From the proliferation of theatre companies in Los Angeles, one might be prone to believe that anyone can throw out a shingle and start a company. However, the reality is that for each group that comes to surface, there is a foundation of many stones. The stones are the moments and events in the founding actors’ lives which compel them to fight against all odds to start a company.
There is nothing new about actors forming companies. Were it not for The King’s Men, William Shakespeare may have died in anonymity. Since that time, the practice of actors surrounding themselves with trusted fellows has become a staple of modern theatre. Trust of fellow performers is an essential ingredient in creating great theatre, and when the truth of your message is a burning light, then the choices are even more critical.
Lisa Wolpe is a prime example of the type of person that builds a theatre company. The stones of Wolpe’s foundation were gathered from far and disparate places. A father forever scarred by the Holocaust, a mother with deep emotional issues (sadly both parents ended their own lives) and a family with enough dysfunction to have it spelled with a capital D. At the age of seven, Wolpe along with her siblings, were transplanted to the Canary Islands when their mother remarried. Wolpe says, “Running around with my brothers was my first cross-dressing experience. Politics and religious freedom all intertwined with sexual politics and tyranny in the Canary Islands under Franco rule.”
Laughing, Wolpe recalls, “I saw my first play, Snow White, at the age of seven. A troupe of gypsy actors had come to the Canary Islands. Aside from the joy of the play, I won a raffle prize at the performance. I went on stage where I picked the prize of a big red fire-truck. I saw it as a love gift from the troupe to the community. It was a very powerful moment.”
Fast-forward a few years and Wolpe went off to college to study journalism with a dream of building a magazine. While studying she took a few drama classes … and her future was forever altered. After a dozen years in New York, Wolpe now married to a fellow artist, move to Los Angeles to make a movie.
The details are personal, but Wolpe eventually found herself single with a new perspective on what it is to be a woman and what that means in our society. The stones were now gathered, and Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company was born. Wolpe says,
“I created the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company in 1993, as a non-profit organization that produces professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays with a multi-cultural all-female ensemble. LAWSC provides opportunities for collaboration between a multi-racial group of highly accomplished female artists who are actors, producers, directors, choreographers, designers and educators. The sets, costumes and lights are designed and constructed by an all-female crew, and the administrative, producing, house management, box office, and backstage team is also all-female. We have also employed dozens of kids in our productions, and the girls and women become role models to one another as they work through the delights and mysteries of putting on a play together.”
As the founder of the company, there are many hats to wear – administrator, director, actor and teacher just to name a few, all focused to bring more light to Shakespeare. By having an all women company perform the work, Wolpe says, “We are empowering women as a source of power, not in roles defined by men.” The reason that’s important is that it disallows the victim mentality. Women can squarely face the world, their energy focused to a point, not dissipated in an effort to avoid attention. LAWSC is the oldest of the five or so all-women’s Shakespeare companies in America. The path being forged speaks not just to feminism but to humanism.
“Shakespeare was a great Humanist, and a fantastic cartographer of the human experience. I look at myself, psychologically, politically and spiritually, through Shakespeare’s texts, and by incorporating myself into these hugely human, sublimely spiritual stories I feel that I accelerate my soul’s evolution through the inspiration and intellectual excitement that comes from doing his plays. I have played Romeo, Hamlet, Angelo, Richard III, Leontes, Henry V, Shylock, Iago, and many other male characters that are attempting to locate themselves in the world order and determine what their purpose is. For sixteen years now I have made it my purpose to empower women and girls based on our ability to compete in the Olympics of acting – playing Shakespeare.”
“Working Shakespeare is like a walk-about. An impossible mission that provides insight and humility to the participant helping to discover a measure of self… Our efforts are as much community service as anything else.”
The Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena is currently LAWSC’s home. “Boston Court is a magnificent place to work, supportive, inspiring and shaming – why can’t I build a facility like that with a great staff?” With sights set on tomorrow, LAWSC has added a new board member, and will spend some time exploring fund raising with development types.
Last year LAWSC took McBeth 3, an original adaptation, to Edinburgh for six weeks. Returning to the States, Ms. Wolpe directed a play at Cornell College in Iowa only to come home to LA facing a big credit card bill and asking what’s next. According to Wolpe, funding for theatre is down 40-percent this year, making her upcoming production of Richard II more daunting than usual. With a projected budget of nearly a hundred thousand dollars, there’s a lot of fundraising yet to be done.
The collection of participants in LAWSC varies, but the themes remain, shedding light on the power each individual may have, and transcending old thinking about roles and values. It takes a sturdy foundation to tackle such lofty pursuits, but Lisa Wolpe believes she and the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company can do the job.