A Conversation with Alex Pepperman
I recently sat down with Alex Pepperman, graduate of the Class of 2012 and founder of SoHo Shakespeare Company (colloquially, SoHo Shakes). Our conversation delves into his work in the theatre, namely the creative, experimental work he pursues, his philosophy regarding the importance of the arts, and the weight the political plays into just about everything he does.
I've edited our conversation for length and clarity.
Alex, the first thing I’d love to hear about is your theatre company, SoHo Shakes, and how this came to be. You founded it at the same time as your adaptation of Macbeth titled The Sisters went up. That’s a big first step. How did it all play out?
The company was founded based on the principles of that new adaptation. As you know, any good piece of writing starts with some kind of inspiration. I read this text about Lady Macbeth… and it shed light on her on in a new way, it made her out to be an avenging goddess rather than a murderer. So we took that storyline and cut in about 13 other Shakespeare plays to create new scenes and new monologues to tell this story… it was all Shakespeare’s writing except for one speech I wrote.
After I graduated from The Academy, I studied at Harvard American Repertory Theatre where all of our classes were in the theatre building itself. Professional theatre was happening around us all the time, so I got to see the backside, the offices, and it was inspiring enough to say: “Alright, I want to start something around this, around this principle.” It was 2018, and we brought enough people together to make it happen.
You mentioned that word, principle, that you founded the company based on a principle. I wonder if you can talk more about what that is?
The company’s current mission, the short, catchy version is: telling our stories from unexpected perspectives. We know so much about our stories, about classical literature, but we know it through such a narrow lens. I mean, who teaches Shakespeare? They’re the gatekeepers, old white men, frankly, teaching from their perspective—and mostly academics, not even performers. So this idea that we can have other people teach Shakespeare… that’s what it’s all about.
And for your show Imagine, there is the line “celebrating Shakespeare means celebrating humanity." Is that where you see the value of Shakespeare, in speaking to this shared sense of humanity?
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And that piece, Imagine, was specific. A lot of the work we do turns into fundraising for other companies. During the pandemic, it was frontline workers, especially those working with homeless, LGBTQ+ youths, but Imagine was for the children on the Mexico-US border. We celebrate Shakespeare all the time, but we’re often missing the point of it: we’re not celebrating all of humanity. It’s just far too important of a concept to continue on with the gatekeepers.
And what does the celebration look like to you?
Shakespeare’s stories in particular were written for a certain demographic, yet they were still able to explore a lot of things… Hamlet didn’t just happen in Denmark, that story exists somewhere in every culture. On separate continents we find that people have the same stories in their own folklore, we celebrate all of the things we have in common. As cliché as it may sound, we’re all human. We all have a shared sense of humanity.
I'm sensing that the political plays into this for you.
The socio-political atmosphere is driving almost every piece you see. Certainly the shows we’re going to be producing this September, which, unfortunately, I can’t tell you about yet—but keep an eye out! There’s a speech from Sir Thomas Moore, which I refer to as the “immigration speech,” it's still so hauntingly relevant. It speaks volumes to me. So yes, everything is a political statement. My friend Jeffrey Alkins once said that being Black onstage is a political statement.
And then what should the theatre be? What purpose does it serve for us?
[After a long pause] It should be two things: it should be both an exploration and a celebration of humanity. And I know we talk about that all the time in the arts, but the playing field simply isn’t equitable…it’s a celebration of certain parts of humanity. We must explore and celebrate all of those other pieces of humanity. It's such a disservice to humanity not to do so.
More on creating your own work. It can seem so daunting, I think, for young actors. Is there a process you have?
Well, there’s a certain amount of improvisational training. During grad school, I was able to train in Moscow for three months, at the Moscow Art Theatre, and a huge part of their developmental process revolves around sort of “improvisations” around the character—scenarios that might not actually be in the show, in order to explore the character. I’m getting ready to direct and the first thing I do is take the script, I take one of the editions…and I cross-reference it with other copies by these brilliant editors. And we just play with the different editions and see what else we can find.
You like to keep it open? Treating it as asking questions rather than having answers.
That’s exactly what it is. When we put up a show, I present an idea to the audience and the best thing that can happen is for them to walk out of the show and say: "I understood what happened." The second best thing that can happen is: "I understood what happened, but why did it happen that way?" Writers don’t necessarily write symbolism, the viewer finds the symbolism for themself.
Leaving it up to the audience, too? Leaving space for that magic to happen.
Yeah. And I love that word, magic. It’s contrary to so many things we're taught to think of. I mean, you could’ve been burned alive for being a witch, yet the people who burned you alive have an imaginary friend named God... it's so crazy. And again, in so many ways, it keeps coming back to the socio-political.
So what’s next for you? What can people look forward to?
Well, we’ve just booked a theatre here, with another company, and we’ll be doing some Shakespeare in repertory. We’re also in contact with some young artists to do some Chekhov, and are looking to be Off-Broadway. This is great, by the way, because it allows so much creative, expansive, and experimental work. So look out Public Theatre!
I look forward to seeing what you do, and will be sure to let you know the next time I'm in New York.
Please do. And if we have a show going up, I'll be sure to let you know.
You can find Pepperman and the entire company of SoHo Shakes here.