Shakespeare and Community: Emerging Voices

Tuesday, September 7, 2021 1:00 pm EST

Shakespeare remains the world’s most produced and studied playwright. However, these pursuits have disenfranchised significant segments of society by perpetuating a cultural elitism that belies the notion of accessibility inherent in his works. In the 20th century, a movement of programs, designed with and for the incarcerated, the differently abled, and those disadvantaged by socio-economic factors (to name a few), explore Shakespeare through their unique lived experience. “Shakespeare and Community” highlights these practices through a series of panel discussions, providing a reflective space wherein the larger community can gain a broader understanding of who Shakespeare “is” and “can be” in the context of a rapidly changing culture.

This lecture was the second in a series of three events to mark the 10th anniversary of the Notre Dame London Shakespeare Lecture in Honor of Stanley Wells. Fr. Jim Lies, C.S.C, Senior Director for Academic Initiatives and Partnerships at the Notre Dame London Global Gateway, gave introductory remarks to Professor Scott Jackson, Mary Irene Ryan Family Executive Director at the University of Notre Dame. Jackson highlighted that the panel discussion “seeks to redefine what 21st century Shakespeare in performance can mean for different specialized communities”. Jackson then introduced the panelists: Rowan Mackenzie, Artistic Director of Shakespeare UnBard; Janice Valls-Russell, Principal Research Associate, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier; Florence March, Professor in Renaissance and Restoration Drama, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier; Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Lecturer in Shakespeare and Theatre at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.

Jackon invited all the panelists to discuss their current projects:

  • Abigail Rokison-Woodall is working on a project called Signing Shakespeare to see how they can make practical, active, rehearsal room pedagogy accessible to young deaf people.
  • Florence March and Janice Valls-Russell are working on Shakespeare and Citizenship, a program co-led by the Institute for Research on the Renaissance, the Neo-Classical Age, and the Enlightenment (IRCL) together with Montpellier’s international theatre festival, Printemps des Comédiens. The program involves six secondary schools in Montpellier with different social profiles, to have students with various backgrounds meet and interact, which they would not have any opportunity to do otherwise.
  • Rowan Mackenzie, through Shakespeare UnBard, aims to work with people who have been marginalized predominantly through being connected to the criminal justice system. 

Jackson then moved the conversation to “Applied Shakespeare” which draws its very name from Applied Theatre by Augusto Boal. Applied Theatre has had a radical effect on the way we think about the function of theatre in contemporary society, and to transform audiences into active participants in the theatrical experience. Boal argues that traditional theatre is oppressive since spectators usually do not get a chance to express themselves, it is a very one-sided transaction. Therefore, when we study Shakespeare, “we must be conscious that we’re not studying the history of the theater but learning about the history of humanity. We are discovering ourselves and, above all, we are discovering that we can change ourselves and, hence, change the world.” The discussion then turns to how Applied Shakespeare shows through each of the panelists’ current work and how, in spaces of historically excluded or specialized populations, they craft ensemble, bringing people together around Shakespeare and, more broadly, theater in general.

Finally, Jackson asks each of the panelists what are their desired program outcomes:

  • For Rowan Mackenzie it’s very much about giving people the opportunity to take back and to develop positive autonomy, about people developing transferable skills, their sense of being able to work within a team, and their sense of pride in what they can do going forward in the future.
  • Abigail Rokison-Woodall’s program started to think about how engaging with Shakespeare might help deaf children with other areas of their lives such as confidence, social and emotional cognition. Working in combination with a team of deaf theatre practitioners, as well as deaf children, they’ve actually become just as interested in how sign language can open up Shakespeare for everyone. The program aims to provide access and resources to teachers to ensure that deaf children are actually getting the opportunity to study Shakespeare, rather than simply being told it’s too difficult.

Through Shakespeare and Citizenship Florence March and Janice Valls-Russell, aim to encourage the students to re-appropriate verbal and body language as non-violent ways to express themselves. It contributes to reintroduce their relationship to language, not only as a means of communication but as a cultural and artistic medium. So that Shakespeare, and beyond Shakespeare, those involved revisit their relationship to their own language as a poetic literary language as a medium to convey their own culture. The year-long project is rounded off by a school festival embedded in Montpellier’s Printemps des Comédiens mainstream festival with all six classes coming together to perform and to view each other’s work. All the students involved in the project are also invited to visit the venues and discover the working world of a theater festival and a whole array of training and job opportunities throughout the year. Lastly, they hope that the experience of Shakespeare and civic theatre opens up spaces for contemporary issues to be discussed and for building up debates as a non-violent alternative way of negotiating with others. The plays are chosen by the teachers and theatre practitioners often to fit their schools’ educational agenda on civic values and mutual respect, such as addressing tolerance and anti-semitism through Merchant of Venice, gender and role-playing through Twelfth Night, sexual harassment, and female agency through Measure for Measure.


  • 06:51 – These series of panels seek to redefine what 21st century Shakespeare in performance can mean for different specialized communities.
  • 30:06 – Jackson discusses what is Applied Theatre and Applied Shakespeare, and furthermore what this means in today’s context.
  • 45:00 – The panel discusses how, in spaces of historically excluded or specialized populations, do they craft ensemble, bring people together around Shakespeare, and, more broadly, theater in general.
  • 54:02 – The panelists explain what a class, a lesson, or even an organizational cycle might look like in practice.
  • 1:12:07 – Lastly, the panelists share what are their desired program outcomes.

  • “We rely on the three main values attached to the notion of citizenship. Civility, meaning recognition, acceptance of, and the respect for the other. Civil rights and duties, meaning the articulation between individual and collective interests. And solidarity, meaning the capacity for building a common project, without which there can be no society.” (Florence March, 21:22)
  • “For me, the important parts of Applied Shakespeare are about giving a voice to those people who are oppressed, who are marginalized, whom society chooses to or is unable to hear, or to communicate with.” (Rowan Mackenzie, 33:57) 
  • “I think Shakespeare’s very good for young people in terms of understanding nuance. I’ve been very struck having a young child, by the way in which fairy tales present people as either good or bad. My son often says to me, is he good or is he bad? And Shakespeare is becoming a really important thing for saying, well, actually people aren’t either good or bad.” (Abigail Rokison-Woodall, 37:49)
  • “[Shakespeare] is global. Performed in virtually every language and country by people from all walks of life so that means he can accommodate all of us, whatever our skin color, gender, age, health, culture. (Janice Valls-Russell, 40:51)

September 7, 2021