In the early 1600s, those who were considered commoners paid a penny — often almost an entire day’s wages — to attend 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 theater was rebuilt next to the original site — cheap seats cost about $8, while well-heeled patrons will fork over up to about $70 each for gallery seats.
Meghan Freebeck, an advocate for the homeless in San Francisco, visited the theater in 2017, and it sparked an idea. Since the homeless generally don’t go to live theater, maybe she could bring Shakespeare to the homeless.
Her life’s work is about helping people living on the streets get medical care, housing and groceries, but she recently added something new to the mix: A Shakespeare workshop that she calls food for the soul.
Last month, 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:
"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 gambit of the human experience,” said Freebeck, founder of the nonprofit 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, counseling and more.
Four hundred years later, the significance of Shakespeare’s plays still resonates, especially among people going through troubled times, said Freebeck, 31.
Freebeck’s “Shakespeare for All Neighbors” workshop at Project Homeless Connect’s downtown offices began with a catered lunch of sandwiches, fruit and desserts, before participants split into groups of four for light acting exercises.
Those lessons were followed by 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 involves 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 favorite dress) to work into their own story.
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 jeweler and musician who once worked as a theater 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.”
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 working 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."
Another participant, Eric Vallejos, said the workshop was the first time he had been exposed to Shakespeare, other than once watching the movie “Romeo + Juliet,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
“It was such a new experience; they even tried to teach us how to act,” said Vallejos, who described himself as in his late 40s and “homeless in and out.” Currently, he said, he feels fortunate to have a motel room for $500 a month.
Although Vallejos was shy about sharing his story and offered scant details, he said he still felt a feeling of “belonging to something” after the workshop.
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.
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.
Williams Shakespeare certainly understood that, Freebeck said.
"In the time of his writing and first-performed plays, more than 80 percent of poor Londoners would flock to the theater to enjoy (his work)," she said.
Freebeck would like her Shakespeare workshop to become an annual event.
“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.”