In the early 1600s, butchers, tanners and other commoners all paid a penny — often almost an entire day’s wages — to join the masses in watching one of Shakespeare’s plays at London’s Globe Theatre. They were called groundlings, because they stood on the ground while wealthier patrons sat higher in the stands.
Today, at Shakespeare’s Globe in London — the iconic theatre was rebuilt next to the original site — cheap seats cost about US$8 (still considered a bargain), while well-heeled patrons will fork over up to about US$70 each for gallery seats.
Meghan Freebeck, an advocate for the homeless in San Francisco, visited the theatre in 2017 and later got an idea: Shakespeare should be for all. Since the homeless generally don’t go to live theatre, maybe she could bring Shakespeare to the homeless.
While her life’s work is helping people living on the streets get medical care, housing and groceries, she recently added something new to the mix: a Shakespeare workshop. She calls it food for the soul.
That is how 16 homeless people in San Francisco ended up sitting in a circle last month 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:
"All the world’s a stage."
"Neither rhyme nor reason."
"Love is merely a madness."
All of these phrases are from 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.
"Shakespeare covers the whole (gamut) of the human experience," said Freebeck, founder of the non-profit Simply the Basics, a hygiene-supply bank for San Francisco’s homeless. She is also the chief executive of Project Homeless Connect, an agency that helps with medical care, employment, counselling and more.
Although Shakespeare’s plays have been around for more than 400 years, their significance still resonates today, especially among people going through troubled times, the 31-year-old said.
"Using Shakespeare is a safe way for them 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.
Those lessons were followed with a reading of a synopsis of the comedy As You Like It, then a discussion about each character in the play and an assignment to create original folklore using a well-known quote from Shakespeare.
The play has themes of love at first sight, class structure, city life versus country life and cross-dressing — ideas the participants could relate to.
It made it easier for participants to share their own stories. 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 favourite 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.
Blackthorne, a former jeweller and musician who once worked as a theatre stagehand, said she can relate to Shakespeare’s plays, especially tragedies such as King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. The first play she remembers seeing was West Side Story, which is essentially the same tale as Romeo and Juliet.
The theme resonated with her because the main characters in West Side Story are lovers whose parents tried to keep them apart because they are from different cultures.
"Growing up, I was taught the same values many people were taught — and that’s to fear people who are different," she said.
It was especially poignant to her because she always felt like an outsider.
"No one was more different than me," she said.
Much of Blackthorne’s childhood was spent in foster homes, and she became homeless once she was on her own and struggling to fit in as a "woman in a man’s body," she said. Currently, she is living in a "transitional housing" room where she shares a bathroom and kitchen.
She said she enjoyed collaborating with a team of three others at the workshop to write a story based on a quote from 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, 25-year-old Akaina Ghosh said.
For two hours on a rainy Tuesday, Ghosh said, a group of compassionate and intelligent people were given permission to share about themselves, and also play and be silly with no judgment or rules.
"Everyone had a story to share," she said.
William Shakespeare certainly understood that, Freebeck said.
"In the time of his writing and first-performed plays, more than 80 per cent of poor Londoners would flock to the theatre to enjoy (his work)," she said.
She added that she hopes to make the Shakespeare workshop an annual event.
"Theatre skills are life skills — they assist in breaking down barriers, building bridges and helping people recreate themselves as their best selves," she said.
"That’s what I hope everyone took away from the experience."
— Washington Post