Esther Williamson

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Esther Williamson. She graduated from SPU in 1998 with a double major in Theatre and English, then earned her master’s of fine arts from the Academy for Classical Acting at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Now she’s an actor and a teaching artist based in Brooklyn, New York. A proud member of Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Esther has been praised by The Washington Post and numerous local critics for her deft handling of the heightened text and her grounded, soulful onstage presence. With Taffety Punk, she has performed over half of Shakespeare’s canon, as well as several new and classic works. She’s also acted and taught with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Opera House Arts in Stonington, and many, many others. Esther, thank you so much for joining us today.

Esther Williamson: Thanks so much for having me.

Amanda: Esther and I did a little theatre together back in the day, just a few shows.

Esther: We sure did.

Amanda: Actually quite a few shows and a little touring, but we’ll get to that later. Let’s start at the beginning. What got you interested in theatre in the first place?

Esther: Well, like many, many people, my first theatrical experience was in high school. I come from a fairly artistic family, but we’re all musicians, so I was surrounded by classical music growing up, but there wasn’t any live theatre, really, happening. I went to a small Christian school. We had a teeny tiny drama department. We did one play every spring for one weekend in the cafetorium.

Amanda: (laughs) I love a cafetorium.

Esther: And, yeah, my junior year we did a show called Kind Lady. It was a murder mystery. I was the maid. I was dead by the end of Act Two. I just found my place and my calling through that experience. Through that class, I learned a lot about myself and a lot about who I wanted to be and what it meant to be genuinely myself, and also that it was okay to be genuinely myself. I just sort of went from there.

“[M]y junior year we did a show called Kind Lady. It was a murder mystery. I was the maid. I was dead by the end of Act Two. I just found my place and my calling through that experience. Through that class, I learned a lot about myself and a lot about who I wanted to be and what it meant to be genuinely myself, and also that it was okay to be genuinely myself. I just sort of went from there.”

Amanda: I feel like I could say the same thing about finding yourself in the theatre. But what did that feel like? What did that look like, for people who don’t know that feeling?

Esther: I think for me, it felt like visibility and acceptance. There’s a longstanding tradition in theatre that every cast is a community and that we all come together and make something that has meaning. And it’s temporary. All of these families are, to some degree, temporary, but for that time that we work together, we’re really together and everyone is valued and everyone is heard. It doesn’t always work that way, but it’s really nice when it does.

And so for me, I think finding that community that I wanted to be a part of and finding that I was able to fully participate in it was really enlightening. I wasn’t the most outgoing person growing up, and I was also the third of three girls coming through the same small school, so everybody knew both of my sisters. All of my teachers called me the wrong name a lot.

And my classmates and I, I had joined this school in the second grade, so I had known them all for 10 years, and you know, when you’re around 16 you really start to change and come into your own. It can be really hard for the people around you to allow you to change when you’ve known each other for so long. Along with a lot of other things, I think that that drama class and that teacher, who was quite instrumental in my life, just really allowed me to go through that metamorphosis.

Amanda: Yeah. I spent my life in the arts, in band and in theatre, onstage, and that community that you’re talking about where everybody has a part to play, whether they’re onstage or backstage waiting in the wings, it’s a community that relies on each other in a really special way. I know when my kids were in school and they were doing arts, I had several other parents tell me I was doing something wrong by not having them in team sports, because they weren’t building that team ethic.

Esther: (laughs)

Amanda: I thought it was so funny because to me, I was like, “Do you know what it’s like?”

Esther: Those people have never been in the arts.

Amanda: Right? Because it’s like you can’t do anything by yourself. Like, you can be on a basketball team and be the star of the team and maybe it would be better if you shared some more of the spotlight, but everything’s a team. Everything makes you rely on each other.

Esther: Yeah.

Amanda: Why specialize in classical theatre? I think a niche like classical theatre is not for everyone, obviously. So what made you say, “Ooh, Shakespeare. This is where I want to spend my days.”

Esther: I was a big reader growing up and a big word nerd, and I was raised by educators, and I’ll say that in my family, academic achievement was really rewarded, and intelligence was really prized as a highly valued and sought-after personal asset. And so I think part of it really came from (laughs) just a huge craving for approval within my family.

Amanda: Sure.

Esther: I found out kind of early that I had a facility with Shakespeare and heightened language, and I could understand it without too much work. I think really that’s kind of, for better or worse, where I started with heightened language things, especially. Just being raised by people who love language did that for me.

And then as I grew into myself and grew into my work a little more, Shakespeare never ceases to astonish me, because whoever goes into Shakespeare looking for themselves will find themselves. We’re all in there somewhere, and it’s remarkable how many times you can run into a line that was written 400 years ago and recognize an experience or a feeling you’ve had and have never been able to quite put into words. That’s, at least, what I experience frequently and what a lot of my students tell me that they experience as well. I never get tired of it.

Amanda: Yeah, you find those things that transcend culture. Things change so quickly and so rapidly and how we talk about the things that happen to us change so quickly. And yet there are these human condition elements that, like you said, have been around for hundreds of years and probably are never going to change.

Esther: Yeah. And then on the other side of that coin, Shakespeare is also really malleable, especially the stronger plays. A play like Twelfth Night you can set anywhere at any time. You can tell the story in a million different ways successfully, and so there’s what people call the universality of Shakespeare. It speaks to us still, but also it’s a hugely flexible medium and can change with the times if we allow it to.

Amanda: Well, in college, you and I both were a part of a traveling theatre group called the University Players. that no longer exists, but there used to be an acting troupe, a singing group, and then a choir that would tour quite a bit during the year. Tell us about that experience and how you feel like that whole lifestyle prepared you for a life in the arts.

Esther: Players was a hugely formative experience for me, and I’m so, so grateful for it still. I hope to see the program come back someday, because that is where I learned to be a professional in a lot of ways, and I also learned a lot personally myself. I mean, it was such a gift. It was a team of eight people, basically, six actors, a stage manager, and a director, that were together for an entire year, wrote and devised two pieces of theatre, and then took them to every venue imaginable. With Players, over the course of three years I was in the group, and then I was sort of a ringer every now and then for tours and things if somebody couldn’t go for a couple years after that. So I was involved with Players, and then I directed a couple years too, so I was involved with the Players for five or six years of my life. In that time, I performed in places as small as people’s living rooms or little restaurants and things, and as large as megachurches with big Jumbotrons and everything in between: school gyms, cafetoriums galore.

Amanda: (laughs)

Esther: (laughs) Auditoriums of all sizes and all technical capabilities. In terms of, just as a performer, learning to modulate to the space, to bring size when size was needed and to bring intimacy and groundedness and directness when the space got smaller, that was a huge, wonderful way to stretch and build my skills. But also, working in an ensemble for an entire year, touring with people, being in the van, being responsible and getting up every early morning, taking turns, all taking responsibility for ourselves and what needed to be done, communicating well, collaborating well, and just taking care of each other as people, too, it was just … I don’t know that I can put it into words how important and how useful and how just formative that was for me.

Amanda: I agree. I would say that I had a similar experience, both as being a member of the troupe and directing. It’s not just a team and a family, but it’s a school at the same time. It’s exactly what you’re saying. You’re learning how to be a member of a team in a way that will take you from an office to your own family and everywhere in between. I think there are lessons to be learned in the arts that are just magical. Like you said about not knowing where you would be sometimes, even until you showed up and having to adjust to that. I’ve always said I think every schoolchild should have to take improv for just a little while, because life is improv.

Esther: Yeah.

Amanda: And being able to say, “Oh, this wasn’t what I thought, but I’m going to have to run with it anyway,” well, that’s life, right?

Esther: Yeah, I think so. And for me, another benefit, just sitting here reflecting on those years, is the family aspect of it. I was a young person who took myself remarkably seriously, and the boys just wouldn’t let me do that. (laughs)

Amanda: (laughs)

Esther: If I got too serious, they’d just make fun of me, and I could get mad and even more serious, or I could lighten up. And so mostly, I hope, I chose to lighten up. And that experience, just being with people who cared about me and weren’t going to let me wear a black turtleneck for the rest of my life, was very beneficial for me.

“If I got too serious, they’d just make fun of me, and I could get mad and even more serious, or I could lighten up. And so mostly, I hope, I chose to lighten up. And that experience, just being with people who cared about me and weren’t going to let me wear a black turtleneck for the rest of my life, was very beneficial for me.”

Amanda: (laughs) Yes. There is something about putting yourself up front that forces you to kind of let go of some of the chips on your shoulder. I remember waiting outside a cafetorium, a gym of some sort. It was a junior high, though. I remember that it was a junior high. I was standing there with the group and I had on overalls and a ponytail, and a teacher was coming late to the assembly and the teacher yelled at me and asked why I was not in there sitting down with everyone else. And I’m like, “Because I’m 23?”

Esther: (laughs)

Amanda: I mean, it’s like you just have to laugh. There’s no point in going, “I’m an adult.” It’s like, “Well, you still look like a kid, so laugh it off and move on.”

Esther: Go do a play.

Amanda: Go do a play. Good times. Such good times. Well, what does the life of a classical actor look like now, especially in a post-COVID New York world?

Esther: Well, it’s growing back slowly. COVID was really rough on the theatre. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the week in March of 2020 when everyone I knew lost their job. It’s such a gift to be in a play. It takes so much work. Professionally, to get yourself cast in a play is notoriously challenging, and it’s really something to celebrate when you do get cast in a play and you get to do the fun part of your job, which is actually acting, instead of the difficult part of your job, which is auditioning.

“COVID was really rough on the theatre. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the week in March of 2020 when everyone I knew lost their job. It’s such a gift to be in a play. It takes so much work. Professionally, to get yourself cast in a play is notoriously challenging, and it’s really something to celebrate when you do get cast in a play and you get to do the fun part of your job, which is actually acting, instead of the difficult part of your job, which is auditioning.”

Amanda: Yeah.

Esther: So everyone that happened to be in a play or in rehearsal or about to be in rehearsal, as I was in March of 2020 … To have one show canceled is heartbreaking. To have them all cancelled was really rough. And in the grand scheme of things, of course, we were all just grateful to be alive and be healthy and be safe, and people that were working out of town were all getting on planes and holding their breath and getting home. But yeah, the impact was severe and long-lasting. And now, the theater is back. A lot of us are still wearing masks in audiences, and plays are still being canceled by COVID. The understudy has become (laughs) a different job than it used to be. Usually, understudies were very much in reserve and you could understudy an entire production and never go on and never even come close to going on. And now, that’s not what happens. Now, if you are understudying something, you’re probably going to go on at some point because COVID sweeps through casts and the whole team of understudies goes on frequently.

Amanda: It is just a different world, isn’t it?

Esther: Yeah.

Amanda: I mean, you and I, back in the day, you would go on. The show must go on. That saying exists for a reason. Unless you were in a hospital bed, you were going on.

Esther: Right.

Amanda: And now, of course, you’re not allowed to do that anymore, which is a good thing to a certain extent. I mean, hopefully where it lands on the spectrum in the future will be somewhere reasonable, where you can take care of yourself.

Esther: Yeah, and I think we’re getting there. But right now, post-COVID theatre is still on its way to finding whatever will be the standard going forward. I have done a few shows since the pandemic has petered off. I did one in the summer of 2021 that was an outdoor show, and then this past summer I also did an outdoor show, and then this past fall I did my first show indoors since before March of 2020.

Amanda: Wow. How did it feel?

Esther: It went okay. It was with Taffety Punk, and we’ve got a very intimate black box space on Capitol Hill in DC. It’s an old space. We had lots of air filters running. But we did make it all the way through the process without anybody getting COVID. There’s a very funny thing that happens now where … So the whole cast tests twice a week. That’s sort of industry standard. I think it’s actually set by Actors’ Equity, the actors’ union. I think Equity decides how many times a week a cast has to test, and then you send your results to the stage manager and everything. But if you have to kiss someone, you test every day. So kissing gets expensive. (laughs)

Amanda: (laughs)

Esther: I did a production of Much Ado this past summer and Benedick and Beatrice have to kiss, and Hero and Claudio really should kiss at some point – oh no, actually, it’s in the script. They have to kiss too. And so that was four people testing every single day once the intimacy work started. Margaret and Borachio are the third couple in that play, and they could kiss, but in our particular production —

Amanda: The director’s like, “No. too expensive.”

Esther: (laughs) Exactly. That was the rule.

Amanda: “Just wink at each other.”

Esther: They could do just about anything else, but they couldn’t kiss because it was too expensive.

Amanda: That is funny. Someone’s going to write a play, The Expense of a Kiss.

Esther: Right. That’s what classical theatre post-COVID looks like. You have to budget your kisses a little more carefully.

Amanda: (laughs) Oh, that’s funny to me. What is your dream role? Or is that a role that you’ve already played?

Esther: I’ve already played a lot of dream roles. I have all sorts of dream roles right now, but I’ve gotten to play a couple of roles that I really love a couple of times. I’ve been Viola in Twelfth Night three times. Viola you know very well because I was Olivia to your Viola in 1998, I think.

Amanda: A long time ago, yes.

Esther: Maybe ’99, yeah. And I’ve gotten to play Brutus in Julius Caesar; and Isabella in Measure for Measure I’ve played a couple times. Those were pretty big ones. Current dreams, or current things that are really interesting to me, I would really love to play The Bastard in King John. It’s a play that people don’t know as well. It’s a Shakespeare play. King John is all about a country deciding who they want to be in charge, so I think that King John should be done every election cycle. Every election year we should do it.

Amanda: Yeah, especially right now.

Esther: Just so everybody sits there asking that question. Who should be in charge and why do we want them there? One of the main characters in that, his name is Philip but he’s just known as The Bastard in the script, which is great. (laughs) So there’s that. There’s also a play called What the Constitution Means to Me. It’s a one-woman show. The rights have recently been released for other people who are not the author to perform it, so that one is really interesting to me as well. So I have my eye on a couple of dream roles. Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion would be a real joy to play, but I’m starting to age out of that, so …

Amanda: Well, and the age-out thing, like, it sounds bad and you think, as a movie starlet, that the bloom is off the rose and you can’t be a starlet anymore. But for a stage actor, I love that every time you reach a new milestone, all these new roles open up for you. Sure, some go away, but there are new ones you can play. I think you and I both played people much older than ourselves while we were in college or high school.

Esther: Oh yes. (laughs)

Amanda: But when you can, in the real world, play a really meaty role when you’re finally old enough to play it, I’m excited about one day getting back onstage and playing some of the roles, maybe even again, that I played when I was —

Esther: (laughs) Yeah, some of the roles that we got cast in college and we’re the right age for now.

Amanda: Yes, because I was way too young to play that role when I did, and I would like to do it right. Yeah, absolutely. You also are a teacher.

Esther: Mm-hmm.

Amanda: I think most actors that make a living, you have to do multiple things, teach and act and coach and all sorts of other things. But I’ve heard you say that, as a teacher, you value process over product. Can you talk about what that means?

Esther: As a teacher, it is my joy to help people get where they’re trying to go, wherever that is. Every single actor’s career, they’re a little bit like snowflakes. They’re all very unique, and what you try for you might work great for you, but it might not yield the same results for me. Casting, especially, is such an alchemy. It’s an alchemical process and it’s complex and there’s a lot that you can’t control. But what you, as an actor, can control is the number of tools that you have at your disposal and the way that you approach your work. So what I like to do, especially when I’m working with actors — not all of my students are actors. Some of them just love Shakespeare. But actors in particular, I love to make them feel like they have a nice, robust process where they know for themselves, no matter who’s in charge, no matter how competent or not their director is, they have the tools they need to figure out exactly what they’re saying, especially if it’s Shakespeare or a heightened text, exactly why they’re saying it, exactly what gives it meaning, personal meaning, specificity, all of that. All of that is work that actors can do for themselves if they work on their process, instead of being oriented towards this specific role and how I’m gonna perform it.

Amanda: I feel like as an actor, you need to be in love with the entire process to be willing to do, as you said, work so hard to get the one part for the one thing for the one … It’s a hard life, and unless you like the whole journey, not just the onstage part, you’re not going to last very long.

Esther: Well, it really can play with your head, precisely because it’s such a huge set of skills. The skills that are required to audition for something don’t necessarily match the skills that are required to do the job once you’ve got it. And so yeah, loving every step of the process is important, or at least being able to navigate every step with a little bit of equanimity. There are steps of the process that I don’t love, but I’ve learned how to sort of weather them (laughs) and work through them and see them as part of my work and accept them as part of my work. That has paid off for me.

Amanda: And isn’t that all jobs?

Esther: Yeah.

Amanda: I mean, there are parts that we like and there are parts that we don’t like, but it’s part of the job. And what we all hope to do is have a job where there are more parts that we like than parts that we don’t like.

Esther: That’s right.

Amanda: I think you can love being on stage so much and just not be willing to do all the other pieces of the puzzle that it takes to live that life.

Esther: That’s exactly right, and every project is different, too. Some shows are really special and you get that amazing mix of people or the material is really moving or really speaks to our time or whatever it is. Every now and then there’s a show that’s incredibly special, and sometimes there’s a show that’s your job.

Amanda: Right, yes.

Esther: It’s just not … Maybe something actually goes wrong. That happens. It’s not the right mix of people or whatever. Or sometimes it just sort of lands in the middle. Not every experience can be a mountaintop experience, right? So yeah, sometimes your job is your job and you do it well and as passionately as you can, and I guess the nice thing about theatre is it always ends. (laughs) It’s ephemeral by nature, so if you happen not to like what’s going on, it’ll change.

Amanda: Like a college class. It can be the best class or the worst class, but it’s going to be over at the end of the term. I always actually loved that about college. Maybe that’s what I loved about the arts. Good or bad, this is gonna end and a new thing is gonna start. But let’s talk about the community. I’m guessing the actor/theatre community in New York is about the biggest that there is.

Esther: Yeah.

Amanda: And yet I find that the arts community is pretty small everywhere that you go, and you kind of run into the same people over and over again. Didn’t you even work at Taffety Punk with another SPU alum that we both know?

Esther: I did. I did. Daniel Flint followed me to DC. He wasn’t really following me, but …

Amanda: (laughs) But you got there first.

Esther: I got there first, but he ended up going to the same grad program I went to a few years after I did, and then he ended up joining up with Taffety Punk after he graduated. Taffety Punk is mostly made up out of Academy for Classical Acting grads, and so we all have a common language and a common community. That’s not rare for theatre in general, that you have communities within communities and sort of bloodlines going through training programs, especially. But yeah, so Daniel and I first worked together my freshman year at SPU. It was my first Shakespeare play. I was a goddess and a nymph in The Tempest and Daniel was in that show. I think he was Trinculo. And then he and I were both in my first professional Shakespeare out at Harlequin Productions in Olympia. We did King John together, in fact. And then we were Taffety Punks together, so we’ve had a long and wonderful friendship and collaboration. And yeah, people just, we spiral into each other’s lives again and again. Very frequently, I’ll walk into an audition room where I don’t know anybody there and they’ll look at my resume and say, “Oh, I worked with Stephanie Shine,” who I worked with in Seattle in the early 2000s. There are connections there. It’s just a big web.

Amanda: I remember meeting someone new at church many years ago, and we went through the whole, you know when you think someone looks familiar, and we went through all the things. “Did you go to SPU? Did you do this? Did you go to this church?” And we got all the way through and sort of shrugged and gave up because neither one of us suggested theatre, because you don’t meet a lot of theatre people in the church world.

Esther: Yeah.

Amanda: A few weeks later, I did something up in front and he came running up to me afterwards and says, “We worked at The Mystery Café together!”

Esther: (laughs)

Amanda: “Oh my goodness, of course we did!”  But it was just very funny because we were both out of context and we don’t put the church and theatre together very much. Although I would say I think church and theatre need to get together a lot more. That’s my own little opinion.

Esther: Well, yeah. They’re having the same conversation, church and theatre are. Yeah.

Amanda: Mm-hmm, yep, agreed.

Esther: That’s another podcast. We’ll do that podcast later.

Amanda: Yes, we’ll get into that next time. Well, what’s next for you?

Esther: I just landed a little contract. For the month of June, I’ll be out at the Chester Theatre, which is in the middle of Massachusetts. The play is called The Making of a Great Moment. It’s by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and it’s a little two-hander about two actors that are bicycling across Canada doing a play very much like Players where they’re in found spaces doing a play about all of the great moments in human history when something changed, when people did things like discover fire and how wheels work and things. So that’ll be fun.

Amanda: Well, that will be very interesting. So if you’re in the Massachusetts area, go see Esther.

Esther: If you’re in the middle of Massachusetts, come on out to the Chester Theatre.

Amanda: All right, well, let’s end with our favorite last question. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?

Esther: I love this question. In the last year or so, I’ve been learning to meditate, and I think what I would ask all of Seattle and everyone everywhere to do is meditate, learn to meditate. Learn to create space around yourself by sitting and breathing and being aware that you’re breathing, and just simply having a daily practice that grounds you. Once you are grounded in that silence in that way, you can hear the still, small voice you might be looking for, and you have more clarity. You have more patience. You can bring more tranquility and peace to whatever you do. It’s something that I’m working on in myself, and would love to see everybody enjoy the benefits of that.

Amanda: Yeah, I have a friend who refers to meditation as making space for God.

Esther: Mm-hmm.

Amanda: I like that, because we tend to plow through our day and our lives filling up all the space. We need to slow down and breathe and leave some margin to hear that voice about where we should be going, what we should be doing, not just what’s next. Yeah. All right. I feel like I should go meditate right now.

Esther: (laughs)

Amanda: Well, Esther, thank you so much for joining us. Break a leg in your next production and come back and see us again real soon.

Esther: Thanks so much for having me.

Related articles

Alumni All-Stars

A wooden coaster sits on a program from Dr. Deana L. Porterfield's inauguration. The coaster reads "God is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:15-19) Seattle Pacific University 2023-24
God is doing a new thing

Read all about it
Women’s golf starts in fall 2024

Photo of Angela Tucker against a grey background
Beyond SPU
Angela Tucker and the many stories of adoption