On a recent afternoon at the West Rock Community Center, Sarah Bowles, Elm Shakespeare Company’s new education program manager, heard the kids in her after-school program talking about bars. She asked them what they meant. They explained: In hip hop, the bars meant the metered sentences that rhymed with each other.
That was like Shakespeare’s language, Bowles told them. “It’s like bars.” And they got it. Soon they were trading lines from Shakespeare with the same ease and flow they brought to their favorite hip hop songs.
In the free after-school program, held three days a week for kids aged 7 to 12 and run by Elm Shakespeare in conjunction with the city’s housing authority, the kids are putting together their own version of Romeo and Juliet.Earlier in the spring, they started with theater games and moved on to ensemble-building exercises, and piece by piece, started to put together a version of the Shakespeare stalwart to put on for their friends and family at the end of May. They’re choosing the music. They’re figuring out which scenes to keep and which scenes to cut. The thing they’re not changing: the language.
“It’s the first time that they’ve ever performed in a play and they’re doing Shakespeare,” Bowles said.
The West Rock Community Center project is one of several after-school programs Elm Shakespeare runs across the city. They’re one piece of a larger program that Bowles oversees. There’s the Elm Shakespeare Teen Troupe, which runs in the spring. There are in-school and home-school residencies, in which teaching artists work in classrooms. In the summer, the Players Camp runs for kids aged 7 to 13. Older students participate in the Elm Scholar Apprentice Program, which culminates in them being involved in Elm Shakespeare’s production, as cast and crew, in Edgerton Park at the summer’s end.
What ties it all together is Shakespeare’s language, and Bowles’s love for it.
As an undergraduate at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, Bowles began as a “medium-good” acting student, she said. Method acting didn’t really appeal to her. Then she found herself studying Shakespeare, and “the language blasted the door open in terms of acting everything else.”
“In Shakespare, the language is active,” she continued. “It’s poetic language — you’re discovering it line by line with the audience.” Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (“To be or not to be….”), she said, “acts itself. Other plays do that too, but it was Shakespeare’s language that opened it up for me.” She delved into it and realized, “oh, that’s how to act.”
Acting jobs followed — first at the American Shakespeare Company in Staunton, Va., where she played the role of Lady Anne in Richard III for over a year at the age of 23 (she’s 35 now). As she grew into the part, the language kept teaching her. She learned to worry less about others thought the part should be played. “I became the expert on that role because I was doing it,” she said. Her acting career took her from Staunton to Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Ma. She landed her first role there in 2010 and worked there steadily afterward.
“I’ve sought out companies that don’t work with the director-as-genius model — where there is the allowance for growth and change, especially during a long run,” Bowles said. “As long as I feel an emotional connection to what I’m saying, it matters less about ‘getting it right.’ It’s about ‘getting it alive.’ And that’s what I suggest to students. We can shift them out of that obedient model and allow them to have agency in their own performance — it’s about their imaginations and their feelings.”
Bowles gravitated toward education early as a way to pursue a complete life in the theater. She’d waited tables and tended bar. While living in New York City — where she got a masters in applied theater from CUNY — she’d run bike tours to make ends meet. But the goal was always to find a way to do theater, in some form or another, full-time. And she learned early that she loved teaching. Right after graduating college, she threw herself into directing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the high school she’d attended. Her father, a software engineer who also is involved in community theater, designed the sets. She had more or less free rein to steer the production where she wanted. And as she worked with the students, “at the time, I remember saying, ‘this is the best job. This is the one that fits me most.’”
At American Shakespeare Company, Bowles had taken teaching artist posts. She ran a Shakespeare summer camp in the Hamptons for five years. At Shakespeare & Company, she once again did teaching artist work, and connected with Ken Coleman, who was the education director there. “That’s when I was trained as a theater educator,” she said. She also made the acquaintance of director Tina Packer, who then connected her with Elm Shakespeare’s producing director, Rebecca Goodheart, when Packer learned that Goodheart was looking to hire an education director to further expand Elm Shakespeare’s education programs. Bowles applied and got the job. She moved to West Haven in March.
She has ideas for new programs already in the works, ones that reach further into the city and work with more community organizations to get more of New Haven’s students exposure to theater. She has an idea for a program that uses Shakespeare’s language — lines and passages pulled from multiple plays — and repurpose them, almost as a collage, to create an entirely new play. And she has dived into Elm Shakespeare’s current programs, like the after-school program at West Rock Community Center, and its production of Romeo and Juliet.
Coincidentally, Elm Shakespeare’s full production this summer is also going to be of Romeo and Juliet. Which means, Bowles said, that her new actors will have a chance to compare notes. They can go to Edgerton Park in August or September, “they can see their character on stage, and say, ‘I played Juliet,’” Bowles said.