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Trifecta of stars honored at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2024 gala

Actors Indira Varma, Judith Light and John Lithgow recognized for achievement in theatre

Marquis of The Anthem in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 2024 (Photo by Anita W. Harris)

On April 15, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) held its annual gala at The Anthem in Washington, D.C.’s wharf district, honoring three acting luminaries.


With a convivial theme of “All the World's A Stage: Celebrating the US/UK Relationship”—emceed by BBC correspondent Katty Kay—STC bestowed British actress Indira Varma with its William Shakespeare Award for Classical Acting, and Lifetime Achievement Awards to American actors Judith Light and John Lithgow.


Between  presentations, a jazz band and three performers—Jordan Donica, Nova Y. Payton and Scarlett Strallen—entertained an audience that included donors, political dignitaries and the cast and crew of STC’s current production of “Macbeth.”

From left: Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Macbeth" (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Indira Varma: “The bloody iambic pentameter”

British actor Ralph Fiennes, a previous STC honoree, presented Varma her Will Award. The two currently lead STC’s warzone-set “Macbeth,” directed by STC Artistic Director Simon Godwin and enjoying its final staging in Washington, D.C. after U.K. runs in Liverpool, Edinburgh and London.


In presenting the award, Fiennes praised the “unassuming, open” quality of his acting partner Varma, and her fluidity with Shakespearean language.


“As Lady Macbeth, she rides the current of Shakespeare’s verse with alarming ease and naturalism,” Fiennes said. “With wit, lightness of touch and a deft whip-hand on all the shades of psychopathology the text offers.”


In accepting the award, Varma said she initially found Shakespeare’s language “alien,” given that English was not her parents’ first language. She was daunted by its “formality,” “the bloody iambic pentameter” and “the enormous shoes to fill” of past great performances.


Varma credited the Shakespearean actors she has worked with over the years, including Fiennes, for giving her the confidence to tackle Shakespeare roles and currently take “risks” as Lady M.

Judith Light at Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2024 gala (Photo by Anita W. Harris)

Judith Light: “Only what you can give”

Laverne Cox, Emmy-nominated for Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” presented actress Light with her STC Lifetime Achievement Award, highlighting Light’s award-winning, five-decade career on stage, in film and in television, including her current role in Netflix’s “The Politician.”


Light knows her characters at their “most defeated most broken, most wounded,” Cox said, such as portraying an ovarian cancer patient in the Off-Broadway play “Wit” in 1999, for which Light had to shave her head and appear naked on stage.


In receiving the award, Light said she considers service to others a priority, praising former co-star Cox’s LGBTQ activism and noting that her authenticity as a transgender actress epitomizes Shakespeare’s line, “to thine own self be true.”


“There is nothing to get in life, only what you can give,” Light said, adding that the award inspires her to look ahead to “new ways to enlighten, illuminate and elevate humanity.”


John Lithgow (Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)

John Lithgow: “Get the damn part right”

Actress Jessica Hecht presented Lithgow his STC Lifetime Achievement Award, describing the actor as an “immensely curious, meticulous, deeply compassionate artist.”


A bespectacled Lithgow credited his father’s annual production of a summer Shakespeare festival in Ohio for sparking his interest in acting when he was a child.


Though Lithgow attended drama school in London after college, he said—with his trademark twinkle—that he regrets subsequently turning down major Shakespeare roles to instead make films and television shows such as “Buckaroo Bonzai” and “3rd Rock from the Sun.”


He suggested that STC allow him to reprise a childhood role as the fairy Mustardseed in Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” alongside fellow “mature, distinguished, celebrated actors” Indira Varma as Peaseblossom, Judith Light as Moth and Ralph Fiennes as Cobweb.


“I would finally have the chance to get the damn part right,” he exclaimed.  


Sen.Amy Klobuchar speaks during Shakespeare Theatre Company 2024 gala (Photo by Anita W. Harris)

“Super senator” Amy Klobuchar

STC also presented its inaugural Sea-Change Award (the term “sea change” originating in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) to the Save Our Stages initiative that provides billions of dollars in grant funding to small theatres across the country forced to go dark—and potentially go under—during the pandemic beginning in March 2020.


Former congresswoman Jane Harman introduced Minnesota “super senator” Sen. Amy Klobuchar as helping draw bipartisan support for the 2020 Save Our Stages Act to keep theatres and music venues afloat.


Klobuchar, a Democrat, said in accepting the award that the effort was championed on both sides of the aisle—including the bill’s Republican cosponsor Sen. John Cornyn of Texas—and represents the biggest arts investment in U.S. history, allowing more than 12,000 venues to remain open.


“I know that Republicans and Democrats can sometimes seem like the Montagues and the Capulets,” Klobuchar said, alluding to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” “But we can agree that letting our theatres close would be truly a tragedy.”


From left: former congresswoman Jane Harman speaks with Simon Godwin, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company during its 2024 gala (Photo by Anita W. Harris)

STC education outreach: “What it means to be alive”

Simon Godwin, who directed theatres in the U.K. before taking over as STC artistic director from Michael Kahn in 2019, said fundraising efforts such as the gala allow the theatre to not only produce plays but share them with students who might otherwise not have that opportunity.


Last year, STC hosted more than 6,000 students from Maryland, Virginia and the theatre’s surrounding D.C. metro area to see its plays, half of them for free, Godwin said. He added that 60% of those students were seeing a play for the first time.


“Our success can fuel generations of young folks to keep valuing empathy and joy and collective storytelling,” Godwin said. “So often in life we have to hide our hearts, and the stage is the place where we can really acknowledge them, and really celebrate what it means to be alive.”



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