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  • Jack H. Bender

Shakespeare for the Homeless

While we can all be anti-poverty activists, contemplation should inform our actions. One question I considered was “What constitutes a reasonable life?” The question helped me examine my own life and what I thought was most valuable. It expanded my thinking about what other people deserve. If I thought music, art, dance, poetry and drama were valuable, shouldn’t others have access to the arts as well, regardless of status?

Poverty affects every aspect of human life, but food clothing and shelter only begin to chip away at a vast array of elements that make life worthwhile. I can’t imagine a good life without the arts, but access to the arts can be expensive. I see access to sporting events and the arts as the criterion for knowing that we have reached social and financial equity.

Since poverty won’t be eliminated in the short term, we should consider how we can provide free access now to those things that make life worthwhile. Surprisingly, we are already doing that, if only those struggling with poverty knew how to gain access. Because we have exceptional community life here, many events are free—parades, ball games, art exhibits, concerts in the park, street performances, readings and presentations and recitals. Where costly tickets are necessary sponsoring agencies could reserve a portion as complimentary.

The stark experience of poverty is isolation. We need to have our helping agencies connect the poor with community life. If we aren’t talking about human transformation—of both the poor and the wealthy—then we aren’t talking about eliminating poverty. Here is a condensed story from the Washington Post (link at bottom):

Meghan Freebeck, an advocate for the homeless in San Francisco, visited the Globe Theater in 2017 and later got an idea: Shakespeare should be for all. Since the homeless generally don’t go to live theater, maybe she could bring Shakespeare to the homeless. That is how 16 homeless people in San Francisco ended up sitting in a circle with several actors Freebeck recruited from the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival to learn a bit about the Bard’s plays — and also learn how to apply the lessons of Shakespeare to their own lives.

“As You Like It,” which was read and explored at a workshop that Freebeck believes is the first of its kind in the country: wisdom from Shakespeare spread out to all, not only the people who can afford the seats. "Using Shakespeare is a safe way for [the homeless] to explore their own experiences and celebrate the good in their lives," she said.

Participants who responded to Freebeck’s invitation to attend a “Shakespeare for All Neighbors” workshop at Project Homeless Connect’s downtown offices began the afternoon with a catered lunch of sandwiches, fruit and desserts, before splitting into groups of four for some light acting exercises. As a ball was passed around, everyone shared something from his or her life. Each person who held the ball selected an object from the previous person’s story (a doll, a book, a favorite dress) to work into their own story.

“It was a fun way to show how we all have stories and unexpected connections,” Freebeck said. “One man who is living in a shelter with his two brothers shared a story about his mother’s chicken soup recipe and how he hopes to make that soup when he has a kitchen again.”Judith Blackthorne, a 58-year-old transgender woman who has spent most of her life homeless after what she describes as decades of physical and emotional abuse, was among those who opened up about her troubles after learning about Rosalind, a heroine who flees persecution in “As You Like It.”

Her group was assigned the phrase, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." The story they developed was about a wealthy man who puts all of his money into jewelry, loses it, and learns what really matters in life when a poor man saves him from being hit by a carriage. She was thrilled, she said, to meet an art director with the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, who encouraged her to try out for a job helping with audio or playing the bass.

The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival chose “As You Like It” for its 2019 summer production because the company was interested in exploring income disparity, said artistic director Rebecca Ennals, 46, who helped to lead the “Shakespeare for All Neighbors” workshop. The theme fits well, she said, with many of the dilemmas faced by her city’s homeless population. “The main characters of ‘As You Like It’ go from being privileged members of the wealthy class to suddenly finding themselves homeless — and in some cases, penniless," she said.

For the actors who participated, the workshop presented an opportunity to connect with an audience they otherwise would not have, said Akaina Ghosh, 25, who portrayed Silvius and Dennis in the show.

“Theater skills are life skills — they assist in breaking down barriers, building bridges and helping people re-create themselves as their best selves," she said. "That’s what I hope everyone took away from the experience.”

Homeless people don’t often go to plays. So this woman brought Shakespeare to them.

by Cathy Free, Washington Post

March 14, 2019


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