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Spotlight on Liz Wisan

How did you get involved with acting?

I grew up in NYC, but my family spent every summer in Wilton, New Hampshire. There’s a wonderful children’s theatre there called Andy’s Summer Playhouse, where all of the actors are between the ages of 8-18. Kids help build sets, make props, assistant stage manage and work on run crews. I saw kids acting in these shows, and being involved in all aspects of the theatre. Everyone had to work together and do their part for the theater to run. I loved that sense of community and I knew I wanted to be part of it. I did my first show when I was eight. It was called Romeo and Juliet: The Real Story. I played the Nurse and the Friar, my first of many character roles, and the feeling of making an audience laugh got me hooked. I was lucky enough to work at that theatre for many summers, and when my family moved up to New Hampshire I became involved in the high school shows, and at the local professional theatre, The Peterborough Players.

I went to college to get a theatre degree, and began studying opera and for a few years thought I would go into that. I love how beautiful classical music is, and it was wonderful to be immersed in that world, but I missed the freedom to improvise on stage, and found myself being pulled back to theatre. Even though I chose theatre over opera, I’ve been really lucky to have the opportunity to sing in most shows that I’ve done, including this one.

Liz Wisan in rehearsal for the Shakespeare Theatre Company's 'The Servant of Two Masters,' directed by Christopher Bayes. Photo by Nicole Geldart.

What is it like to perform the role of Smeraldina again? Is this time different at all?

When we did Servant at Yale, I was near the end of my third year at the School of Drama, and [Servant director] Chris Bayes was my teacher. Anyone who’s gone to drama school will tell you that those last few months leading up to the Actor’s Showcase are a little stressful. On the professional side of things, it was a big deal to be a student cast in a Yale Rep show. Not only was it a little intimidating being in a room with such amazingly talented professional actors, but I thought that being in the show would help me get an agent when we graduated a month later. Since it was my last show at school as a student, I started thinking of the role as a representation of everything I had learned in grad school. I really wanted to impress my teachers, especially Chris, and do everything “right.” Needless to say, I had put too much pressure on myself for it to be fully enjoyable. And that’s crazy, because this show is sooo much fun.

Now that I’ve been working and have earned the title of “professional actor,” I’ve taken the pressure off of myself, and it’s become much more fun. Smeraldina is essentially the same, but I now have the freedom to play more in the rehearsal room, and I’ve found some fun new things that weren’t in the original version. And of course having new actors in this version of the show has changed certain moments as well, and it’s been fun to work on those moments.

What’s been truly amazing though, is what the brain and the body are able to remember even after a two-year hiatus. There are certain things, especially the sections of the play that have a rhythm or musicality to them, that came back instantly in the rehearsal room. It’s surprising how strong muscle memory can be.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

Before every show I have to do something very aerobic, like go for a run, or take a dance class, and totally exhaust myself. I then go through a series of yoga postures, and vocal and physical warm-ups. This show is especially challenging because my character’s voice is pitched much higher than my natural speaking voice, and at times tips into what sounds like a pterodactyl–and then I have to sing operatically. What this means is that I have to do a very thorough vocal warm-up, and be very careful about not eating or drinking anything that will make my voice too phlegmy.

All that is pretty par for the course, but there’s one thing I do that’s purely out of superstition. My voice teacher in grad school once said that right before you go onstage, you should push your hands strongly against a wall to engage your entire body and become physically “ready.” He said he could tell whether or not an actor had done that  from the moment they came onstage. It’s now become something that I have to do in the moments right before my first entrance. If I miss that one tiny step of pushing against a wall, it’s like I didn’t warm up at all!

What are you most excited about with The Servant of Two Masters?

What’s amazing about this show is that it’s able to move from raucous comedy one moment, to heartbreaking beauty the next, with incredible ease. Everyone onstage is a master at what they’re doing, and it’s not only a joy to perform in the show, it’s a joy to watch it too. There are benches on either side of the stage and whenever our characters aren’t in a scene, we can sit on the side and watch our friends do brilliant work and make us laugh over and over again at moments we’ve seen a hundred times.

What’s exciting for the audience is that it’s a show unlike any they’ve ever seen before. It’s simple, yet operatic, funny, moving and always surprising. It satisfies the beautiful and magical childlike pleasures in all of us, and appeals to our more mature sensibilities as well. There’s a script, and sections that are very carefully rehearsed, then there are wonderful moments of improvisation that depend entirely on who is in the audience each night, and how they’re reacting to the action onstage. The fluid give and take with the audience is one of my favorite elements of this show.

This is why you should come see The Servant of Two Masters: it’s kind of like going with all of your friends to a buffet that has every kind of the best food in the world, and you get to sample all of it and leave feeling fantastically happy and completely full. Not so full that your pants don’t close–but almost!

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