Debra Ann Byrd is the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and Take Wing And Soar Productions, where she currently serves as Chief Executive. Lisa Wolpe is an actress, director, teacher, playwright & the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, currently celebrating its 20th season.
They have joined forces to bring a concert staged reading of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice as part of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival's inaugural season. Directed by Lisa Wolpe & featuring an All-Female Multiracial Cast of 17 Classical Actresses, The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice will play at the City College Center for the Arts, Aaron Davis Hall this Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 4pm (134th Street & Convent Avenue). As a special treat, there will be talk-back with the artists and special guests as well as a closing festival reception. Click here for tickets!
1. You are directing, producing, and starring in "The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice" in the Harlem Shakespeare Festival. What made you want to work together on this production?
Debra Ann Byrd: Lisa and I met at the Shakespeare Theatre Association's Annual Conference earlier this year. We saw that we had much in common, especially providing opportunities for women in theatre. Lisa, on finding out that I intended to launch the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, generously, whole-heartedly and without hesitation offered to help me make it so. She even sought out other women at the conference to help as well. Next thing to do was plan a project that would challenge us as well as showcase the talents of those we serve. We came up with OTHELLO; a well known play, starring the passionate leaders of 2 celebrated arts organizations. We knew we had something. The project is ideal because we get to wear several hats, while doing what we love the most; acting Shakespeare with our peers for multicultural audiences. Who gets to do all that with just one production? We do.
Lisa Wolpe: I’m involved in order to promote diversity in the American theatre scene, which has been a priority of mine for over twenty years. Debra Ann was the only person of color at last year’s Shakespeare Theater Association, an organization whose members are the Artistic Directors and Managing Directors who produce Shakespeare across the world. I reached out to her in order to assist her in her work bringing Shakespeare to the Harlem community in NYC. I asked her what I could do to help and she asked me to direct a staged reading for the Festival, which is exactly what we are doing.
2. This production defies the boundaries of race with its multicultural cast. What excites you about the way you cast this reading?
Debra Ann: What excites us about the way we cast the reading is that we were able to fully realize both our missions while giving much needed opportunities to 17 talented women, who now get chances to challenge themselves towards their highest potential.
Lisa: We have a lovely mix of seventeen women of many races coming together to tell a powerful story about racism, sexual jealousy, murder, and mayhem, and we tell the story with swordplay, dancing, song, and powerful poetry. What could be more wonderful?
Debra Ann: I am in no way an expert on this subject. But I do know that all female productions invert the Elizabethan performance convention, where men "played" female roles, and challenge traditional gender and performance expectations associated with Shakespearean plays. I've heard Lisa say, "There are things about Shakespeare’s plays you don’t realize until you have an all-woman cast." The best way to find out is to come experience it for yourself.
Lisa: I think there’s a chance that, even in our very short rehearsal process, the all-female ensemble will make a contribution to the world in terms of bringing women’s voices into the theater in roles most people would never cast them in, and prove once again that its a great idea to offer opportunities for actresses to play great roles offering a wide range of intelligence and emotion outside of stereotypical female boundaries.
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing this staged concert reading?
Debra Ann: It is my sincere hope that audiences come away with the feeling that they have experienced something beautiful, new and alive with possibilities about our world.
Lisa: I believe that women telling a story of extreme domestic violence have an inside view of what the cost of male power over women is and has always been, and that the audience will find moments of connection to the play in ways that will surprise them and stay with them.
5. What does it mean to you to have this staged reading as part of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival's Inaugural season?
Debra Ann: It is extremely important to me to showcase the talent of women every opportunity I get. It was therefore important to me to include an all-female production in the festival this season. So in this instance, women get to play outside the box...which means...Women get to produce. Women get to lead. Women get to act. Women get to design. Women get to stretch. & Women get to grow. YES!!, and I am glad that we got to do it with Lisa, as she brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the entire project, making it fascinating, challenging and exciting for all.
6. Debra Ann, you are the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and Lisa, you are the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company. How do feel your companies are similar in style and what do you each bring to your program?
Debra Ann: Our companies are similar in style in that we both provide opportunities for collaboration between multiracial, highly accomplished artists who are actors, producers, directors, choreographers, designers and educators. In addition, both of our organizations are women-led Not-For-Profit organizations. Take Wing And Soar Productions is celebrating its 10th Anniversary and the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Theatre Company is celebrating its 20th. We are both geared towards providing opportunities for women in all areas of theatre; we are both interested in cultivating diversity in theatre; and we are both extremely passionate about the texts of Shakespeare. Lisa and I are both Founders, Producing Artistic Directors, as well as Actors. What's different is that Lisa is also a director and teaching artist, while I usually lean more towards management, fund development, arts administration and graphic design.
Lisa: I know that we are both working hard for very little in order to create opportunities for artists to be included in the tapestry of the American story, as told through the form of theater.
7. Do you have plans to work on more projects together? If so, can you tell us what's in store?
Debra Ann: It would be wonderful to work with Lisa Wolpe again. She is brilliant and the festival artists love her. The Harlem Shakespeare Festival has invited her to come and play with us again next year. What's in store...maybe another all-female concert stage reading, maybe a set of master classes, we are not 100% sure, but I trust that we will come together again to spread more Shakespeare joy in the world!!
More on Debra Ann Byrd:
Debra Ann has guided the company's growth from its birth, forging a viable support organization for classical artists of color & theatre arts groups throughout New York. As an actor, producer, arts manager & business leader, she has received more than 20 awards & citations including the 2013 Take Wing And Soar Founder’s Award for 10 years of dedicated service to the community. In 2009, she received the LPTW Lucille Lortel Award & in 2006, the Josephine Abady Award for Excellence in "Producing works that foster diversity." She was recently selected for inclusion in the 2013 editions of Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in America & Who’s Who of American Women. Debra Ann received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Acting from Marymount Manhattan College, did advanced studies at The Public Theater’s Shakespeare Lab, completed producer training at the Commercial Theatre Institute & received additional training from the Arts Leadership Institute, a unique Leadership Training Program for Arts Managers at Teacher’s College/Columbia University. In addition, she was recently nominated for Best Lead Actress by AUDELCO for her portrayal of the infamous "Lady Bracknell" in the 1920’s Harlem adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Lisa’s roles for LAWSC include Richard III, Iago, Romeo, Shylock, Angelo, Viola, Paulina, Ferdinand, Leontes & more. She recently played "Jason" in Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella & "Polina" in Seagull for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, presented her one-woman show Shakespeare & The Alchemy of Gender at Whittier College & frequently acts & directs around the country. Lisa’s recent production of Hamlet played this fall at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble & her Love’s Labours Lost played this summer at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA.