Shakespeare Helps Shelter Residents Build Confidence and Community

Shakespeare Helps Shelter Residents Build Confidence and Community
Arkansas Community Foundation

Driving to work one morning, Joy Ritchey, case manager for Our House shelter in Little Rock, began to think about what a coincidence it was that the shelter housed several residents who shared names with some of Shakespeare’s greatest characters: Portia, Ophelia, Cordelia, Romeo. Ritchey was concerned that some of the shelter’s residents seemed lonely and disconnected, and the Shakespearean connection gave her an idea to build engagement and create a social outlet — what if Our House’s residents put on a Shakespeare play? From that brainstorm, Shakespeare at the Shelter was born.

For Arkansans without a home, transitional shelters like Our House provide a safe, stable place to live, job training, childcare and education. The long term goal of Our House is to equip its residents with skills that will enable them to be successful in the workforce, the community and their families.

Beyond these goals, though, Our House also prioritizes its residents’ personal growth. Shakespeare at the Shelter was designed as a creative outlet for residents, who have the opportunity to perform scenes from some of Shakespeare’s greatest works: As You Like It, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry IV and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In its second year, Shakespeare at the Shelter raised money to purchase new furniture for the shelter living area, where residents have meals, relax and visit.

“Performing in Shakespeare at the Shelter empowers our residents,” said Ritchey. “It helps residents build relationships with each other. Their self esteem rises and they get a sense of accomplishment. More than anything, I just wanted them to have fun.”

Often, residents of homeless shelters feel cut off from events in the community. Shakespeare at the Shelter allows residents to reconnect with their city and its citizens. “It anchors people who are lonely into a community,” Ritchey added. Raising money to buy furniture for their own living area is a powerfully positive self-affirmation.

Ronald Carlson, who delivered a monologue from Henry V in 2013, is both a former resident of Our House and a returning cast member. Ronald joined Our House’s charity event for a second year without hesitation. He explained, “It wasn’t really a choice. I felt that I owed it to the people who worked hard to help me out. I wanted to prove to myself again that I could do it.”

Comedic relief is important in every play, and that was exactly the role of Derrick Beasley, who played Falstaff in a scene from Henry IV, Part II. “I wanted to be a funny character, so that’s why I chose Falstaff.” Aside from providing a humorous presence through his inebriated character, Derrick learned a thing or two while participating in the play: “I learned teamwork, accountability and how to speak before people.”

Mother of two Mary Shue is also a returning cast member of Shakespeare at the Shelter, this year playing a handmaid to Lady Macbeth in a scene from Macbeth. An honorary board member and former resident of Our House, Mary was eager to join the cast for a second year, “I had so much fun. It was a challenge. And that’s important to me.”

For the players of Our House’s Shakespeare at the Shelter, artistic expression is an important element in reestablishing confidence and a sense of community. As Shue explained it, “Anyone who has become homeless, their self esteem has got to be affected. So having an outlet in the arts is great for self expression, and that helps your self esteem. It’s a wonderful idea to get the residents to do something creative and express themselves. It’s a real positive outlet.”

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