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Jennifer Lanier Is Making Shakespeare Even More Queer

Jennifer Lanier

Original Practice Shakespeare Festival has one hell of a leader in their hands. 

Jennifer Lanier went from serving as spokesperson of the Christian Children's Fund (yes, the charity made famous by Sally Struthers, later renamed ChildFund) for four years to a lesbian commune in Hawaii.

But over the past decade this over-50 two-spirit lesbian actor has seen her career take off far from Hollywood, in the queer Pacific Northwest enclave of Portland, Oregon.

A classically trained actor who found a creative outlet in stand-up comedy and the drag persona Bruce TD King once she realized being a butch lesbian of color was keeping her from landing significant roles in Hollywood.

She also wrote her own material, particularly, None of the Above, her one-woman play about life at the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality. The work drawing deeply from her experiences growing up in North Carolina, her father a strict disciplinarian African-American Colonel, her mother a more free-spirit Native American from the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation.

It was after moving to Portland, falling in love with her now wife Dustina Hasse and adopting Hasse's two boys that Lanier say her life really took off.

"My family was solidly behind me and their support enabled me to devote myself to my passion," she says. "And yes, once people saw my work -- my skills are really solid now -- they started booking me. I look younger than I am, that doesn't hurt, but frankly, my mindset has changed in that I'm not worried about being what people want."

"I'm more concerned with showing them who I am and what I can do. If that works for them, that's great," she continued. "But I'm done trying to twist myself into a pretzel to be what some ethereal 'them' wants me to be. So far, that's been working very well."

Indeed, Lanier booked a high-profile guest star role on Leverage (she played Special Agent Elaine Delacourt on Season 5), appeared in multiple episodes on Grimm, and has since been working in film including Woodstock Or Bust, which is touring film festivals and racking up awards (including January 2019 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Best Picture award). Lanier also has a feature role in Thin Skin, a new film by Ahamefule Oluo, Charles Mudede, and Lindy West (Shrill) based on the smash hit off-Broadway show Now I'm Fine.

Lanier has been most active on stage, becoming a fixture in the Portland theater scene. She's currently performing in Well by Lisa Kron and Let Me Down Easy by Anna Deavere Smith (in repertory). In addition, Lanier is now the co-artistic director of the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival aka OPS Fest, a role she shares with Brian Saville Allard, a bisexual-identified cis man.

Having two members of the LGBTQ community in leadership positions, Lanier says, gives the company, "a much wider vision for casting possibilities." The name of the company reflects its mission, to "implement the unrehearsed, improvisational performance techniques actually used in Shakespeare's time. Creatively using gender-, color-, differently abled-, size- and age-conscious casting, OPS provides a completely unique perspective to the classic canon."

Lanier explains that the unique casting style allows actors broader opportunities to explore roles written for all the genders. But more than just using that casting to draw attention to issues around gender identity and expression, OPS employ it reframe these classic plays through a modern lens.

For example, Lanier explains "Our Othello [in which she starred as the titular character] spoke to the struggle of an African-American lesbian fighting for a position of power only to have it undermined by a jealous white man. Our age-reversed Romeo and Julietconsidered the difficulties faced by elder Romeo and Juliet whose lives are now controlled by their children, the Montagues and the Capulets."

Lanier says this kind of creative casting is still far from the norm.

"Theatres are waking up a bit when it comes to casting but, sadly, I find that they still rely heavily on cis presentations and actors who appear slim and able-bodied. I wonder what the fear is? Do they think audiences will be confused or upset? I find that the audience accept what you ask them to accept. We have actors who use canes in our company, several actors -- including me -- who are plus-size, actors with autism, nonbinary actors, a transitioning actor who started with us using they-them [pronouns] and is moving to he-him [pronouns]. All of these folks bring exciting perspectives to the stage."

The company is also pushing the boundaries when it comes to casting actors who use mobility devices, particularly after a personal experience on the OPS Fest's outdoor stage helped Lanier see that the possibilities.

"At the beginning of last season, my leg had to be in a cast for the first two shows so my wife graciously lent me her power wheelchair. Discovering how to maneuver the stage and work with my fellow actors as Othello clarified that this is not a barrier to the work. Audiences were as moved by Othello's tragedy told from a wheelchair. Now, we have two folks who use wheelchairs auditioning for this season."

Heading into their 10th anniversary season, Original Practice Shakespeare Festival has an ambition line-up, with 19 separate Shakespeare plays scheduled.

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