We had the good fortune of connecting with Blaire Baron and Julia Walker Wyson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Blaire & Julia can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
Back in the early 2000’s, my neighbor and I tried an experiment on 0ur 5 year olds. If we gave them lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, would they understand them? (Lola’s mom had been in the Royal Shakespeare Company; myself, a lifelong professional actor.)
“Weaving spiders, come not here! Hence you long legged spinners hence!”
They instantly acted out the spider weaving a web.
“Beatles black, approach not near! Worm nor snail do no offence!”
“Ohhh, the fairies are trying to scare away the bugs from their queen while she sleeps! Ohhh, because they’re tiny!”
They wanted more!
“You spotted snakes with double tongue! Thorny hedgehogs be not seen! Newts and blindworms do no wrong! Come not near our Fairy Queen!”
Barbie dolls be damned. Give ’em lines from Shakespeare! This moment of realization exploded into something unexpected and unstoppable – The Los Angeles Drama Club (now, Shakespeare Youth Festival)
So as you see, it wasn’t like “let’s start a business” – it was more like, “let’s see if anyone out there wants to play with us! Let’s pass on to them the magic formula that worked for us.” Especially children who wanted more from life – or those who might not have access to the arts.
I came on board via my son. A friend (Joane Pickett, formerly of Pickett Fences in Larchmont) whose son had participated in the first production thought that it would be a good fit for my 5 year old. I was thrilled to discover this group, and after a year of participating as an eager “mom volunteer,” my husband whispered to Blaire and Sophie that I had an MFA with a Shakespeare concentration. Sophie was moving on to other projects, so I stepped in, and the rest is history.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
BLAIRE: I am a 4th Generation Los Angeleno who started acting at 14 in school then got my first professional acting job at age 20 in the Final Season of Happy Days, (which is hard to admit because it was aeons ago.) After a few more TV gigs, I moved to New York for a decade to finish my studies and deepen my theatre training. When I came home to L.A., I had the training and grit I needed to survive the “business” of acting and proceeded to work in television and film for another decade before starting my own family. You ask about struggle and challenges – the whole endeavor was so much a struggle that it became normalized for me, that “you’re going to struggle” or you’re going to have to work extremely hard at everything you want. So I expect it.
But why is that a bad thing?
What we do at Shakespeare Youth Festival is not normal – it’s not precious or cute. I mean, the kids are adorable … but we work! We struggle; we grapple; we bite off more than we can chew, and we chew it. We don’t believe in removing this healthy form of struggle from children and youth. It’s a combination of the normal stress that creates growth – coupled with the exhilaration and self worth that comes with achieving something amazing that you didn’t think you could or would ever do!
JULIA: Before moving to LA, I lived and acted in Chicago, home of the tight-knit theater community – it’s a town where you finish a performance, and head to the corner bar, where you’re likely to find actors from umpteen other shows, all celebrating their shows together. To be honest, I had a hard time finding my footing in LA. I’m a theater person, and at first, I couldn’t get a sense of where the LA theater scene was happening. I wasn’t quite sure there was a place for me here. My favorite part of acting has always been the magic that happens when you get the right group of people working together on a stage – building deep connections over weeks of rehearsals and performances. My first few years in LA, I desperately missed that. I didn’t start out with the intention to work with kids, but I’m so happy I found my way here. it’s such a privilege to create these long-lasting bonds with our Players.
Our Players often join us when they are 7 or 8 years old, and literally grow up with Shakespeare. By the time they hit high school, they are not only seasoned Shakespearean actors, but are committed to passing the torch to our younger students. Before the pandemic hit, we were rehearsing on Saturdays at World City Center, a fabulous pre-school housed in a classic West Adams mansion. When our youngest cast was rehearsing, in every corner, you would find our high schoolers patiently guiding 8 or 9 year olds through their scenes and monologues. They are deeply devoted to the language and the work and the creative community, and I am honored to facilitate that devotion.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
BLAIRE: First, I would make sure my friend came during one of our Festivals and I would take them to see our plays. They would have to work the concession booth at intermission – and they would have an amazing time, if not a spiritual experience, from seeing 6-18 year olds doing a full production of say, King Lear – and doing it like pros.
As an Angeleno, I’m fond of so many enclaves.
In Highland Park, I’d take them to Galco’s for any brand – and any decade – of soda they could find – plus a pretty decent sub sandwich.
After a tour of Echo Park, I’d show them the Victorian Neighborhood up Douglas Ave. in Angelino Heights (different spelling from Angeleno) and the first designated HPOZ in the city. Angelino Heights has the best remaining examples of Victorian-era architectural styles in Los Angeles.
Another great afternoon would be to head over to HomeBoy Industries on Bruno, downtown and have chilaquiles at Homegirl Cafe, then grab some coffee cake at the counter To Go before jumping on the Yellow Line (across the street) to South Pasadena for “small town charm” – there might be a Farmer’s Market going – but walk a block to Fair Oaks Malt Shop for ice cream. We can sit at the counter and sip malts, like ancient times!
JULIA: Next to Shakespeare Youth Festival, my favorite thing about Los Angeles is the Hollywood Farmer’s Market on Sunday mornings! We would definitely kick off the week with a visit – hopefully, the samples will be back soon, so we can taste whatever is in season, but even if they aren’t, we can marvel at the amazing variety, and the gorgeous colors, and chat with the vendors.
I haven’t been back yet post-pandemic, but one of my favorite restaurants is La Cevicheria on Pico – the fish tacos and the ceviche are both extraordinary, and I love that it’s family-owned, and the chef often comes out to chat with the customers. Afterwards, we would head down the street to Mateo’s for ice cream cones and fruit bars (the coconut fruit bars are my favorite!)
And we would have to go on a hike – it’s tough to pick a favorite, but for a beach hike, we usually bring visitors to Point Dume, and hike around the point to Paradise Cove. But I’m also a big fan of an urban hike, and I love exploring Downtown LA – we’d hit some of the obvious spots like Disney Hall, the Broad, the Cathedral and Olvera Street, then we’d nose around the Fabric District, where we find many of the supplies for our Shakespeare Youth Festival costumes. We’d cap off the day at Colori Kitchen, another family-owned restaurant on 8th and Olive, for an amazing Italian dinner.
Oh, and maybe we could time the visit to coincide with Ciclavia. There’s no better way to get a sense of the best of LA then to bike several miles with thousands of fellow Angelenos!!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Shakespeare Youth Festival is a robust and global arts movement made up of young Shakespearean Players, supportive parents, devoted patrons and community partners.
From makers of crowns and scrolls, to bakers of delicious concession treats, to partners hosting us in Kenya, Botswana and Guanajuato, Mexico, we are all willing and happy participants of this youth arts movement.
This list would top 1,000 people. So we’ll keep it simple.
Thank you, Shakespeare.
Other: Vimeo – https://vimeo.com/shakesyouth/
Kila Packett, Eric Perez, Richard Lindstrom