SF Shakes Talks with Elizabeth Carter, Director of Free Shakespeare in the Park, The Tragedy of King Lear, Summer 2020.

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SF Shakes: I know that you worked with SF Shakes some time ago as an actor and now you’re back as a director. Can you talk a bit about that first SF Shakes experience and how you made the transition from actor to director?

Elizabeth Carter: I had done many shows in my mid-twenties, including Cal Shakes and Utah Shakes And then I did Merry Wives of Windsor, which was kind of a big deal actually. Merry Wives was directed by the late Joan Mankin. Joan was just the most wonderful artist: she was a clown, she was a dynamic actor, she was the smartest woman ever. When she cast me as Mistress Ford, I felt like it was the first time someone allowed me to be a lead– really, especially in Shakespeare, because I had been a lot of country wenches and a lot of secondary comedic characters, and I had played the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Joan just had a bigger range for what she thought was a leading woman and who she thought was beautiful. This was 2000 when your leading ladies were usually white women who were thin—I am not—and I felt so grateful that somebody had seen me and let me be one of the people who carried the show. So that was a turning point for me. It was a big deal for me. Someone trusted me.

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(Kay Kostopoulos as Mistress Page (l) and Elizabeth Carter as Mistress Ford (r) in SF Shakes’ Free Shakespeare in the Park, The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2001)

I kept working and working. I had been directing young people in the Cal Shakes summer program for many years. I had directed a lot of 10-year olds in Shakespeare, challenging them with things like The Winter’s Tale and Richard III. And I also taught at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts where I had taught for 15 years, and where I am now the Director of the Theatre Department. My professional career was going really well as an actor and then Jeanette Harrison from AlterTheater contacted me. She was interested in me directing a workshop of a new play by Star Finch, Bondage. It was a test for me. I did the workshop. I loved the play and found it super challenging. I felt so alive creatively during that process. That was my first real professional experience directing an adult production. And from then, I just felt like oh my gosh, this is what I do. This is something that makes me feel so alive and challenges me. Getting to be responsible for the vision of a play just woke up so many things in me that I hadn’t totally realized I was pretty good at, even though I had been doing it with kids for so long. I was able to give the gift I developed from teaching students to actors, that is being able to communicate really well and to draw out their best qualities, and to push them and to shape something that is not only from the inside out, but from the outside in. Since then, I’ve gone on to direct for TheatreFirst, African American Shakespeare Co., and A.C.T.

I am still actively acting. I just went to New York in the fall and did another production of Eureka Day! by Jonathan Spector Off Broadway and that was really exciting because I had never done New York. I find myself now not only thinking as an actor about my part, but really thinking about how my part fits in with the show. I’ve started thinking on both sides: how do I serve the director’s needs and how do I serve my needs as an actor? I can put myself on both sides at the same time and that’s really interesting to me. Right now, I feel pretty evenly weighted.

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(Elizabeth Carter in The Black Rider, Shotgun Players)

SF Shakes: How do you feel about returning to SF Shakes?

Elizabeth Carter: I will tell you something I am excited about: I am only the second person of color since the 90’s to direct for SF Shakes and the first woman of color to direct in its history. I am both surprised and not surprised by this. It’s Shakespeare, after all. One of things I love about working with SF Shakes is that the company is really walking the walk in terms of  inclusivity and diversity, and asking themselves hard questions– and I love that.

On creating inclusivity and a wider appreciation of Shakespeare.

I remember teaching one of my students. She was Chinese-American. I asked he to look closely at a monologue by Hermione. She was hesitant at first, so I asked her, do you think there were no Chinese queens? No powerful Chinese women? And so she started working on it and she ended up going to the English-Speaking Union to compete in New York. She was so dynamic and she’s fallen in love with Shakespeare and she is now changing the face of what Shakespeare looks like. That’s the thing we have to ask: Why would you think that you don’t belong here? There are many ways that Shakespeare translates across cultures. We have to give people the opportunity to access these things. I’m passionate about creating theatre that people of color and underrepresented folx can see themselves in. So often we don’t feel like Shakespeare is for us, made to include us. People of color need to push for people of color. And now that I am in a position of power, I need to ask: How do I create access?

Follow this blog for more from this conversation with Elizabeth Carter, including information about Carter’s vision for The Tragedy of King Lear, Summer 2020. You can learn more about Elizabeth Carter on her website: www.elizabethcarterarts.com