Voice actress Kat Cressida talks Shakespeare, UC Berkeley memories

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Kat Cressida has a knack for entertaining children. For years, children would wake up early Saturday mornings, plop on the couch with their jammies and bowls of cereal and tune into the sound of her high-pitched voice as Dee Dee, the bratty older sister in “Dexter’s Laboratory.”

Cressida has been a voice actress since 1996, and her curriculum vitae lists roles in everything from “World of Warcraft” to ESPN. If you have ever been to Disneyland, you will remember exploring the spooky corridors of the Haunted Mansion and hearing her sing to you as Constance, the Black Widow Bride — “Here comes the bride. Here comes the bride.”

While her talents have taken her to a wide range of places in the entertainment industry, her first love was the theater. Kat is an alumna of UC Berkeley, and her recollection of her college days has the classic elements of any artist’s coming-of-age story.

While she was a teen, Cressida’s parents urged her to pursue a more stable career, but Cressida felt magnetically drawn to the stage — starting from her early days as a wide-eyed freshman. She joked, “Like an addict, I couldn’t stay away from it.”

She says she had an initial reluctance because of her parents’ discouragement. “I was like, I’ll just walk by the theater department but I won’t go in. OK, maybe I’ll go in but I won’t do anything. … OK, maybe I’ll sign up, but I won’t show up. I’ll show up, but if I get in I won’t be in it. OK I’ll be in it.”

Her refusal to give up her interest in theater resulted in a compromise with her parents that may sound all too familiar at UC Berkeley today — stick with theater if she can double in a more practical major.

Cressida did major in theater production and management, but she said, “My practical major was an honors major that incorporated history, journalism … Shakespeare and theater.” She enrolled in the critical writing and analysis program, which was available on campus at the time, and she was allowed to construct her own major that tackled Shakespeare from a variety of academic angles.

The voice actress recalled studying Shakespeare at UC Berkeley as one of her most transformative college experiences. Discussing the unique opportunity, Cressida said it was “interactive and special. Probably very few schools would have let a student do something like that. For that, I am grateful.”

Speaking about her Shakespeare studies, she said, “I absolutely wanted to do this major that would bring Shakespeare to kids — to tots.”

Her Shakespeare studies culminated in an ambitious thesis project — a 60-something-page paper and a theater production that followed through with her paper’s recommendations. “I felt Shakespeare should be performed to engage the youth of today and to help Shakespeare pass onto future generations,” she said.

For the performance element of her thesis, she assembled a six-member troupe to stage Shakespeare for school children all around the Bay Area. The show, “Casting Shadows,” consisted of a series of vignettes that weaved through a wide variety of Shakespeare plays — “comedy, high comedy, romantic comedy, tragedy — there was some historical in there.”

The show was highly interactive, and it was a hit among teachers and students alike. She remarks, “it was highly choreographed — a lot of stuntwork; a lot of sight gags; a lot of physical humor — very, very, very physical.”

With her production, she says she hoped to prove that Shakespeare is “still kinetic and fun and romantic and sexy and cool and smart and funny to young people.”

Nowadays, Cressida is no longer on stage performing Shakespeare — but she is the same entertainer at heart, with Shakespeare always on her mind.

After college, Cressida felt unsure of where to take her career. During a brief fling with television acting, she recounts meeting a Shakespeare idol of hers, Michael Yorke of Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” while she was on the set for a sitcom pilot that starred Tea Leone.

Ecstatic, she recounts, “I brought my Riverside Shakespeare (anthology) from UC Berkeley to the set. … And I asked him if he would be willing to sign it, which he did. But not only did he sign it. He said, ‘As long as we’re stuck here, why don’t we do some Shakespeare together?’ ”

Cressida asked the veteran actor for some guidance on her uncertain future. “I really want to make a living in Los Angeles. I really like southern California.”

“He said, ‘Why don’t you try voice over?’ ”

She replied, “That’s not Shakespeare,” to which he responded, “‘No, but it uses the craft of words. And if you love Shakespeare, you probably love words and you probably love communication. And voice over is a way to use your skillsets and make a viable living from it.’ ”

Shakespeare to cartoon voice acting — it’s an unlikely transition. It’s hard to say if the young Kat Cressida, in her idealistic college years, would have envisioned herself on Cartoon Network. But, like those “Casting Shadows” vignettes that moved from comedy to tragedy, Cressida tells her story in a way that makes a sensible narrative out of it all.

Jason Chen is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].

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