Shakespeare in Detroit

I love the arts. I’m don’t have a musical ear or artist eye; however, I like being exposed to new ideas. When I heard about Shakespeare in Detroit, I was immediately intrigued. There aren’t many performance art options in the city and I was curious to learn more. I planned for us to see their spring performance of King Lear but I noticed on Facebook that they are in the middle of a fundraising campaign. Since I’m now in the non-profit world, I have a new appreciate for these things and thought I should write about it sooner (and later).

Shakespeare in Detroit (SiD) was founded by Samantha White. She was introduced to Shakespeare by her mother who wanted her to expand her interest beyond rap music. Her passion has led her on an ambitious crusade to create a world-class theater company in Detroit. Since 2013, the group has offered a series of free performances to the public in order to fulfill their mission of expanding access to Shakespeare’s work. SiD is funded through private donation and grants. They were a Detroit SOUP finalist in 2014 and used the winnings for their summer performance of Anthony & Cleopatra. The group’s story was recently shared on BBC as part of the SOUP coverage.

Friday night, Danny and I met up with Cal Schwartz, SiD costume designer and former director. A graduate of Wayne State University, Cal is passionate about the mission and eager to share Shakespeare with a broad audience.

How did you get involved with Shakespeare in Detroit?
I’ve known Sam [White] for about five years now. We worked on a project together a long time ago. The summer after she did Othello she called me and said, ‘you do costumes, do you want to join this endeavor?’ I haven’t left since.

Why does SiD do Shakespeare and not theater in general?
There is a lack of exposure to Shakespeare within the city limits. As we know, the system isn’t running as the most functional machine. Oftentimes, Shakespeare is left out of the curriculum. A lot of people think Shakespeare is above them and don’t really know that it is meant for the common man. It’s important to us because the themes are universal and transcend time. In Shakespeare there are a lot of themes you can relate to any situation and it is something that everyone should have access to. SiD has a mission to produce one full run of a show for free and last year we reached 2,000 people with A Mid Summer’s Night Dream. There is no other theater company in Michigan that offers a free run of show.

What are your inspirations as costume designer and director?
It depends on the concept of the show. This last one I directed and also designed – we did A Mid Summer’s Night Dream. I wanted to do Victorian and we did the 1890s. Before that we did Anthony & Cleopatra that was conceptual recycled materials. It was referencing the Romans holding on to something old and decaying. The Egyptians symbolized a younger generation that was taking the trash and reinventing it. Currently we’re working on King Lear. In King Lear they still reference polytheism so we had to pick a setting that made sense to still have polytheism. We came up with an apocalyptic world where all hell has broken loose. I try to make sure we do something different every time we do a show to show a range of what we’re capable of and to keep it fresh for our audience. We like our biggest show to be a period piece and that’s our free show in the summer.

How has the public responded to your work?
It’s different. Our demographic is a 30 year old, white female which is unheard of. Generally [in theater], it’s senior citizens but not with us. It’s a younger, hip way of seeing theater. I think it is in part because of our mission to help enrich people’s lives and I think younger people nowadays are conscious of that. But when we do our free shows it’s a crucible – it’s everyone. Every race, every social class – it’s amazing.

Detroit has a lot of artist studios and galleries. Musicians now have the DIME. I don’t notice a lot for performing artists, is that me not being in the business or is it an area we’re lacking?
Detroit proper only has the Detroit Repertory Theater and the Hilberry as far as professional theater goes. The union housees that hire equity actors are more spread out. Within the city there are smaller, on the fringe theaters but we are looking for Shakespeare in Detroit to be a world-class company. Our goal is to one day be in the Gem or the Music Hall. You can’t have a functioning city without a functioning entertainment district. People don’t go to New York for Wall Street, they go for Broadway.

How would you like to see things change?
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sam’s story but we need more situations like that where kids can be exposed to it. Once we can increase the desire to see live theater it will grow. So many theaters focus on their older patrons but eventually those people will be gone and we need young people to appreciate the arts in the same way. It is something that needs to cross over all demographics because it is a viable art form for everyone. It’s something everyone can come together for because Shakespeare is meant for the common man. It’s ironic that something that was meant for everyone has gone away. We’re trying to figure out how we can reach the most people so even if they’re not getting it in school they can say, ‘Hey mom, take me to that show. I want to see that show.’

Where will the summer show be this year?
It’s at New Center Park. It will be MacBeth in July [16-19th].

Shakespeare in Detroit is currently hosting a fundraising drive. Donations of any amount are welcome. If each of their Facebook followers donated $7 they would reach their goal. To donate, visit their Indiegogo page here.

Photo source: Facebook

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