Sarah Eismann, artistic director of Manhattan Shakespeare Project--Manhattan's all-female Shakespeare company--is plotting to bring global communities closer together. Her strategy? Shakespeare. Sarah and her team are partnering with Drama Academy Ramallah in Palestine to deliver theatre workshops to the drama academy students as well as students in the Jenin refugee camp. In the following interview, Sarah discusses the project, its three phases, and her plans for bringing the world closer together--through Shakespeare.
I am Sarah Eismann, founding artistic director of the Manhattan Shakespeare Project, Manhattan’s all-female Shakespeare company.
How long has the company been going?
We are currently in our third season.
You are taking this year off to dedicate to the Palestine project. Why?
A year ago last November was when I came in touch with [Drama Academy Ramallah]. When we started the conversation back and forth about wanting to do this project, create these workshops, I kind of exploded the project into this $60,000 thing over the course of a couple years, and it was in that moment that I realized, ‘Oh, if we actually want to do this, maybe we should take some time off to dedicate all of our energy and all of our resources to just doing this.’
Is this the biggest project the MSP has undertaken so far?
Yes, definitely financially the biggest project we’ve undertaken. It’s also the first time we’ve ever done anything internationally. It’s been a lot of firsts on a lot of different fronts.
How did MSP connect to Drama Academy Ramallah?
Last November, myself and Jensen [Olaya] had the opportunity to work in Essen with the Folkwang Shakespeare festival, which invites a bunch of different groups to come and perform. One of these groups that performed was a group of drama students from the drama academy in Ramallah. I got to be very good friends with those students, I had also got to be really good friends with the director, and at the end of the experience he contacted me and said, ‘Would you like to come and teach some workshops at the Academy?’ And I said, ‘Of Course!’
How did the project evolve?
From that kind of small, innocuous invitation, I exploded it to this giant project. I initially asked three other teaching artists if they also wanted to go. My expertise is Shakespeare text and performance, and I wanted to bring along a movement teaching artist. I also wanted to bring along a voice teaching artist, and I was already surrounded by all these wonderful people because I was finishing up my MFA at Columbia, so it was really easy to get lots of people interested and lots of people involved.
Details! What happens first?
The first phase is going to Palestine. We’re going to do two weeks of workshops with the Academy students. I’ll be doing Shakespeare text and performance, and Jensen will be doing Viewpoints. It’s a pretty interesting way to get an entire group on the same page together and working as an ensemble. The Academy students have never had any classes in Viewpoints, and it was one of those things we were interested in working on with them and they were interested in having us bring to the school.
Over the two weeks, we’re working with the second and third year students. We’re going to create an ensemble-driven devised Shakespeare piece that is going to incorporate Shakespeare’s sonnets, Palestinian youth songs, and movement.
What happens after the two weeks of workshops?
Hopefully we’ve got a really solid piece by the end of the two weeks. We’re going to do two public performances of it in Ramallah. The most fascinating part comes afterward. We’re going to take the Ramallah students to perform in the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp. They have their own professional program, but we’re going to be working with their high school students. The Ramallah students are going to be [working with] the Jenin students. We’re going to do a week of workshops, creating, training, using the methodology we learned in Ramallah. We’re going to create another piece with these students and perform it at the Freedom Theatre.
So phase one takes place in Palestine. What goes on in phase two?
After this first phase in Palestine is done, we want to create a documentary and bring it to symposiums, educational institutions. I would love to do a TED talk on the methodology of how to use Shakespeare to talk between communities.
Let’s hear more about the documentary film.
What Lena [Rudnick] wants to create is two-fold. She’s going to be creating a documentary of how the methodology is created. But second[ly], she wants to create a kind of human interest piece, in telling the stories of these seven students who are in their last year at drama school that is the only institution of its kind in Palestine. There is no other place that does practical, experiential training for theatre artists—and how they came to the arts in their lives, why this is where they want to pour all of that energy, and bring their voices of what it is to be a youth artist in Palestine, and bring that outside to the rest of the world.
Phase one: Palestine. Phase two: Film. Phase Three?
As for bringing this documentary to lots of different people and telling the world about how Shakespeare can talk to different communities, I want to bring the Ramallah and some of the Jenin students to the States and have them create mentorships with American kids. So, have the Ramallah students work with Bronx secondary school students and create another devised theatre piece. The Bronx students go to California and create a devised piece there. The students who have already been immersed in a mentorship and have already created theatre, then become the ones who bring it to another group of students.
My grandiose plan is to get the communities of the world talking to each other through Shakespeare, song, and movement.
Why is Shakespeareone of the key elements in your plan for bringing the world together?
Is it enough to say because I love him and he’s a genius?
Yes it is!