evidence, and as it stands, the idea that it was “illegal” for women to play on Shakespeare’s stages is just a story that gets handed down along with the ridiculous idea that everyone in Europe thought the world was flat in 1491.

        • The Shakespeare Standard

          Importantly, making the claim that what Wolpe is doing is important because people used to die from it is a way of dismissing the value of her work on its own merits.

          • Elaine Avila

            I would never wish to dismiss the value of Ms. Wolpe’s work “on its own merits.” I find Ms. Wolpe’s
            work to be brilliant, meritorious, and essential to the future of theatre and gender parity.
            I can certainly see why the people who have written here believe I was attempting to make a historical claim about laws in Shakespeare’s England and that these laws carried the death
            penalty. This was not my intent at all.

            I would change the article to read “But women have not always been permitted to play male roles, or to appear on stage.” (and cut the sentence in question.)

            I am a playwright, not a scholar of the early modern period. In order to clarify your questions, I have
            gone back to my sources and consulted new ones. True–the laws I refer to were on the continent. The penalties female performers (and women who dressed as men) endured in this era can be attributed to other causes. For example, Catalina de Erauso, a Spaniard and the subject of my play Lieutenant Nun, was threatened with execution in the New World for murdering civilians, not cross-dressing. The case of Mary Frith (Moll Cutpurse) is often referred to–she appeared on the English stage dressed as a man in 1611. Her repeated punishments are mostly related to other legal and religious charges.

            What is the precise nature of the obstructions to women acting on (or writing for the) stage? How were they overcome? How was cross-dressing viewed during the period? There is much debate between theatre historians, historians of the period, and literary scholars. Yes, the situation was different in England than on the continent or in the Americas. Yes, we view these questions differently today. Discussing all of the issues involved is beyond the scope of this article.

            I am excited that there is new discussion and scholarship about the impediments women faced in
            Shakespeare’s time. May it illuminate and transform barriers women face today.

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