A Path to Shakespeare

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They meet in a room called “Faith” at the Recovery Café, around the corner from Cornish College of the Arts and a stone’s throw away from the offices of Amazon.com. They range in age from young adult to senior citizen. They come from women’s shelters, get referred by therapists and case workers, or sometimes a friend tells them, “Hey, you might just like this Shakespeare guy.”

For eight weeks teaching artist Nikki Visel is taking students through A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Shakespeare Troupe class is a partnership between Seattle Shakespeare Company and Path with Art, and it is unlocking Shakespeare’s plays for people recovering from homelessness and other traumas.

“We wanted to try to find material that people across classes could identify with,” said Path with Art Program Director, Adam Doody. “We thought Shakespeare would be an interesting place to start.”

Path with Art offers a variety of arts-based programs to help people by combining the powers of creative engagement and community connection. “Many, if not all of us are recovering from some sort of trauma in our lives,” said Doody. “Recovery can take many different forms and be from many different things. We think that creativity is an essential part of that healing process.”

This is Seattle Shakespeare Company’s second collaboration with Path with Art. A four-week pilot project class in the fall helped to test the waters to see if studying Shakespeare would be popular. It was a hit. To keep the momentum going, a longer version of the class was created.

Up On Your Feet
Believing that the best way to learn Shakespeare is to get up on your feet and do Shakespeare, for each session the Path with Art students dive right into the text. They start in a circle and perform warm-up exercises, bending and stretching their bodies; and then they get their mouths ready with tongue-twisters to prepare for Shakespeare’s complex language. The class will culminate with performances of scenes from the play, so this is not just an exercise, it is actor preparation.

“What I’ve gotten is the delight of giving ownership of all this great literature,” said Visel. “I had a student say she took the class because she didn’t get to go to high school. She felt that if she had gotten to go to high school she would know these things, but she didn’t get to, so this was her chance.” Visel described how one day the student’s face suddenly lit up in recognition as she was reading out loud. She got it. “That’s letting someone in on something that we should all own together.”

This is Melodie Clarke’s second time around with the Shakespeare Troupe. With her wheeled walker and beaming smile, she is among the first to the class. “I love Shakespeare,” she said. “I love the drama. The comedy. Someone is always after someone else. The kinds of creepiness sometimes, like the ghosts or the witches.”  As a performance poetry artist Clarke says she took the class to become well-rounded and help out with her nerves and memorization. Her goal is to be able to easily whip out a poem without having to read it off the page.

Clarke and her husband had been evicted from their apartment and were living in the Nicklesville camp. “I couldn’t stay there because of the weather, so they sent me off to Angeline’s women’s shelter.” A case manager told Clarke about the classes at Path with Art. “It helped me deal with being at Angeline’s, because Angeline’s is not…I was thankful for having a place to stay, but it’s not the most pleasant of places to be. So it helped me deal with that.”

Are You Sure This Is A Comedy?
Exile. Loss. Confusion. Death Threats. “Are you sure this is a comedy? Because that doesn’t seem so funny,” was one of first questions Visel had to contend with when discussing the early scenes of Midsummer where Egeus drags his daughter Hermia before the Duke. “We’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about the difference between comedy and tragedy,” said Visel.  Determining how something so seemingly tragic can be funny wasn’t the only challenge with the play. “The hardest thing that we’ve encountered with this play is that the mechanicals, the working class people, are portrayed as idiots.” They asked her if Shakespeare thought that people like me are stupid and that only the nobility are smart. “We talked about that and how this is the only play that he really does that,” said Visel. “Usually the common people, the fools, are the brightest.”

It’s not just studying the play that has been a challenge.  Getting to class has been a struggle. Some come every week and others can only make it to the class when the rest of their difficult life doesn’t interfere.  Jonathan Agnew likes the structured nature of the class. “I’m really bad at self-motivation, which is part of the therapy stuff,” he said. When he expressed an interest in writing and acting to his therapist at Seattle Counseling Services, they turned him on to Path with Art.

Agnew had performed some stand-up and sketch comedy prior to the class, and really gravitated to the physical comedy of the play. “We were doing a scene a few weeks ago and I was Lysander. I thought it would be funny if I fell down. It was a great thought in the moment, but when you have to fall down four or five times, the shoulder gets a little sore.” It turns out the falling down has been his favorite part.

“The creative act is a fundamentally vulnerable thing to do,” said Doody when asked if he thought the class was a success. “That in and of itself breaks down barriers between people and builds community. And community builds stability and connection to yourself and to others.”

The Shakespeare Troupe actors still have a few more weeks of study before they have to present their showcase performance. Until then it’s more text work, more laughs, and more connections as the group unlocks Shakespeare in their unique way.