In the early 1990s, when the co-artistic director of a new classical theatre company in Glendale was looking for an actress to play the role of Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, he recalled one of the finest actors of his undergrad days in Chicago, and fortunately she was available.
The company was A Noise Within, now ensconced in a mid-sized theatre, the Luckman, at Cal State L.A.; the artistic director was Art Manke, who still runs the company with Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott, and the actress-now a resident artist with the company-was Gail Shapiro, a performer of surpassing intensity, sensitivity, and focus who has taught in ANW's conservatory classes and assayed roles in the company's Major Barbara, Romeo and Juliet, and The Seagull.
Next up at Noise is a role Shapiro said she's wanted to play for her entire professional life: Imogen in Cymbeline, which pairs her again with director Manke.
The great problem in casting the role, said Manke, is that "expectations are so high as to who she is and what she has to accomplish. In essence, Shakespeare almost creates the perfect woman-Imogen seems to have all of the best qualities of all Shakespeare's heroines combined in one role. She is intelligent. She is funny; she is self aware. She is passionately committed to the man she loves and to her country. She is spiritually enriched. When you think about doing the role or casting it, initially it seems an impossibility that any one actress could embody all those things."
Then, of course, there is Gail Shapiro-and suddenly the director's task looks less daunting. Manke recalled, "Even as an undergrad, there was an emotional accessibility and vulnerability that was always present in Gail's work. Actors often get locked into what they do. They reach a certain age and they think there is no more to learn. Gail is always looking for the new challenge."
Shapiro certainly faces that challenge with Imogen. But it is a role she has been studying for more than a dozen years and she understands the depths of the character's soul. "Cymbeline is a story about forgiveness and mercy. Imogen goes through an enormous journey-probably a greater journey than any of the other characters. There is a series of horrible offenses done to this girl. It is the story of how she goes through them all and what she does with it. I don't like to think of her as a victim. However, she is victimized by a lot of people. When she finally meets up with people who are filled with integrity and truth and nobility, even though not of noble blood, she is taught how to behave."
Onstage, Shapiro's combination of intellectual scholarship and truthful emotional connection is a product of her own personal style of working and her training at Yale Drama School. Before going to Yale for her M.F.A., she spent a few years as an intern at such theatres as Actors Theatre of Louisville. She then spent some time as a casting director in New York City, learning what it is like on the other side of the table. It was this wealth of experience along with her native talent that made her ripe for the rigors of Yale.
Shapiro recalled, "Yale was a wonderful experience. It gave me a confidence that I had never had. At the time, those instructors were interested in nurturing who you were-taking what was there and cultivating it. I learned to find my voice-why I was doing what I was doing. I found that there is something outside of myself bigger than myself-that I am in the service of.
"When you know you are in the service of something not as petty as your own ego, you have a kind of passion and direction and clarity about what you are doing. It can be misinterpreted as arrogance. It can sound so pretentious and that is not my intention. I know that in order to see my life's work come to fruition it needs to be more important to me than it is fun. I must feel good doing it and feel I am growing by doing it.
"What amazes me is that my politics, my perspective, can be expressed through the text of a playwright. Especially in the classics. There are big ideas in the classics. I love that."