An Interview with Shakespeare’s Associates Lisa Tromovitch

Published by Roberta Emerson

Chris: Hello everybody, my name is Chris Carter and I’m the Executive Director of the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center.  Welcome to Beyond the Stage where we interview people in our community that are heavily involved in the arts and the industry that we love so much. Right now  we’re talking to you from Advanced Creative Studios on Research Drive in Livermore. Thank you so much for having us, John and Doug, we really appreciate it. Today, we’re here to talk to Lisa Tromovich. Lisa is the Founding Artistic Director of Livermore Shakespeare’s Associates. Lisa, hello!  How are you doing?

Lisa: Okay! Thank you for having me, this is really fun.

Chris: It’s fun for me too. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. I’ve been really looking forward to this for a number of reasons. Before we get started, I do have your bio.

Lisa: Oh okay.

Chris:  If you know I do some research, so I’m going to read a little bit. This is the only time I’m going to read. For the audience, Lisa is the Founding Artistic Director for Livermore Shakespeare Associates. She’s also a tenured professor at the University of Pacific and she has over 50 professional directing credits in six states. Is that still accurate?

Lisa: That’s a higher number now because I haven’t updated that bio in a while, but yeah, it’s the six states still.

Chris: That’s impressive  and you began your career at the Old Globe Theater. You received the Backstage West Garland Award and are the Indie Award winner for direction of Amadeus at PCPA Theaterfest. You’ve also been awarded the 2010 Innovation Award for Risk Takers and Dream Makers from the Livermore Chamber, I’ve been to that event a couple of times, that’s always fun. I didn’t know that you’d won that award, that’s really cool.

Lisa: They shifted that. It used to be a community award and now they’re really focusing on youth, so we’re really uplifting the students of the area with that award now. It’s really exciting.

Chris: I love that award too, I think it’s so neat to honor people in that way. I just think it’s great that you got that.  You are the past president of the Shakespeare Theater Association and you have your degree from Southern Methodist University and Dartmouth College. So you’ve got a lot of experience so before we talk about what you’re doing now what I really want to learn, and I think what people that know you well probably want to learn too, is more about your background and how you got started in theater.

Lisa: Well, I really wasn’t supposed to end up in theater.  I think about this probably monthly, like how did this happen? My father was a doctor. He was a dermatologic surgeon and an inventor. So a very curious mind and my mother was a teacher, and then ran his office when they were young and poor and trying to raise a family. We used to play, my brother and sister and I, we used to make up little plays. I still remember I still remember doing poems. We would do staged poems from The Child’s Garden of Verses. I loved the book because I liked to touch it. I would pet it I would pat the cover of the book.  I loved hardcover books. I would be the announcer and my sister would be the actor. There was one where she played the skyscraper. And I remember learning things and I just liked learning things. So I didn’t know the word contrast, but I’m directing my sister in this play about a skyscraper, and I looked at her and like “how am I supposed to know she’s a skyscraper? I need a little building.” So then my poor brother, who we’d banished from the family room, I dragged him back in. “You have to be on your knees and be a little building, that’s how we’ll know she’s a skyscraper. “ I didn’t know the word contrast – I didn’t know but it was problem solving, at an early age. I was so excited that I’d learned something. You know so we kept doing stuff like that, you know turning furniture over and doing plays.

“I didn’t know the word contrast, but it was problem solving at an early age.
I was so excited that I’d learned something.”

Then I got involved, almost accidentally, in high school. My sister and I and my brother, we all did art class with Mr. Smith at Mills High across the Bay in Millbrae California. He was fabulous and my sister was getting a lot of love and appreciation for her artwork. And mine was, you know, good, but hers was great. And then my brother was really good at sculpture, so I was doing that typical sibling rivalry thing where I was just like, “Well gosh, I can’t be a painter or sculptor, because my brother and sister are better at it than I am, I guess I’ll switch over, and instead of advanced art I’ll take beginning acting, beginning theater. Mr. Knight at Mills High, was one of those amazing teachers that just inspired you know hundreds and hundreds of people.  So I ended up taking it and then when I went to apply to college, the councilor said, “What do you want to be?”  And I said “I want to be a teacher.” They said, “No, no. Don’t put that down, there’s a glut of teachers, don’t put that down.” And  I’m like, “Well what do I put?  I have to put something on this form.” So the only thing I could think of was doctor because that’s what my dad was.

So then I went to Dartmouth and I’m pre-med and I’m taking all the advanced bio classes and loving them.  I mean still my favorite courses were cell biology and embryology. So I was having this great time being a pre-med.  I should be a doctor or at least in biological research right now…which is why I love Livermore so much!

Chris: I was just going to say you’re kind of in the perfect spot, because the science and the arts are so heavily favored here in Livermore. You have background in both and so you’ve been able to kind of bring those together it sounds like.

Lisa:  it feels like family. You know I just I feel really comfortable in Livermore. A lot of the scientists work at the labs and they can’t really talk about any specifics, because of security and things like that. But it’s just really fun being around people that think like I do.

Then when it came time to apply to grad school, I’d already worked on a cancer study at UCSF. I got an internship, my dad helped me get it obviously. But I’d done a cancer study and I’d done another little internship and the advisor said, “Well you’re a shoe-in for med school. You got great grades, you’ve got the internship, you’ve got all this stuff going.” But I couldn’t write the essay.  I couldn’t write the essay, “Why do I want to be a doctor?”  Meanwhile, you know the power of teachers, my theater teacher Nancy Kindelan had been pulling me aside. Back then your job choice wasn’t a major, you couldn’t be a pre-med major or pre-pharmacy major, you had to have a real major in a discipline, and then they told you which courses to take to move on professionally. So they said you could be any major you want so I was like, “Well, I’ll be a theater major.”

So I was a drama major and my drama teacher had always expressed interest in me, and was guiding me towards directing out of acting. Which was wise (laughs), I wasn’t that good as an actor. I knew what to do, but it wasn’t quite clicking for me. I was very intellectual, I love the research, could do the directing and that was exciting. So I figured I just loved it and I would do it. But when it came to write the essay, I couldn’t because I just had more attachment, I think, to the theater and the arts.

We learned a lot about how theater works in other countries, especially politically, how you can share ideas, political ideas, cultural ideas, in a way that is I think more natural. You’re telling stories about people in specific situations, trying to achieve goals and what happens when they made this choice, what happens when they made that choice. So it’s more of a real conversation with the community and we were seeing how, especially in really repressive regimes, sometimes the sensors weren’t well educated, so they couldn’t see what the playwright was doing. So the community could have these conversations about how their governments were being run, and what was important to a people. And they could have these conversations through the art through the theater. And I just got it in my head that theater had a better chance of changing the world for the better than yet another doctor. I think back and all I needed was one science teacher to take an interest in me, and I would have… we didn’t have Women in the Sciences programs back then. You really were an outsider, there were very few women in it and so it wasn’t fun. We weren’t encouraged.

“…they could have these conversations through the art through the theater.
And I just got in my head that theater had a better chance of
changing the world for the better than yet another doctor.”

Chris: And kind of unpacking that a little bit, I think I’ve heard other as I’ve talked to other people I hear these stories where there’s. It’s fascinating, when a teacher kind of sees something in you and then when they tell you that, they see the strength that you have and they go, this is what you should be doing and you hear that so many times and it’s like how grateful are we for these teachers that do that for us. The other thing you had mentioned  about these plays in these other regimes, I say that a lot too,  like where art and theater and these are that’s one of the few ways that you can change somebody’s mind. I could argue with you until we’re blue, but if you see that story and you and you feel it then all of a sudden you’re changed for the better. I think that is the power in in theater and art. I do agree I think that’s why it’s so important  a lot of times. We just think it’s so it’s supposed to be fun and entertaining, but it’s also it can be transformative like you said. I never thought about that kind of in these other countries and how it really can help change/shift these ideals.

Lisa: You can really see it sometimes as governments are shifting so quickly. Our government, we’re usually stable, so we don’t see the shifts so obviously as we can in some of the other countries, but you’re right, Chris, it’s the “feel” part of it. You can intellectually know something but before you’re going to act on that or really embrace it, you have to somehow feel it and the arts, all of the arts contribute to that opportunity.

Chris: Well, let’s talk about Livermore Shakespeare’s Associates and how did that come to be. So what was because you’re the founding director, so not just the director, you’re the founding director so I’m sure you can tell a little bit about the story about what was the interest in getting it going and how did it kind of form in its early days, how did that start?

Lisa: So it’s actually sort of two names. There’s Shakespeare’s Associates Inc., and that’s our actual corporate name, and then there’s Livermore Shakespeare Festival, which is how people tend to know us because it’s the biggest program that we do. So I was actually I’d come back to the Bay Area and was freelance directing out of the Bay Area to other states, Idaho, Vermont, etc.  Just getting my feet wet back in the Bay Area and someone said to me,  “You know, there’s this community called the Tri-Valley and they have a thriving community theater, but no professional theater. You should come out here and start a company.” And I said “Oh, no, no, no, no, you do not know how hard it is to start a non-profit from scratch!” You know a lot of Shakespeare festivals in particular were founded in universities, so the Office of the Dean would say, “This is a great thing for the community, it’s a great way to bring the community on campus, great for the students, so here’s a hundred thousand dollars to start your company.” But to actually start with minus zero, to say, okay let’s put some money in, so we can offer something to the actors and then start from zero, it’s really, really hard. So I kept saying “No, but I will advise you” to this friend of mine and her husband. And then, of course, after a year of advising, I ended up…

Chris: They pulled you in.

Lisa: Yeah I ended up saying, “okay, now I’ve put in too much.”  So we started it. And that had a short life actually. But we were looking for a small space to do theater. Regular theater, all kinds of genres, classic contemporary, modern, everything…

Chris: It wasn’t just focused on Shakespeare.

Lisa: No, it wasn’t to begin with. We couldn’t find a space, I mean we could not find a space in the Tri-Valley to produce theater. So someone said, “You should check out those event centers, they have them out at the wineries.” And I was like, okay we’ll go check out the wineries and then I looked around and I was like, “Oh no we’re not going to be inside of an event center, if we’re out here. This is beautiful, we’re going to do outdoor Shakespeare.” I had already had training and already been a co-founder of Maine Shakespeare Festival, so I was already a member of STA, the Shakespeare Theater Association – that’s an international a group of international Shakespeare producers – so I already knew what that cultural tourism product looked like and how it was run. So it was a shift, it was a sudden shift, and it was because the wine region welcomed us, that’s how we started.

“Oh no, we’re not going to be inside of an event center, if we’re out here.
This is beautiful, we’re going to do outdoor Shakespeare.”

So we did a couple of years but that board had problems and fell apart. But the volunteers and the artists said, “Hey what’s the new name of the new company?”  I was like, “Oh that’s right, the company really is the people who are doing the work, who are the artists, who are providing this service, we just have to get a new piece of paper that says we’re a new company.”  And that’s how Shakespeare’s Associates Inc.  was born. The name “Associates” is in there because we always envisioned collaborating with other groups and other types of art forms. We still have some of the original people from 2006 when we incorporated, and Katie Marcel was with Livermore Downtown Inc.

Chris: She’s great

Lisa: She came on that new inaugural board as the treasurer. And Laura Battie, who’s our current chair, she was volunteering to just do some free marketing for us help us get our website up. Beth Trutner of Trutner Law, she’s still our attorney of record and with our board on several committees, and she was the Chair. And everyone else, we’ve rotated many people through the board over the years.  But we’ve had a really wonderful, stable group and I think it’s really the strength of the board. You know we have a happy board. It’s kind of crazy because it’s not always true. When we go to conferences and things, the board will go to their workshops and they’ll come back and they’ll say, “Wow, we have a good board, everyone else was complaining, we have fun!”

Chris:  You’ve got it together.

Lisa: So I would say it’s the strength of the board and the concept of collaboration that started us and then, in a way, it was the wine region that welcomed us and that’s what steered it to the Shakespeare Festival. Then because this outdoor Shakespeare grew to two shows, so we were doing more than Shakespeare,  we were doing non-Shakespeare. Then that grew into the second grade program, “So Wise, So Young,” so we’re in all of the classrooms in the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District. It’s a literacy program, but we do use a Midsummer Night’s Dream.  And what kid doesn’t like a story with fairies and kings and queens and a guy whose head gets turned into a donkey? I mean it’s all good! So it kind of grew out of that.

Chris: So can I ask you … so I know for me personally, Shakespeare is difficult. I read Shakespeare in high school, in college, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.  I struggled a little bit with it. So can you tell me a little bit more about why Shakespeare so enduring? What is it about Shakespeare that really people love and then maybe give me some advice on how to read or watch Shakespeare, so I can appreciate it better and more deeply.

Lisa: So there’s a phrase that we use a lot. We say Shakespeare gave voice to the deepest experience of being human. And what’s crazy is, I think that’s what it is in a nutshell. Because some people say “Oh it’s the language, it’s the poetry, and the rhythms, the cadence of the line.” When he goes long, when the character is more emotional. When he goes short, because you need to have action. The emotion travels on vowels and the intellect travels on the consonants. That’s the choo-choo train of thought. You get all excited about the poetry and the writing itself. And that’s true, but Shakespeare’s done all over the world … in translation! So it’s not just the poetry, because they’re translating it to all sorts of other languages and it’s popular all over the world. So you say, “Well it’s got to be more than just the structure and the poetry.” Then you say, “Oh, it’s the novel stories.”  Well not really, because most of his plays were plots and characters, stories he stole from somewhere else. He didn’t start writing his own work until very late in life. So Romeo and Juliet was an extremely popular novella back in his day, so it’s not that his stories were so novel. They were popular stories, people knew them. But then there’s something to that that there’s something to the story that’s being told is something that people need to hear, want to hear, and can be translated into other cultures.

I think he’s just one of those, like Mozart, one of those geniuses. He was able to understand what our struggles were as people. What our struggles ARE as people and what we need to face and confront. And bring those things together, bring that into even existing stories, so a lot of times people will use Shakespeare quotes to fill in a blank. You say, “I don’t know how else to say this, but this is pretty gosh darn good …” and they’ll use a Shakespeare quote.

“I think he’s just one of those, like Mozart, one of those geniuses.
He was able to understand what our struggles were as people.
What our struggles ARE as people and what we need to face and confront.”

In fact we’re going to be doing some monthly events, starting this coming month. The first two are solo shows.  And what the solo show style is that someone will tell a personal story, about their own upbringing or their own experiences. But in these cases, using Shakespeare artists when it gets to that moment that is really the climax of the story or their emotional response to something, they put in the Shakespeare quote. And you can really see it. You can see “Ah yes, I felt that too,” but I would just want to go AHH or some emoji.  I need to express….  But then there’s this Shakespeare line and you’re like “yeah that’s it, that’s how I feel too!” That’s when you can feel it and then you know that lots of other people are saying the same thing, all over the world, in all different languages, and you have that sense of community with that human response to something.

Chris: I guess that idea so what I’m hearing and what’s helping me is that, I was thinking about it this morning. How life is complex, it’s not linear, it’s not like this or that. There’s things that we want that we can’t have, and there’s reasons for it. We live in a three-dimensional world, right?  So I think what I know of Shakespeare, some of these questions that you’re saying that we all can relate to, like the unrequited love or you know, Hamlet, like should I cease to exist? I think those are things that are heavy and there’s not always a happy ending. But it does come to an ending but it is very  real, how we feel it and relate to it is that what you’re saying?

Lisa: Yeah, I guess being able to say that I can trust that people all over the world and, for over 400 years, have found something in this there’s probably something in there for me.  If you’re going to a show with six people, there’s going to be six different things that that each of those people relates to.

Chris: In different characters and the people on all the different sides.

Lisa: And his reflection on it. I think that he manages to use language and story to encourage that deep reflection. The first solo work that we’re going to be bringing is Lisa Wolpe, who’s the creator of the L.A. Women’s Shakespeare. Hers is called Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender. So she looks at how gender has played a big role in her life and gender identity, and how Shakespeare played with it. You may not say, “Oh I’m going to a play about gender,” but it’s there. It’s there, if it’s something you’re interested in exploring. Debra Ann Byrd, who’s the founder of Harlem Shakespeare, is doing her show Becoming Othello: A Black Woman’s Journey. So it’s her life story, and you get us some of the story of how Harlem Shakespeare started. She played Othello  and what that was like as an African-American woman playing this character that was written in England over 400 years ago. She uses the Shakespeare to help us feel it with her. So it’s pretty amazing. You kind of want to say, “Hey let’s just let go of Shakespeare, that’s just so old” but he was so good! And then there are fairies and there are twins and there are people in shipwrecks and there are pirates!

Chris: And it’s fun! I guess Shakespeare held some keys to unlock some things in us that still work.

Lisa:  That’s a great way of putting it – the keys. And you don’t need to study up before you go. Sometimes Spark Notes or something if you want to get the storyline. But for festivals like we do, we always have a little primer before. There’s a program and the apprentices, they’ll do a little 15-minute presentation beforehand to give you the plot and then you just sit back and relax.

Chris: Well let’s talk about what are you doing during the pandemic? How are you all keeping busy and staying active and programming.  So tell me a little bit more about how that’s been going.

Lisa:  Well it’s kind of crazy. Katie and I were just saying the other day, we’re busier in part because everything’s had to go online. So we’re having to learn so many new things and of course, the anti-racism work right now is really important, so we’re having to learn a lot there. We’ve had 10 times more meetings and trainings and webinars and just learning how to do things.  I just said “I can’t believe I’m saying this but it would be so much easier to do a very large scale outdoor Shakespeare festival because I already know how to do that!”  It’s been very exciting and there was a definite silver lining that I couldn’t have anticipated, which was I have always wanted to commission new work out of Livermore. We’re always so busy doing what we do on a very very small staff and haven’t been able to do that. So we shifted focus very early on and we commissioned Diana Burbano, a Latina writer who always centers Latinas in her stories, to write a science play. And some of the scientists from Lawrence Livermore Lab have joined up with us and given her science advice. And we’re talking about covid and how that science is working with covid.  She is writing right now an original piece with the assistance of Lawrence Livermore Lab scientists. And we’re going to premiere it, in probably a staged reading format, in the fall. Hopefully enough people will get their vaccines that will be able to do both live streaming and an audience.

“…there was a definite silver lining that I couldn’t have anticipated,
which was I have always wanted to commission new work out of Livermore.
We’re always so busy doing what we do on a very very small staff
and haven’t been able to do that.”

I’m hoping that becomes annual. We’re Livermore. We have scientists. You can throw a rock, you hit a scientist. So we should be putting out science plays every year and I’d like to see that become a regular event for us.

And as you know we are in a silent phase to raise funds for a building downtown that would be a small black box. That’s a lot of work, so we are now in the redesign moment where we’re taking everything we learned and we’ve got our theater consultant and our acoustician. So we’re putting a lot of time into that. So we’ve been really, really busy. It hasn’t been much time off for us, so the whole staff’s been really busy.  Taking all our education programs, getting them online. Lindsay Schmeltzer is our Education Director, she’s been working on that. Taught herself how to edit, just for covid! I’m sure your staff’s doing the same thing. You just have to learn because here you are creating all this work.

Chris: I don’t like the word pivot, but I do think we’ve made the change and adjusted. I love the interplay with science and art so much. If we can get those together, then we should all be able to get along, right? It just makes a lot of sense and this is the best place to do it. So I’m looking forward to seeing that play.

Lisa: “Science @ Play” is what we’re calling it.

Chris: We’re going to wrap this up in a few minutes, but I have just a couple of quick questions for you, so we’re going to do some rapid fire. This will be more fun, but first of all, what’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

Lisa: My favorite Shakespeare play is always the one I’m working on! But I guess one of my big favs for some reason is the Scottish play. I guess this isn’t a theater and I can say it: Macbeth. Yeah, The Tragedy of …

Chris: Now I’m a music person and I always ask people for fun. What music you’re listening to right now?

Lisa: I’m listening to whatever tends to be on, quite frankly, because I’m on zoom calls or classes, five six hours a day. But my go-to is Lyle Lovitt. There’s only two people on the planet who I’ve never met, if they called me up and said “Marry me.” I’d say yes. Lyle Lovett is one of them. Man’s just brilliant.

Chris: He’s one of my favorites. At one point we were talking to his agent about bringing him to the Bankhead Theater.

Lisa: Oh, I’m there!

Chris: Well, you never know, it might happen. So I’ll keep you posted then. That’s good to know. Thank you for sharing that. Now I’m going to test you a little bit on your Shakespeare knowledge. And I don’t do this for anybody else, but you.

Lisa: Because, I will fail! (laughs)

Chris: So what up we’re going to do, to start easy, I’m going to give you a quote from a Shakespeare work and you have to tell me what work it is. And for bonus points, you can tell me what act.

Lisa: That will not happen!

Chris: Trust me I would not get any one of those. But we’re going to start off easy. So the first one is, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

Lisa: That is the question.  That would be Hamlet. He has nine soliloquy’s or major speeches in that play.

Chris: And I think that’s the most famous line, isn’t it? Arguably, wouldn’t you say?

Lisa: That is. Arguably, that is the most famous Shakespeare line. Absolutely everyone knows that line.

Chris: All right. The next one, “Now is the winter of our discontent…”

Lisa: “… made glorious summer by this Son of York.” That’s Richard III.

Chris: See you’re good at this!

Lisa: That’s one I haven’t directed, I want to do.

Chris: Okay well let’s look forward to that one. How about this one “All that glitters is not gold.”

Lisa: Oh I totally should know that and I don’t. So it’s not one I’ve directed.

Chris: That’s all right don’t worry about it. That one’s The Merchant of Venice.

Lisa: Oh yeah, I haven’t done that.

Chris: Let’s find a good one here, “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind, and therefore is winged cupid painted blind.”

Lisa: That would be in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Chris: Yes, very good. Here’s one. Now I’m always surprised when I hear a Shakespeare quote and I go “I did not realize that was from Shakespeare.”  Because it’s so frequent in our language. Here’s one I did not know, but I recognized, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Lisa: That is Twelfth Night. Malvolio is one of the funniest characters in Shakespeare. And he’s someone that thinks of himself as a dignified person, so it makes it extra funny.

Chris: All right. We’re going to do one more and see if you get this one.  Bonus points for this one.  “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.”

Lisa: is that a Falstaff line? Um … Merry Wives of Windsor?

Chris: Merry Wives of Windsor. Congratulations!

Lisa: Produced it, but didn’t direct it.

Chris: That’s good, I’m impressed! I’m so glad you came to join us today Lisa, and I am very appreciative that you’re here in our community doing the work that you do. I cannot wait to get to see some of the live performances in the future. Wish you all the best and just want to say thank you very much.

Lisa: Thank you Chris and back at you. I can’t wait to be inside the Bankhead, beyond the lobby.  I did get to see the science exhibit by the way. Shout out for that, that’s really fun, the science art.

Chris: Well we’re looking forward to it too … to be continued. Thank you everybody have a great day!


Find out more about Shakespeare’s Associates and their upcoming events including [email protected] HERE.

Get tickets to Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender and the other LifeSPARC Virtual Events  HERE


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An Interview with Local Jazz Leader Matt Finders

An Interview with LAS Music Director Lara Webber

An Interview with Supervisor Scott Haggerty

An Interview with Congressman Eric Swalwell