Actress embraces Shakespeare, life in Oakland
By Lou Fancher, Correspondent Contra Costa Times
William Shakespeare may have saved Bay Area actor Elizabeth Carter's life, but roasting weenies in costume on a neighbor's lawn on Halloween has provided the Upper Laurel district resident with equal, joyful purpose.
"I came here 20 years ago to attend Mills College," Carter said. "I decided I really like Oakland. It's economically and ethnically diverse. Every year, we cook hot dogs in costume."
The imagery is immediate: adults and children, differentiated mostly by size, not dress, cavorting in tandem. Among them, Carter and her almost 3-year-old son, Milo, who she describes as "fantastic, with a Tigger-like bounce to his step."
Growing up in Eugene, Ore., Carter was a do-good teenager with few outlets for expressing emotions she said weren't acceptable for girls.
"Anger and pain -- I wrote really bad poetry to get it out, but theater was a great place for me to land," she said. "It was catharsis: It saved my life."
On the wings of an inspirational drama teacher, Carter soared into the word space of Shakespeare most passionately. The Bard's rich vocabulary and the subjects, simultaneously monumental and everyday, fascinated her.
"The words are so specific: It offers a deep, intense world to delve into. There's rhythm, people falling in love or bitterness, struggling with identity and ambition," she said.
A quick look at her resumé reveals the eclectic flair of most Bay Area actors; but also, a Shakespearean slant. She has performed with California Shakespeare Theater and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival; a favorite role is the Bawd character in Pericles; she teaches Shakespeare performance at San Francisco School of the Arts. In the Aurora Theatre Company's "Wittenberg," David Davalos' hilarious and harrying Hamlet-meets-Faust-meets-Martin-Luther smash-mash, opening in Berkeley on April 4 in previews, Carter plays a world of women in her role as The Eternal Feminine.
The four-part character demands not only comic timing and aural precision, but an ability to slice the female pie into distinct, explicitly individual wedges.
"I have a trigger for each character," Carter said. "The professional woman, Lady Voltemand, speaks in verse; Gretchen is grounded and her hips move with weight; Helen is all regal elegance, with double entendres; the Virgin Mary is a vision with a huge voice that carries to every corner of the room."
Carter said because she is tall (she's 5-foot-10), African-American and "not a stick," she's unlikely to play the love interest in a period production. In "Wittenberg," she's cast as the love interest of many: a woman who rocks Faust's world; a sexy professional woman; a cushiony, bawdy barmaid; and a universal symbol of maternal purity.
"I love juicy roles like these. I love the Aurora for seeing, not only me, but seeing the world that way," Carter said. "Despite how people think theater is mainstream, it really isn't. The more we can represent African Americans in period work, the more it becomes less different."
It's a position she carries into the classroom. Watching her students perform work written 400 years ago -- and performed by men, during Shakespeare's time -- she gets excited.
"It's not some old, dead, white guy's ideas. These ideas are the same troubles we have today," she said.
Carter often thinks it's brilliant when a student actor makes a choice she might not have attempted. By guiding them to use the language to its fullest -- not just saying "graves," but thinking about earth and feeling soil tossed across their bodies -- she's reminded of the importance of her craft.
"You show up; you hit it from that exact moment," she said, speaking of an approach to life and theater as much as of entering the quartet of roles embodied in The Eternal Feminine.