Actress Liz Filios strides across a bit of open floor at the Ministry of Caring’s Francis X. Norton Center at Sacred Heart Village senior housing facility.
The 150 people seated around her—an unexpected SRO crowd of residents, family and friends—sense the importance of what is to come. They grow quiet.
“All the world’s a stage,” Filios announces, slyly scanning the room, “and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”
Filios spots a toddler, then gently plucks him from his mother’s arms, parades him around the room.
“At first, the infant,” she says as the audience awwws. She returns the babe, then takes an older child by the hand and leads him around the stage. “And then the whining schoolboy,” Filios says.
She next sees a tall, broad-shouldered young man, stands him up before her. “The lover, sighing like furnace!” she proclaims.
The viewers hoot and holler as Filios continues, picking out progressively older men until the sixth stage of life, when she spies Sacred Heart resident Sam Roy in the back. The actor weaves through the audience, then pulls Roy up from his chair. “With spectacles on nose,” she says, “and his big manly voice…”
But before she can finish, Roy smiles. “Thank you,” he says loudly, a bit of glee in his voice. The room, full of Roy’s peers, erupts with cheers. He steals the show.
The rest of the night feels as much like a party as a performance. The audience is chatty, sometimes boisterous. Its members call out to the actors, join in the show, clap and stomp to the music—which is just what the audience of a Shakespeare comedy would have done in his own time.
“I’ll remember that until my dying day,” David Stradley, executive director of Delaware Shakespeare, says after the show. “You will never see a performance of ‘As You Like It’ better than that again.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with a party, but there is a higher purpose.
The staging of “As You Like It” at Sacred Heart in October, with its famous “Seven Stages of Man” speech, was the second of 13 performances in Delaware Shakespeare’s Community Tour for 2017. Its success had been a long time coming.
Since Stradley took over Delaware Shakespeare six years ago, developing community partnerships has been a top priority. The organization started small about five years ago, staging “haunted” readings by Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe in creepy venues across the state for Halloween. In preparation for the 2014 performance of “Hamlet” at Rockwood Park, home of the annual two-week Delaware Shakespeare Festival almost since it launched in 2003, Delaware Shakespeare took the “I Am Hamlet” project to schools and senior living facilities, where participants were asked to read from the play and ask, “What does this have to do with my life?”
Stradley believed there was room to grow, so he went looking for inspiration. He found it in Minneapolis, where a company called Ten Thousand Things offered a revolutionary model for community theater: Get top actors in your community, then take performances on the road. If there’s someone who can’t get to the theater, take the theater to them.
“So I came to the board,” Stradley recalls. “‘Here’s a model that would allow us to do it. What do you think?’ And the board got very excited about it.”
The Community Tour launched in 2016. It performed every night for two straight weeks in a different venue—homeless shelters, prisons, community centers, libraries and other places where it could expose underserved communities to Shakespeare. Many members of the audiences had never seen live theater of any kind. Which is exactly the point.
“It’s bringing people together to create something new,” says Elizabeth Lockman, community liaison for Delaware Shakespeare. “It takes down some barriers, so people who maybe have never seen Shakespeare realize that it’s a fun, accessible, live art experience.”
Launching with “Pericles,” the Community Tour was an instant success. It was expanded last year to include on-site educational programming such as playwriting workshops at Delaware Psychiatric Center and acting workshops at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution.
The tour brings Delaware Shakespeare one step closer to achieving its core mission: “where people from all walks of life celebrate and explore their shared humanity through the lens of Shakespearean works.”
“Our way of doing that is our Summer Festival at Rockwood Park, but we knew that there were still people that couldn’t afford that $18 ticket price or just literally couldn’t get there,” says Stradley. “Why don’t we take Shakespeare to those in our community that typically have little or no access to the arts?”
But don’t call this community outreach, at least not around Stradley.
“Community outreach is really a term we are trying to get away from,” he says. “In the theater world, there is frequently a connotation of community outreach as, ‘Oh, there’s the main stage productions, and then there are those things you do on the side for community outreach.’ As we think about it, there is nothing ‘on the side’ about the Community Tour. It is core to our mission, and it represents the most exciting way we can think of to do great Shakespeare theater.”
Theater in the round
After Delaware Shakespeare’s Summer Festival at Rockwood Mansion Park, the company returns to its rehearsal space in the Black Box theater at OperaDelaware Studios. It’s here that Delaware Shakespeare prepares for the Community Tour.
The Black Box is exactly what it sounds like. The room is black. Rows of folding chairs stand on four sides of an empty square of floor space. Minimalism is the driving philosophy. There are no set pieces or curtains, only a few props—flagpoles, stools, a guitar—and a wardrobe rack in the corner, where actors change costumes in plain view of the audience. This is called theater in the round, and to experience it is like going to a festival. It feels chaotic, yet oddly synced to the rhythms of everyday life. The audience sits in the middle of the action. Bodies move all around. Voices call and respond from all sides.
The space becomes “purposefully intimate,” says Stradley. “At any time, an actor is only about 2 feet away from an audience member, so they can just turn and deliver a line to someone in the audience. And we have audience members who talk back, and it’s great.”
This intimacy between actors and audience is what gives the Community Tour a feeling of authenticity. The performances are raw, with unscripted interjections from the audience that sometimes lead to spontaneous improvisation by the actors.
“These environments are not staid,” says Stradley. “You know, people don’t necessarily sit quietly on their hands and watch the whole time. They’re raucous environments. You need actors at the absolute top of their game to be able to carry the story out.”
According to Stradley, that’s how Shakespeare was meant to be performed. Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre was round, with a small stage that jutted out into an open-air courtyard. The cheapest tickets weren’t for the balconies but for the ground level, a general admission area known as “the pit” within spitting distance of the actors. The spectators who filled it were called groundlings.
“The groundlings were standing right at the foot of the stage. An actor could just turn and talk to an audience member.” And they often did, Stradley says with a smile.
The Community Tour is performed in the round because it’s the only way to rehearse and stage a play that is repeated at more than a dozen venues, none of them traditional theaters, each with a different floorplan, each in a space that could be comfortable or claustrophobic. The minimalism of the Black Box allows the director and actors to think about the stage abstractly, as any number of possible spaces.
But performing in the round also presents certain challenges. There is no scenery, for example, so scene changes must be conveyed through dialogue and a few small props. The challenge, says director Madeleine Sayet, who is in the final stages of completing her doctorate at the Shakespeare Institute in England, is providing just enough context to help the audience understand, for example, that the protagonist, Orlando, can’t enter his lodging because an ambush awaits.
During rehearsals, about two weeks before the tour, Sayet sits in the second row at the Black Box, chin on fist, watching the scene play out.
“This house is but a butchery,” warns Orlando’s servant, Adam. Sayet wonders: Will the audience understand that the corner of the stage is supposed to represent a threshold? Sayet asks the actors to stop, and in that corner, she places two stools upside-down, then lays a muslin on the floor between them.
“Does that look like a doorway?” she asks.
“It doesn’t really look like anything,” the actors respond.
So she tries again, this time with flag poles, but the result doesn’t look any more like a doorway than the stools. Sayet ultimately suggests that the actor playing Adam emphasize the words “this house” while pointing in the general direction.
Scattered throughout “As You Like It” are a handful of other instances that are likely to cause confusion. Most of them Sayet retains, but some are cut from the performance, which isn’t all that unusual, as Shakespeare’s plays are rarely performed in their entirety. Nevertheless, both Sayet and Stradley hesitate to change much.
“We don’t update the language. We don’t change the words,” says Stradley. “The goal is just to present Shakespeare in the best possible way. So, yeah, it’s not pristine, museum Shakespeare. It’s kind of rough-and-tumble, but there is nothing that’s not authentic and true about it.”
Shakespeare in Baylor
A few days after the Sacred Heart performance, actors Danielle Leneé and Bi Jean Ngo go through security clearance at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in New Castle. They’re teaching the seventh of eight acting workshops offered to a dozen incarcerated women. Attending these workshops is something of an exclusive privilege at Baylor, only available to a select few women deemed low security threats. Now, after seven weeks, the women are beginning to form bonds of friendship and are growing more confident in their ability to read and perform Shakespeare. Leneé and Ngo hope that some will show enough confidence to deliver lines during the performance.
The workshop begins with a series of warmup exercises.
“Think of an adjective to describe how you are feeling today that starts with the same letter as your name,” says Ngo. “Today, I’m Bouncing Bi!” She bounces up and down with an infectious energy. Everyone repeats, “Bouncing Bi!”
“Pretty Princess!” responds Priscilla with a flourish. She is followed by Courageous Courtney, Artistic Ashley, Audacious Adrienne, Energetic Emily, Dynamic Dawn, Rebellious Rachel and Tired Trinity.
“Let’s start with our vocal warmups,” Ngo says. “Imagine you have a little race car in your hand, and you power it from a buzz in your lips.” She buzzes her lips. “Buzz! Now drive that race car around the room.” The women walk around freely, buzzing their lips and holding invisible race cars.
The exercises may seem silly, but the biggest challenge for Leneé and Ngo as acting instructors is getting the women to let down their guard. In prison, people tend to hide their emotions. It’s a survival mechanism. The acting workshops demand that they build trust.
“I usually stay to myself, but through this I really learned to open up,” says Priscilla. After she saw the performance of “Pericles” in 2016, she became one of the first inmates to sign up for the acting workshops. “I wanted to try something new. It’s a lot of fun.”
After several weeks of building trust, the women are finally ready to start practicing their lines. They gather into a circle on the floor and look over a pivotal speech in “As You Like It.”
“For this scene,” says Ngo, “you all will be playing a character called The Second Brother, and these are some of the most important lines in the play.” In the final act, the Second Brother rushes onto stage to announce that the banished descendants of old Sir Rowland, his father, still have a legal right to their inheritance. “Let me have audience for a word or two,” the lines begin.
“How can we articulate the opening lines to get everyone’s attention?” Ngo asks the women. Instead of reading the lines, Ngo suggests, call them out. “Let me have audience for a word or two!” they call out loudly in turn.
“Spread out,” Ngo says, asking the women to move around the chapel. “Make it more difficult for everyone to hear you. This is supposed to be a lively court.” One by one, Ngo nudges the women to speak louder, bolder.
From across the chapel, Priscilla thunders, “Let me have audience,” bringing the room to a standstill, “for a word or two,” she concludes quietly to cheers and encouragement.
They move on to the second line, then the third, stringing more lines together until some of the women are reciting four or five from memory. Then it’s over. Time’s up. The women are escorted away.
“They built incredible teamwork in there,” says Ngo. “We built a very strong artistic, collaborative ensemble, a safe space where everyone felt safe to express themselves fully and creatively.”
And the benefits of this space are becoming manifest in other ways beyond the workshops. Adrienne and Courtney, for example, once performed a skit for their cell block. “It’s fun,” says Adrienne, “exercise for the brain as well as the body. If they have it again, I’ll sign up.”
According to David Dill, volunteer services coordinator at Baylor, educational programs such as the acting workshops help with rehabilitation.
“There are people who think prisons are for punishment, so why should these women get to do things like this?” he says. “Well, being in prison is punishment. Do you want that person to be released and re-enter society the same as when they came in, or do you want them to be different? These types of programs make them a better person when they’re released.”
One week after the final acting workshop, Delaware Shakespeare takes the full production of “As You Like It” into Baylor. A few days prior, Stradley had submitted an itemized list of everything and everyone who would enter the facility. Today, every item taken inside is cross-checked against that list for approval, no exceptions. On the way out, everything will be checked again. If anything is missing—a scarf, a key, a hairpin—the facility will be locked down. No one will be allowed to leave until the missing item is discovered.
Despite the security, the mood is light. Jeffrey Cousar, who plays Oliver, is walking up and down each row of seats, greeting every woman and shaking every hand. “Hello! Welcome to the show. Hope you enjoy it.” Filios is having a conversation with one woman about acting. There’s excitement in the air, and for the next two hours, 100 incarcerated women watch a play about love. And in the final act, when the women from the acting workshops stand and deliver their lines, the audience erupts into a standing ovation. These women—incarcerated, forgotten by some, unknown to most of us and probably thought of negatively, if at all—need love more than most.
“The way that Shakespeare handles love is interesting, because the thing that I think this play does is, it shows how the people around you can completely transform your life,” says Sayet. She is optimistic that the women of Baylor will find some relevance in a 400-year-old comedy. “In ‘As You Like It,’ every single character transforms beyond what you think they would have been earlier in the play, and I think it’s much more interesting for a character to not be defined by one action they took, but rather to be able to exhibit breaking free of their former identity.”