Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

L. Peter Callender

Artist Profile by Nicholas Bernier


A native of Trinidad in the West Indies, L. Peter Callender has worked professionally as an actor for over thirty years, and more recently as a director and writer. He received his formal training in the theater at the Juilliard School in New York City; Webber/Douglas Academy in London, England; Mask Technique with Julie Taymor; and The Suzuki Technique with The Tadashi Suzuki Company in Toga-mura, Japan. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theaters across the US, and has performed internationally in Japan, England, and France. 

His New York credits include: Tom/Jamaican Waiter in Prelude to a Kiss (Circle Rep. and at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway, directed by Norman René); Off-Broadway: Roscoe in The Caucasian Chalk Circle (at the Public Theater, directed by George C. Wolfe); Caliban in The Tempest (at Classic Stage Company, directed by Julie Taymor); Curio/Ensemble in Twelfth Night (at the Delacorte Theater, directed by Harold Guskin).

Mr. Callender was an Associate Artist at the California Shakespeare Theater for nearly 20 years. Some favorites roles at CalShakes include: the title roles in Julius Caesar and Cymbeline; Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream; Capulet in Romeo and Juliet; Orsino in Twelfth Night; Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing; Polixenes and Leontes in Winter’s Tale; Navarre in Love’s Labor’s Lost; Bolingbroke in Richard II; Duke Solinus in Comedy of Errors; Laertes in Hamlet; Dukes Frederick and Senior in As You Like It; La Feu in All’s Well That Ends Well; Dr Chasuable in The Importance of Being Earnest; Vincent Crummels in Nicholas Nickleby; Roebuck Ramsden in Man and Superman; and Colonel Pickering in Pygmalion. Throughout his career, he has performed in 23 Shakespeare plays, and directed 7 of them.

Since 2009, Mr. Callender has served as Artistic Director of the African-American Theater Company, and is the proud recipient of the Paine Knickerbocker Paine Award for continued contribution to Bay Area Theater. Recently, he has been developing a socially distanced version of Romeo and Juliet at American Stage in St. Petersburg, FL, where he is a resident Director. A reading of the first play he has written, Strange Courtesies, was given at American Stage during the 21st Century Voice: New Play Festival in February of 2020. The play examines the project of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, which is committed to gathering stories about the atrocities of the apartheid era. Inspired by Shakespeare, Wilson, and Fugard, Mr. Callender is interested in the restorative power of truth telling and the positionality of the witness. 

Mr. Callender has been a visiting professor at Stanford University teaching Acting Shakespeare.

Contact Information

For L. Peter Callender’s representation, contact J. E. Talent Agency at (415) 395-9475

Full Interview Transcript


Bernier: First off, I’d love to just get some biographical information: what got you into theatre making originally? What drew you to the different companies that you’ve worked with, and how do you think those places where you started influenced your trajectory?

CallenderVery interesting, thank you for that. With me, I worked very, very hard as a young actor. My mother was a single mom… growing up the Bronx, you know she had 3 or 4 jobs. She was a Nurse, she was a private nurse, worked as a registered nurse, got into the clergy late in life, but, as a single mom, raising a young black boy in the Bronx… I was born in the West Indies, in Trinidad, West Indies, I lived in London for a few years with my mother, we both came to the States together, and it was just She and I… and I could’ve gone in many, many directions growing up as a young black boy in the Bronx. But she had a very stern hand on me, not too stern, but stern enough. Being a West Indian mom, there is a sternness there, when you’re growing up, that is unmistakable. So, I went to a public school in the Bronx, PS80, in the Bronx, and I had a teacher, Barbara Glickenstein, who was my earlier support, an amazing woman, a teacher, a mom, a mentor, a guide, a support, someone who lifted us up in her 6th grade class to do great things––she introduced me to theater. She introduced me to what theatre can do and how theatre can move people and that was the beginning of my journey. She took us to see a Broadway show, she took us to see off-Broadway shows, coming out of her own pocket. And I will never forget the excitement I felt watching the curtains go up or the lights go up on a show, and how transformed I was as a young boy growing up in New York. I don’t think I would’ve gotten those experiences if it weren’t for her. 

In 8th grade, I started a theatre group at PS80, got a teacher to come in, and we did musicals. And then the hunger for theatre, and the hunger for that applause, and working hard, and the work ethic of an actor—that was instilled in me at an early age. But I was also very athletic. So the idea of either going to Dewitt Clinton High School, which was right across the park from where I lived, or performing arts high school, which I knew nothing about, until the teacher we got [for the theatre group], Gregory Kammerer, until he came in and said, “listen, you need to audition for the High School of Performing Arts.” And I had not heard of it prior to him saying that. So, I worked up a few pieces––one from Don Quixote, the man of La Mancha, one from there, and another Shakespeare piece. And I auditioned for Performing Arts High School, and never thinking I would get in, but [Gregory] wanted me to audition for it. I did my best, and lo and behold, I got in. And that was the beginning of my pre-professional training in theater. After that, I went on to the Juilliard School, then to Webber Douglas Academy in London, came back, did some teaching, studying at NYU, and I got on the tracks at that time. I loved it. I love theater, I love audiences, I love actors, I love directors, I love teachers, I love traveling. I love learning language—not French and German and Spanish, but language as in—how language can transform, how language can teach, how language can break through boundaries, and how characters in plays are created and formed. I was so fascinated by that, I was so fascinated by seeing an actor on stage, so transformed, and then waiting patiently at a stage door and seeing that actor walk out completely different. The amazement I had when I would see these actors, or get an autograph, or just see them come out of the stage door, with their scarves and hats and no makeup, and…you were the person I just saw? And I was just amazed by that. So that lit a fire under me, a lot more. And of course, it built from there. 

As a matter of fact, this theatre that I’m working at right now, in Syracuse, New York, Syracuse Stage, was the theater that gave me my very first professional theater gig. Directed by Arthur Storch, who was the artistic director at the time. And now I’m back here after all this time, having done 23 Shakespeare plays, countless classical plays, directed a bunch of shows, resident director of American Stage in St. Petersburg, Florida…West Coast Black Theater Troup…I’m the Artistic Director of the African-American Shakespeare Company now, but having to come back here where I got my professional gig is quite wonderful—I feel at home here. And my desire to give back now that I’ve gleaned all this information, I’ve learned so much, I’ve been given so much. I feel now that it’s time for me to give back, and teach what I’ve learned, direct actors the way I like to be directed, direct young actors so that they feel like they have agency, so that they feel like they’re loved and appreciated in theater, so that they know that this theater world is an amazing, fanciful, tough, creative, deep, passionate, tearful at times, funny most of the time, world that they are a part of. And so that when they’re done with a rehearsal of mine, they’ve learned something, they’ve had a journey, they’ve just done so much. This is why I love being a theater maker. Because when I see actors take their curtain calls and audiences are on their feet, giving ovation to what they just saw on stage, actors who have never gotten a standing ovation before, to know what it’s like, to have anywhere from 100 to 300 to 500 people jump to their feet…there’s nothing like that for me as a Director. As an actor, I’ve experienced that, but when I’m giving that opportunity to young actors right out of conservatory, or their first professional gig or something, and they stand there––it brings tears to my eyes. This is why I love theater making: I love actors. I love what we do, and giving this gift of theater to audiences—there’s nothing like that in the world. 

Bernier: Yes, thank you for that response. That’s amazing. I experience my own…I want to teach someday, and I think a lot of what you say does align with the teacher’s draw as well. To give students the experience of excellence and accolade. 

Callender: When you’re a teacher and love what you do, Nicholas, and once you become that teacher, your students shouldn’t feel like you’re teaching them. I think Socrates mentions this, that your student will learn without your students feeling like you’re teaching them, because of the questions you ask, because of the things you do, because of the way you deport yourself, because of the things you talk about and the way you talk about things, and then they walk out of session, or rehearsal, or a studio session, or a coaching session, or a lecture and they’re full, they’re excited, they can’t wait to do some research. And they wonder, “why am I so excited?” Well, because Professor Nicholas talked to us, and he talked to us in a way that—“wow, I’m excited about learning. How did he do that?” That’s the mark of a good teacher, or mark of a good director. When the actors come back the following day and say, “I was so excited after rehearsal, I was up until 2 in the morning taking notes…Can I ask you a few questions?” Absolutely. Absolutely. Let’s check in, let’s talk about what you’ve been thinking about. That’s what I love about directing, and teaching. 

Bernier: What have been challenges, your biggest challenges of being a director today?

Callender: The biggest challenge being a director today, well today as in right now? Is COVID, of course. That is huge. I’ve directed a number of plays in the past year and a half, most of them on zoom. I just directed a production of Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau at West Coast Black Theater Troup, socially distancing. It’s very difficult. But, as with anything else, we have to conform, we have to adapt. We’re human beings, we’ve been adapting for millions of years. This is just another way of adapting. So that’s specifically COVID directing. But as a director? I would like to think… “well, as a Black Director”––No, no, no. As a Director, we have to understand that what we do is special. We have a special gift and a special task to help actors chip away at what they might bring into a rehearsal. I feel, personally, and this is a personal feeling of mine, that actors are creative entities. That you come into rehearsal already knowing, thinking about what to do in rehearsal, how to do it––if you get cast as Biff in Death of a Salesman, which is a role I’m sure you will play one day as an actor, or Caleb in The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, you would read the play, you would understand it, you would do your research: Richmond, Virginia, 1865, Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, North vs. South—you would do your research. You would come in with a physicality, a language already being formed in your body and your mind. 

It’s the Director’s job to ask that actor, to ask you, to come in like a big boulder, a big rock, a big piece of granite. Because the art is there, it’s in there. The Venus de Milo was already in the [rock]. It’s up to the Director to chip away all that excess stuff, so that that character, which you have within you, is exposed. And by the end of the rehearsal process, those final chips are taken away, and a final gloss is put on it, then there you are. You might not even know that that’s within you. But you come in with so much, and it’s up to me as the Director to just chip away. It’s there. It’s there. Nicholas, it’s all there man. Let’s see how we can play it, and release it. So, that is the role of the Director, and there are times when you have to learn the language to talk to actors. You have to learn their language, learn a specific behavior, you have to know your actors when they’re coming into the room, what’s going on with them. Sometimes an actor can’t give 100% in rehearsal every day. Sometimes—their cat died, or their girlfriend broke up with them, or their boyfriend, there’s a death in the family, the car got a flat tire on the way to rehearsal, they got a $200 ticket for something…so you got to know, “Hey, what’s going on with Nicholas today, let me make him laugh, let me see what’s going on with him,” and that is another part of the Director’s job. 

I don’t find anything that is so difficult about what we do as Directors, in general. In general. I mean, there are some times when I don’t want to do that play because it’s too close to my own heart, or I don’t want to do that play because I don’t understand it, or it’s too racist for me, and I can’t breathe in that world right now. I’m going to say no to that. Let somebody else do that. But I love the craft of directing, because I’ve been among some amazing Directors in my career. So, long answer to your short question, I don’t know if there are any road blocks or things that get in the way of my directing. It’s just the individual piece and how to create that piece. Like, I’m supposed to do a production of Romeo and Juliet coming up in late summer. But it’s Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. Spoiler alert: they don’t die! So, I’ve got to create that. Yes, it’s massive. How do I do that, in COVID times, with six actors, and they both live at the end. Boom. How do I do that? So that’s something that I’m working on constantly, getting that team together. But I’ve already said yes to it, so I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to work my way through it. So that can cause a little bit of anxiety, but I think without that, I should leave the business. Just as an actor, just before we go on stage, if I don’t have a little butterfly in my stomach, I might as well quit. 

Bernier: Is that Romeo and Juliet with the African-American Shakespeare Company?

CallenderNo, this is with American Stage, in St. Petersburg, FL. And it’s going to be a challenge. I mean, I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet with seven actors at California Shakespeare Theater, in Orinda. I’ve been a member of the California Shakespeare Theater for 23 years, I’ve seen a bunch of Romeo and Juliet’s. I’ve acted in Romeo and Juliet twice before. I’ve directed an age-appropriate version of Romeo and Juliet at my theatre, The African-American Shakespeare Company, with 14-year-olds. As a matter of fact, an audience member told me after a performance that now she completely understands Romeo and Juliet having seen it played with age-appropriate actors. The play just comes to life. Yeah, so we’ll see how that goes. So, that can cause a challenge—but, like anything else, you just go around it. You hurdle it. You figure it out. That’s what we do as creative people. 

Bernier: So, I do want to talk about Shakespeare in particular. I was wondering if you could track for me some of your favorite moments on stage playing Shakespeare, any favorite roles, or any roles that have been particular challenging either as an actor or Director?

CallenderWow, do we have all day? I will give you some highlights. Look, I was in high school when one of my teachers cornered me in the hallway. It was a Tuesday, because acting classes are Mondays and Thursdays. She said, “you should memorize Hamlet’s speech to the players, and have it ready by Thursday’s class at 1:30.” And I went home, and I started reading it. And I’ve got to tell you, Nicholas, that was the first time I’d read it. I’d never seen a production of Hamlet. I’d never read the play. And up until 3 in the morning that morning, I read Hamlet. Didn’t understand a lot of it, but that didn’t matter; I absorbed it. For some reason, Shakespeare moved me. Something about my DNA, something about my headspace, whatever it was—and this was my junior year at Performing Arts High School, and I read Shakespeare voraciously after that. And I memorized that speech and I can still recite it. Then, I memorized the prologues to Henry V. By the end of high school I had read all of the plays. Then, I got into Julliard, and my very first production at Julliard was King Lear. I played Kent. That was perhaps one of the most uplifting and terrifying experiences I’ve ever had on stage—because again, it was my first show at Julliard, we were thrown into the deep end with King Lear, I played Kent…I still have terrifying and amazing memories from that particular production. Because, my God, it was my very first performance of a full-length Shakespeare play. So, that was my introduction, thrown into the deep end. After that, my friend, I was voracious. My favorite roles that I’ve ever performed: Richard III, most recently, in fact, Leontes, in A Winter’s Tale, Capulet, in of course Romeo and Juliet, Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew, it goes on…Caliban! Speaking of favorites, I was a resident actor of Milwaukee Repertory Theater in the early 80s, John Dillon was the Artistic Director at the time. Julie Taymor came in to do mask work with us at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. I had done mask work at Julliard––Pierre LeFevre was my teacher at the time. I loved it. I was pretty good at it, I would like to say, I thought I was. But when Julie Taymor came to do mask work at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in the early 80s, she and I glommed on to each other immediately. I had the utmost respect for her and I still do. She asked me after the class was over if I would come to New York to play Caliban for her in her production, of course, of The Tempest. It was her very first Shakespearean Directorial attempt. And John Dillon released me from my contract temporarily for me to come to New York to play Caliban for Julie Taymor. One of the best experiences I’ve had in working in American theatre is working with the incomparable Julie Taymor, and I was lucky enough to be put in her book. I guess it’s probably one of her books now, I’m sure she’s done many more, but anyways on page 116 or 118, she has a photo of me as Caliban. So that was one of the highlights of my theatrical career—playing Caliban for Julie Taymor. I’ve had several—you know, there are stories that actors can tell about terrific performances or scary performances. There was a performance of the Scottish play at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, I played Malcolm. And you know, the curse of the Scottish play, you’ve heard of that, and people tend to think, “oh, it’s just a story, I don’t believe in that.” I’m a strong believer that the play is cursed. I’ve done it four times in my career and each time something weird. I’ve directed it…when I directed it, nothing happened…well, a couple of minor incidents, but something always happens. So, believe in that curse. When someone says, “don’t quote the lines,” or “if you quote the lines, you’ve got to go outside and turn around 3 times,” do acknowledge it, because weird things have happened. I’ve been very lucky to have performed in 23 of his plays. Directed about 8 or 9 of them. There’s something about his work that I find entrancing, lyrical, muscular…I understand Shakespeare. I understand the characters, I understand the language for the most part, I love talking about it, I love coaching it, I love the excitement when a young actor experiences something about Shakespeare, a speech that he or she is doing, and that lightbulb goes off and… “Oh my God, that’s what that means? Oh, I love that, can I try it again? Can I try it again?” That’s what I live for. Nowadays of course, there are certain Shakespeare plays where you say, “Okay, I don’t think we should do Taming of the Shrew right now—the treatment of Kate by Petruchio––yeah, we don’t want to do that right now.” But, I’m a big, huge fan of Shakespeare and I’ve adapted a few of his plays on my own that I’ve directed with my theatre company. Right about now, it’s time for Shakespeare to be adapted, to now say, “okay, let’s take it apart a little bit more, and make it more contemporary.” Yes, we can still do Jacobean costumes, but let’s find a way for more than one in seven truly understand what is being said. Let’s get four of seven. Let’s take 25% of his language and not fix it, but massage it a little bit, so that most people in the audience will understand it. And I’m all for that. 

Bernier: One of my questions was about putting a potential moratorium on some of the plays. As you mentioned, Shrew, but also in our class, we’ve read Othello and Tempest…and similar conversations have been had: maybe we need to put these plays away for a while, unless they are being adapted in fresh ways that either make them more accessible or teach us something new about them. I’m curious on what your opinion is on that idea.  

CallenderOh, yes. Yes, yes, and yes. Absolutely. Look, ten years ago, if this interview would’ve happened, I would’ve been like, “No, no, of course not, what are you talking about?” and click, I’m going away. No, I wouldn’t have done that last part. But I would’ve been like, “No, my God, this is Shakespeare, let’s figure it out! Let’s say it all!” I was in a production of Antony and Cleopatra a hundred years ago, directed by Estelle Parsons for New York Shakespeare Festival. And we rehearsed three and a half, almost four months for that production. Every word, nothing, not one word was cut. We did it in both Spanish and English. It took forever to produce it and get it up. I was so proud to be in a company of actors, directed by a wonderful actor, director, teacher, mother, writer, Estelle Parsons, to do that—I was thrilled. Nowadays, four hours of Antony and Cleopatra? No, no, no. It won’t happen. Right? We have to find a way as a Producer, certainly––I won’t speak as an audience member, or even as a Director––but as a Producer, I want to look out and see different ages, different demographics, sitting in my audience, anticipating a Shakespeare piece, that I want them to understand. I want them to say, “I’ve never understood Othello as I do now. It almost didn’t even sound like Shakespeare.” Now, of course, that has to do with the Director, that has to do with the actors, the conceptualization of it, the ease by which the actors speak. Right? Audiences need that nowadays. There’s too much—there’s 24-hour television, there’s 150 channels. You can get Hulu and Disney on your cell phone, books on tape, you can get Audible…There’s so many ways now where people can be entertained, almost for free. All these channels––I’m in a hotel room right now, and I could lay in that sofa right there and click for 15 minutes and not see something twice. Right? So there’s so much to entertain us now. So, if I say, “I’m going to do Othello at my theater company.” Why would you, Nicholas, want to come see my production of Othello, when you could go to any machinery you have right now, and find something on Youtube. You can find a production of Othello on Youtube right now. What’s going to make you come to my theater to watch my production of Othello? Maybe a certain actor you know is in it—that’s great. But I want the audiences to come and sit and watch Othello and say, “oh my gosh, I get it, I love it, I understand it. What made it understand it so much?” Well, because the Artistic Director L. Peter Callender, or Migdalia Cruz, or, my gosh, a number of other writers, have taken some time to look at that text and say, “how can I change this language here, this line, this passage here, to more contemporary language, so that it can be absorbed by audience members?” And I think that’s the direction that every theatre company is headed right now. You’ve heard of the Play On initiative? It’s funded by the HITZ Foundation. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival…That’s where this whole rumbling of not fixing Shakespeare, but adapting Shakespeare started. One of the places, I shouldn’t say started because I’m not sure what other organizations…But this Foundation put up some money to get all these amazing writers: Amy Freed, a number of other directors and writers, to adapt Shakespeare. And it’s working. It’s beautiful. And it’s happening all over the country right now. So Shakespeare should indeed be adapted. You know, you can pick up or have 8 or 9 versions of the Bible. You can go online right now and type in a biblical phrase, and there’s 7, 8, or 9 editions of the Bible that has that same phrase. Why not in Shakespeare? This is what we need going into the future—producers and directors need to be more creative––Absolutely more creative, to keep people coming to see Shakespeare. Or else, they’ll stop. If you have a Professor in school and you don’t understand what he or she is saying at any given time, why would you come back to that course? You wouldn’t. You need to see yourself on stage when you see Shakespeare and you need to understand it. And you need to see your neighbor, you need to see your family member, all those, I mean in any theatrical piece of course, but especially with Shakespeare. And I think that’s the direction that theatre producers, Shakespeare companies should go, or else Shakespeare will become this impossible language, impossible plays to watch anymore. There’s too much out there to keep us busy. 

Bernier: My class spoke last week, with Director Kim Weild, who is phenomenal. But someone asked, what do you think differentiates the experience of going to the theatre and watching a movie with friends, or going to the movie theatre. And she brought up this study, or phenomenon, which is that audience members heartbeats sync up.

Callender: I read that article, yeah.

Bernier: Right? And she was like, “I don’t think that happens in a movie theater.”

Callender: It doesn’t.

Bernier: I thought that was such a clear answer to the question. 

Callender: It is a brilliant answer, and that’s something I’ve read about years ago, and it’s becoming more and more of the answer of why we need to get back in the theatre. Because when the lights go down, and there’s the silence, and right before the lights come back up on stage, something happens with the people sitting next to you, behind you, in front of you, above you––that anticipation. And we all feel it, without even knowing it. And as the lights come up and the first lines of whatever play, “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay out scene,” and as that prologue begins, we all start feeling the same thing––the fight starts with Sampson and Gregory, and we see Romeo for the first time. And by the time Benvolio and Tybalt fight, all our audience, the entire crowd, we’re all together. And that’s what I miss most about it. And that is absolutely true. It’s a study, yes. And it’s scientifically proven, yes. But as an actor, someone who’s been doing it all my life, I know it for a fact. I feel it as a director, having directed something, and I’m sitting in the audience, and I’m watching a first preview or a final dress rehearsal with an invited audience, or even opening night, I feel it within the audience. And when I talk to my actors about it, there’s nothing like that feeling. It’s absolutely true. 

Bernier: That’s fantastic, thank you. I have one more question for you! In our class this quarter, we’ve been reading adaptations alongside Shakespeare. So, we’ll read Othello and we’ll read four adaptations of Othello. So, I’m curious if you are familiar with people like Keith Hamilton Cobb, Debra Ann Byrd. Keith Hamilton Cobb wrote American Moor; Debra Ann Byrd wrote Becoming Othello. And I’m curious if you’re familiar with Debra Ann Byrd’s work, how you relate to her work?

CallenderOh my gosh, I don’t know Keith Hamilton Cobb, but I do know Debra Ann Byrd. I had the pleasure of meeting her about a year ago, in the Bay area, she did a lecture on Becoming Othello. She was actually performing at the time, and I was totally enamored with her. We became good friends, and colleagues, of course. She just won a prestigious award. What Debra Ann Byrd is doing, and actors like Lisa Wolpe, but Debra Ann Byrd is unique—she is a powerhouse. She is dynamic, she is articulate, she is absolutely fearless in what she’s doing. I hope I get to work with her in some capacity in the near future. Anyone who sits and listens to her speak, anyone who knows of her, should find a way to hear her, to find a way to see her perform—I can only speak in high accolades of her work and of her personality and of where she’s going as an artistic director, as an actress, as an adaptor of Shakespeare––her voice, her transformation, actors need to study. From the time you see her, if you see her before a show—the transformation she makes as an actor into Othello is breathtaking. And I’ve done Othello, I’ve played Othello, and oh my god…but to see what she’s done. It’s beyond words. I’m trying to find the right words, but I’m stumbling, and during this interview you’ve not heard me stumble much. But it’s hard, because Debra Ann Byrd is unique in what she did, and not only is the African-American community proud of what she’s doing, I think the theatre community in general loves celebrating someone like her. And I don’t know Keith Hamilton Cobb, but I’ll look him up. 

Bernier: Okay. Yes, I’m excited for her memoir!

CallenderYes, me too. She’s quite a person. Bigger than life, unique, talented. Adjectives can just pour out of me.

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