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OSF solo show explores the cost of war

Lisa Wolpe
Lisa Wolpe, star of "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender"

The creator and star of "Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender" discusses the show's themes of war, family, and the importance of storytelling with JPR's Vanessa Finney on the new JPR series and podcast "The Creative Way."

Lisa Wolpe: Many of the male characters in Shakespeare feel that honor is their quest. And that they are told that through warfare, they can achieve honor. And we don't really see that in our warriors coming back from Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq. We see young men going there at 17, 18, 19, young men and women finding their psyches blown apart. They wonder what the point was, they come back, and they find that veterans benefits are not what they were told that they would be. You know, one wonders, what is the real cost of war? And I think in the Shakespeare plays, that's always written very beautifully. What is the cost of war? Because there were constant wars.

Vanessa Finney: That brings us to your father's story. One of the transformations that you personally go through and you share in your play, is the discovery that he was considered a war hero. Describe that process?

LW: Well, it's been a long process. In 1998, I ordered my dad's family tree, and found out that my dad's family were rabbis, back to the 1600s. And then my uncle Jerry called us. He was a rabbi who had known my dad at Harvard. And he said, "You have to come to the first Wolpe family reunion," which was held in the Holocaust Museum at Washington, DC. And it was there, standing with my Jewish family members in a museum, where you can see this is the detritus of a town in Lithuania, where 90% of the Jews were killed in a pogrom. And I saw their eyeglasses and their shoes and the photographs of the remaining ones. Then even today with the surviving members of the Wolpe family - and there aren't very many - we're sharing family trees and trying to figure out: what is our family relationship? And how do we reconnect? This was once a really important family. These were powerful people that were rabbis and counts, and monied people, and everything was taken from everybody, including their lives.

But as we remain on the planet, we look at other genocides, in Gaza, and in Ukraine, all over the world famine and difficulty and, you know, 90% of the wealth in this country having gone up to the top few. We wonder where this love of life still is, how we can rekindle love and empathy, how we can get the kids off the cell phones and get them to play together and use their imaginations and their bodies and their hearts and make up stories that we can believe in for the future. You know, as opposed to trending as influencers on social media, which is maybe not healthy.

I mean, we're seeing a huge increase in depression in youth in the United States - 20% more than last year. And I think it's partly because the pixels don't move people the same way a human voice would. And also because criticality is so far diminished, education is underfunded, and people accept whatever they see on the internet is true - as opposed to really having critical discourse. I like doing a lot of reading and looking at other cultures and other languages, and other people are interesting sources of deep wisdom. So I like to travel, I like to go to other countries and find how other people live, and astonishingly, there's a lot of people who still sit on the porch and talk with each other and, you know, live with the Earth as their priority. The beauty of nature is their inspiration.

VF: On that note of talking to people and sort of a civil discourse: You encourage community dialogue, as does the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I think it's pretty common to have a Q&A session after some shows. At the performance that I attended of your show, there was a Q&A afterward and at least a couple of people, at your invitation, shared their own experiences. How common is it that? And what have you been learning from that kind of community conversation?

LW: I've done talkbacks after every show for decades, with the LA Women's Shakespeare Company, which I ran from 1993 to 2016. We always did a talkback after every show. And a lot of our actors and our volunteers came from those conversations because they wanted to be in discourse. They wanted to explore their humanity. So I think the talkbacks have been thrilling.

VF: Lisa, thanks for the conversation today.

LW: Thanks, Vanessa.

Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Vanessa Finney hosts All Things Considered on JPR and produces My Better Half, a podcast and Jefferson Exchange segment that explores how people are thriving in the second half of their lives.