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Homeless get time to shine with Shakespeare

By Jennifer Nixon

This article was published August 7, 2014 at 2:09 a.m.

Shakespeare at the Shelter

7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Our House Shelter, 302 E. Roosevelt Road, Little Rock

Admission: $20

(501) 374-7383

Many people pretend the homeless don’t exist. But when they’re standing on a stage, reciting familiar, 500-year-old words, they’re hard to ignore.

Shakespeare at the Shelter takes the working homeless, an often invisible population, and puts them square in the spotlight.

This is the third year for Shakespeare at the Shelter’s theatrical production, in which present and former residents of Our House, a shelter that provides housing, job training, education and children’s programs for the working homeless in the community, put their spin on the Bard.

“I haven’t found anything else like this in the country,” says Joy Ritchey, grants manager for Our House.

Ritchey founded the program in 2012 as a fun, recreational community outreach program.

The production is not a full Shakespeare play, but selected scenes and monologues which, this year, come from Othello, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ritchey says this format works best for the people involved: “That way everybody gets to be the star of their own scene and if somebody moves out or disappears or their work schedule changes, the whole thing doesn’t fall apart. We can keep it up and running.”

Work on the program begins in June with an introduction to Shakespeare with Roslyn Knutson, a former University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor and Shakespeare specialist.

Ritchey explains, “These are Shakespeare games and theater games that get people who are not familiar with Shakespeare or who think they’re not familiar with Shakespeare really oriented in an easy, gentle, fun way.”

They also take a field trip to see a production by the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, then begin their rehearsals on Sunday afternoons. Volunteers come in to direct, design and build sets, and the week of the show, the shelter is transformed into a theater with a stage, curtain and professional lighting.

While the production showcases only a small percentage of the shelter’s population, Ritchey says it brings the entire Our House community together: “When it’s show week and we’re disrupting shelter life by having dress rehearsals and having the stage up, my experience has been that everybody who is in the shelter will rally around.”

The play runs 30-40 minutes and then the lights come back on for a group discussion about homelessness.

“Originally, this was a project just to put on a play,” Ritchey says. “What it’s turned into is an opportunity to have a conversation with the community about homelessness and who’s homeless and what it’s like to be homeless. It’s had some great benefits in terms of reaching the community.”

In the past two years, the production has drawn in people who, without it, wouldn’t ever go near a homeless shelter.

“It kind of destigmatizes the idea of a shelter,” Ritchey says. “People from the community come here who otherwise wouldn’t know what a special place this is and how special our residents are.”

In addition to serving as a community outreach and a creative outlet, it’s also a fundraiser, with all money raised going directly to improving shelter life. This year, money will provide needed upgrades for the kitchen, which serves 77,000 meals each year.

While it’s not difficult to draw attention for children’s programs, the Our House adults don’t often get a turn in the spotlight.

“Our adults are this incredible group of people,” Ritchey says. “This is a great way to challenge your ideas about who you think is homeless. These are often very educated people, people with a whole wealth of experience, with all these secret talents that are going untapped because of the struggles of day-to-day life as a homeless person.

“This is a chance to show up and see people shine through.”

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