Titan's Othello opened this past weekend at the Queens Theatre to standing ovations and great response. A significant part of those ovations were, of course, due to the exceptional portrayal of the title character: Othello.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Othello herself, Leah Dutchin, about her background and what has lead to her nuanced, compelling and powerful portrayal of Othello.
Check out the interview below!
Where was home for you growing up, and where do you call home now?
I grew up in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota and I currently live in Los Angeles, California with my husband and our two dogs.
Are your parents also from Minnesota?
My Mom is from Minnesota and has lived in either Wisconsin or Minnesota her entire life. Her side of the family is German, Swedish, Norwegian, and possibly a little Irish. My Dad is from Guyana – which is a tiny country on the North side of South American, next to French Guiana, Surinam and bordering Brazil. And his parents' genealogy is Indian, by way of Portugal – in fact, we recently got more specifics about our family lineage from a DNA test.
What was your first introduction to the Theatre and Shakespeare?
The first play I read was Romeo and Juliet in High School – we all traded off reading the parts in class. I loved it. And I remember not being intimidated at all!
Also, my Dad was raised in Guyana, which use to be an English sovereignty, so he actually grew up with Shakespeare. He can quote Shakespeare like [snaps her fingers]. All of the schools were Catholic with English teachers – literally teachers from England – and they used Shakespeare to teach the kids English.
And what was your introduction to Acting?
I joined a troupe called S.O.S. Players. We toured the Midwest doing skits for kids from kindergarten to 18, about teen issues: sex, drugs, violence, peer pressure, depression – things that kids were, most likely, unable to really talk about with other people. That really really changed my life: to realize I could do something I was passionate about and change lives.
How did you develop your passion for acting? How did you “train.”
My real introduction to it all - acting, public speaking, the technique of it - was through my speech teacher in High School, Mr. Estenson. He is the reason I became an actor. He saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there, something he called a “spark.” He trained me how to get your voice across an auditorium and how to approach classical texts – specifically Medea- and make them human.
Then after High School, I went to the University of Utah and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts there.
Did you study a lot of classical theatre at The University of Utah?
Yes. We studied it of course. But I was always cast in contemporary plays. Not sure why. So I thought I was really only meant to be a contemporary actor when I left.
But then I did the internship at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre [where she first met and worked with Emily Trask - who plays Desdemona in Titan's Othello] right after graduating from Utah. I was in Richard III in a small role (which was originally a man’s role!) and Mary Stuart in rep, so I became immersed in classical theatre. I got to understudy Queen Margaret in Richard III – and watching the actress, Rose Pickering, do that role changed everything for me.
So after that, Shakespeare was all I did for awhile! Three seasons at Montana Shakespeare in the Parks [where she met and worked with Abbey Siegworth - who plays Cassio in Titan's Othello] and one at American Players Theatre.
After which, I decided I wanted more training and went to Grad School at The University of California – Irvine and got my MFA.
UC- Irvine is a great theatre school and also has a great movement program. You’re a very physical actor. When did you discover that?
That began in High School. I was in sports my whole life. So I felt pretty comfortable in my body.
As soon as I got to the University of Utah, I really connected with my movement teacher, Jerry Gardner. He taught me so much about movement. Focus. Physical Focus. So that started the ball rolling. And I realized that movement doesn’t have to be dance.
Then my first professional show, Skin Tight, was a heavily movement based piece of work and stage combat – mostly unarmed – and it was against one man. So I had to match him. Physically. And that was wonderful. No one in the audience doubted I could.
Then, when I got to California Irvine I got immersed in Contact Improv - which is an exchange of energy between one or more partners – it’s essentially call and response with your body. So I guess I've always been a "physical actor."
Has your movement background helped in your approach to Othello?
100%. I’m always in a fight stance in this show. I don’t do that in my real life at all but… that’s Othello. In fact, that was probably the one thing about playing Othello that I wasn’t worried about! I was ready to fight. It’s a language in my body that’s just inherent in me.
You mentioned your family “lineage” earlier and a DNA test?
Yes. I did something called 23 and Me which is, essentially a DNA test/ data base. You submit a DNA sample (your saliva for example), and 23 and Me collects all of this information and it helps you figure out where your family actually comes from and fills in the holes in your family tree.
And I found out that I’m actually very Indian. Very Indian. My family is from North and South and East and West India. And I’m African as well. Sub-Saharan.
So your father’s heritage is actually closer to what Shakespeare would have defined as a Moor? Which was“a Muslim of mixed Arab and North or West African descent. “
So how did your father’s family end up in Guyana?
My grandmother’s side came through Spain and Portugal and I found out that they actually came over to Guyana as indentured servants. And so my family hails from indentured servitude. Which... well, we know the story of indentured servitude.
I've always been asked the question - "what are you?" ... Those three words - over and over and over...
Growing up in the suburbs in Minnesota, what was it like to come of age in a primarily white community?
I’ve always been asked the question “what are you?” I don’t know why, but I would assume it's because all of us want to put each other in a box. Just to safely put each other some place to say “Oh. That’s what this person is” – ‘cause people are uncomfortable about things that are different. But it was hurtful to me after hearing those three words – “what are you?” – over and over and over again.
When was the first time you realized you were “different?”
I was leaving the school going to the bus (even thought I lived close, it went by my house so sometimes the bus driver would just let me get on and drop me off). So I was about to get on the bus when this kid, he was Caucasian, yelled out the window the N word. At me. He , he called me a nigger. And I looked around because – was that at me? But he was looking right at me and the guys with him were laughing at me. I didn’t know what that word was, but it felt bad. It felt wrong.
So I slowly turned around and went inside and went out the back door of the school and walked home. And so when my Mom came home I asked her “what does this mean?” And her face just got so red. And she was like “Why do you know that word!? What happened?” And so I got nervous and I told her the story. When she calmed herself down and I asked her again “what does that mean?” And she said “it’s not a good word but what they don’t understand is they want to put you down, they want to put you in a box because they don’t know 'what you are.' But that’s what makes you beautiful.”
But I still didn’t get it. What am I?! Why do I look so different from everyone else. So (God Bless her), good Midwestern woman, she goes to the freezer and pulls out the ice-cream. And she pulls out the chocolate ice-cream and the vanilla ice-cream and takes a scoop of each and mixes it together and say – that is what you are. You are sweet. And you are a wonderful girl. And it does not matter what the color of your skin looks like – you are beautiful. And every skin color is beautiful. So you go and tell them that!
So that next time some asked “what I was” I said I’m chocolate and vanilla swirled together.
How has your own history and your own conversation with race affected your journey while playing Othello?
I never considered this play in my realm of possibility. So I never thought hard about the play for myself as an actress. But when I’d read it or seen it, I connected to him. To Othello. To trying to get people to see beyond my color.
I don’t deal with it that much any more in my life. I surround myself with good people – so I feel safe. But I still get it every once in awhile.
Do you “get it” in the theatre?
Mmm Hmm. It’s that look. “What do we do with her? She’s good but… where do we put her?” “Does that mean we’re saying something if we cast her in this role?” There aren’t very many Tennesse Williams plays that people are going to put me in [laughs]. Even though I love Tennesse Williams and connect very much to the women’s characters in his plays. And I’m also tall – so when I walk in the room – there I am.
I have tried to play that down or fight that in my life. Fight my height. Fight my coloring. Fight my big hair. But I’ve realized now that I have to embrace it! Yes. It does hurt my feelings when I suspect that might be a major factor in why I don’t get a role or work at certain theaters – but I’ve realized that’s not something I can do anything about. Just like Every. Other. Actor. There is that thing that they have to deal with and work around.
And so. Am I a little nervous that I’m “light skinned” Othello?? Sure. I’m worried that people won’t get it or will judge it. But I had to filter that voice and try to use it. Just like Othello does.
And really Othello is Muslim! North African Arab. He/she probably looked a lot more like me – than ebony necessarily.
But that’s the beauty of the world we live in now. People of all races fall in love - make babies. The babies look different. It’s not just white, black, brown, yellow. There are shades. A beautiful crayon box.