Steve White’s Iowa Shakespeare Ensemble | Steve White’s Shakespeare Ensemble

Steve White as Henry II of England and Tena Nelson as nemesis and wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. (photo by Gerard Ownby)

STEVE WHITE was raised in the lap of luxury in the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by family and friends in the movie business. Steve’s dad was a cinematographer for iconic film director Cecil B. Demille. His mom was a stage actress. One uncle, Jules White, has a star on Hollywood Boulevard and was nominated for four Academy Awards for directing the Three Stooges films. Uncle Sam White produced and directed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Dracula’s Bela Lugosi, William Shatner, and TV’s Perry Mason and My Friend Flicka. His cousin Howard Gordon is currently executive producer of the TV show 24, and before that produced The X-Files.

Steve grew up with the sons and daughters of movie stars such as Gregory Peck, Alan Ladd, Robert Ryan, and Kirk Douglas. Starting at age 18, Steve worked for four years as a tour guide at Universal Studios, where he was often on set watching the work of stars like Bette Davis, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., and Shirley Maclaine.

In 1974, when MIU bought the Parsons College campus in Fairfield, Steve was the first guy to get into Spayde Theater, and he has been producing plays here ever since. His latest project is launching what he hopes will become a top-level Shakespeare company. He’s currently directing James Goldman’s classic play The Lion In Winter at MUM’s Spayde Theatre.

Rolf Erickson: After growing up in Hollywood, what attracted you to Shakespeare?

Steve White: I fell in love with the language. When I got out of acting school, I just gravitated toward Shakespeare, because the plays have so much richness in them. I love the fact that the characters speak the way they do because they simply cannot express the breadth and depth of their emotions in any other way, in any language less rich than the words that William created for them to do so. His best-loved plays are magical, so deep and so multi-layered. Somehow, when I do Shakespeare, it just transports me.

What’s your plan for establishing the Shakespeare Ensemble here in Iowa?

The most practical approach is to focus on creating quality actors and quality shows. I want to build a skilled team of seven to ten properly trained, professionally minded, easy, and fun to work with stage players. And I want them to get paid a decent living wage for contributing their talents to the fabric of society. It is certainly essential to a culturally healthy society to have good theater. And that takes well-trained people. We tell stories that have social significance and emotional impact, that take people on imaginary journeys they want to go on.

So where does the money come from to pay good stage actors a decent wage?

My goal is to get grants to support them. No theater company, even the best in the world, can survive on its box office. At best, they get 50 percent of their working costs from ticket sales. The other 50 percent comes from the government, from grants and endowments, and from sponsors who want the arts to thrive. I’ve set up a non-profit organization, and now I need somebody who’s willing to write grant proposals and take a percentage off the top for getting us the money.

Will you take your show on the road?

My idea is that the Shakespeare Ensemble would have a home at the Sondheim Center and attract people to Fairfield from throughout Southeast Iowa. Then perhaps at some point, people will ask us to tour, maybe within a 200- to 300-mile radius. But that’s a more expensive and time-consuming proposition, so we’d need a business manager to book the shows and take care of the details.

But you’re not limiting your productions only to Shakespeare, right?

We’ll do a range of plays. Most Shakespeare companies include the classic plays in their repertoire. They lean heavily on Shakespeare because he wrote so many beautiful ones. But they also do Shaw, Moliere, really good stuff that has proved itself. And they’ll also do new works. Our first two plays were Shakespeare’s Tempest and As You Like It. Then we did Moliere’s The Miser, and now we’re doing James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter.

I just completed four weeks in your acting class. Your main focus was to get us to stop “acting” and get into Meisner’s place of “living truthfully.”

“To live truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is how Maestro Sanford Meisner worded it. But all the good acting teachers and approaches to acting are striving for the same thing. They may phrase it differently or give it a different terminology, but it’s all the same thing, which is immediate truthful playing.

Truthful playing can be achieved in any style, even an extreme farce, or Restoration comedy, or theater of the absurd. Seinfeld’s Kramer is very truthful, even though his behavior is up and over the top. But it’s still based on the truth. That’s why it works. The style is the gift wrapping, but the truth is the gift itself, the core of everything.

Why choose Iowa to build a Shakespeare company?

Well, first of all, Iowa is one of my home bases. I learned Transcendental Meditation back in 1967, and I come here regularly to join the large group meditations. I also spend part of the year in Los Angeles, where I work with people that are better than me so I can continue to grow as an actor.

This is my fifth theater company in Fairfield since 1974. I produced MIU’s first plays in 1974-76. I co-directed the Fairfield Reperatory Theater Company with Elaine Speer from 1985 to 1989. Then the Odyssey Stage thanks to Andrew (Winston Churchill) Edlin. And the Meridian Stage in a space donated by Tim Fitz-Randolph.

I want to give the people of Iowa some alive Shakespeare. Most people are scared of Shakespeare. Why? Because they saw it as a high school play. High school kids are not yet actualized as human beings, and God knows, their acting skills are not even remotely actualized. Therefore, how can they actualize these brilliant plays that were written for professional actors?

Or maybe people had to read Shakespeare in a high school class. Shakespeare’s plays were not written to be read in a class. They were written for skilled actors to perform them and bring them vividly to life.

In addition to acting and directing, you’re an experienced fight choreographer. How did that happen?

It’s just something I picked up. I had a background in wrestling and studied Kajukembo with the guy who did fights for the show Wild Wild West. It’s a useful if finite skill, and helped me get hired as an actor when I was younger. I studied saber for four years with fencing master Ralph Faulkner, who taught and choreographed Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and all those wonderful old swashbucklers. He’d been an Olympic fencer, so he knew his stuff.

Ralph had this fabulous old complex in east Hollywood with a big open area like a basketball court where the fencing classes were held. There were old movie swords rusting away on the walls. That was a magical place to learn how to handle a sword. Ralph was 95 years old and on crutches, but you still couldn’t get near him with a saber. He could out-fence anybody.

Eventually, I became one of the early Full Instructor/Choreographer Members of the Society of American Fight Directors, and have choreographed fights for most of Shakespeare’s “greatest hits.”

You’ve seen hundreds of performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Does one stand out?

When I was studying at the British American Acting Academy in England, I went up to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It. It was so deep and rich and funny and human and whimsical, so truthful in the moment, that I wept through the thing. And As You Like It is not a sad play. I wept because it was such a beautiful work of art. I was so moved that when I left the theater, I walked a couple of blocks in the wrong direction. I ended up walking right past Shakespeare’s house in Stratford. I’ll never forget that production for as long as I live.

Any last words?

Sure. We welcome your support. Come to the plays. Tell your friends. And if you have time, expertise, contacts, or financial support you’d like to offer to the Shakespeare Ensemble, feel free to give me call at (347) 229-7020.

Steve White’s production of James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter (for mature audience only) will be presented on December 5-6, 19-20, 2008, at 8:00 p.m. and December 7 at 2:00 p.m. at the Spayde Theater on the MUM campus in Fairfield.

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