Love’s Labours

F or the past 23 years, New Haveners have unfolded their lawn chairs and blankets in Edgerton Park to watch the sun set and the lights go up on Elm Shakespeare Company productions under the stars, free of charge. Call it a late summer night’s tradition.

But Elm Shakespeare isn’t just a summer gig. While some 30,000 theatergoers park themselves on the Edgerton lawn over the course of a few weeks each summer—this year, they’ll do it for The Comedy of Errors—the organization serves another 1,700 during the rest of the year: children and teens in greater New Haven, who can participate in a Teen Troupe, a summer Players Camp for kids aged 7 to 12, a three-week summer Teen Intensive, pre-professional Scholars Summer Internships and tailor-made Elm Shakespeare-in-Residence programming for local schools and organizations.

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Rebecca Goodheart has served as Elm Shakespeare’s producing artistic director since 2015, taking over for founders Jim and Margie Andreassi. She’s helped the organization find a permanent home at Southern Connecticut State University and hire its first full-time education programs manager, Sarah Bowles.

Goodheart recalls the moment at which, as a 13-year-old, she found her own voice through Shakespeare. “I was always ‘too much,’” she says. “I was too big, too loud, too passionate.” But one day in seventh grade, as she read aloud a passage from Romeo and Juliet—“My bounty is as boundless as the sea…”—something happened. She had to expand her sense of herself in order to fill those words. Her career had begun; within a year she was performing professionally. “I want other kids to have that experience,” she says.

Goodheart is thrilled when she sees those other kids taking ownership of Shakespeare for themselves. She recalls last summer’s full-scale production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, when a group of summer camp kids who had done their own version of the same play had “sort of a reunion” sitting in the front row. They were “looking, saying the lines right along with those adults,” Goodheart remembers. “And they [had] opinions: ‘Oh, well, why did they make that choice?’ So they [had] ownership over [this] big piece of theater.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, educator Bowles sat in a SCSU classroom with her guitar on her lap, running the Teen Troupe through a rehearsal of the final scene of their spring production, a 90-minute version of Twelfth Night. The aim of the Teen Troupe, Goodheart says, is “introducing kids to Shakespeare as he was intended, which is in performance.” That performance is meant to be as much a reflection of the young actors as of Shakespeare. “I’m not that interested in what we think Juliet’s supposed to be,” Goodheart says. “I’m really interested in what happens to you when you say these words…”

Their lines memorized and their blocking established, the students were polishing their performance with Bowles—adjusting entrances, tweaking positions, rehearsing a dance that ends the show. Then it was time for veteran players Ariel Mayer (Viola) and Eva-Larue Barber (Olivia) to meet Goodheart for a costume check. As we walked over to the costume shop together, the two home-schooled high schoolers articulated exactly the experience Goodheart might hope for them.

“Shakespeare really is relatable,” Mayer said. “He captured the human condition so well, and I think anyone can relate to that if they’re a living human.” She and Barber both laughed. “We’re coming into the world, we’re going to be the next leaders,” Mayer continued. “I think it’s really important to know what can go wrong, how, understanding jealousy, envy, love, anger… He really captures that.”

Barber added that the act of putting together a performance with other students is an important part of the experience: “learning how to work in a group with a lot of people with different levels of understanding of texts and just the different ways people function,” she said. “It’s so cool to be part of a group of people that’s so understanding to everybody, whatever your experience level.”

When we arrived in the basement costume shop, arrayed wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with clothing of every imaginable style and color, Goodheart was waiting. Mayer could barely contain her excitement as Goodheart held up a black, tailored Victorian gown for Barber. A moment later, Olivia stood before us. “This is like it was built for [you]!” Goodheart gushed. For Mayer as Viola, who spends much of the play posing as her brother, Sebastian, Goodheart had a vest. Did Mayer have leggings to go with it? Yes? She’d also find her a “fluffy shirt” to wear.

“I believe in the power of these plays,” Goodheart says. “I believe we can change the world, to be perfectly frank, and we need to start with our kids. And our kids are literally dying to be heard. And we’re not listening… We need to listen more, and I think Shakespeare gives them the words to be heard.”

Elm Shakespeare Company
(203) 392-8882 | info@elmshakespeare.org
www.elmshakespeare.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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