Quick Take:

William Shakespeare has been dead for more than 400 years, but for Rebecca Haley Clark, education programs manager at Santa Cruz Shakespeare, “ol’ Billy Shakes” still has lessons to teach us today and to share with kids. A Santa Cruz native, Clark has spent years studying Shakespeare across the globe and now is back home and has created a program for Santa Cruz youth called “Shakespeare and Social Justice.” Clark is looking for schools interested in hosting the programs, which aim to knock the Bard of Avon off his pedestal and make him relevant to this generation and the issues they confront today, including racism.

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William Shakespeare.

Just his name terrifies many. But does it have to?

For me, Shakespeare is about taking risks. Having the courage to leave the safety of your bubble. Chasing a dream.

Cliché, right?

But studying theater and Shakespeare — arguably one of the most famous playwrights in the English language — has led me around the world. Athens. Rio de Janeiro. Glasgow. London. And more.

In Greece, I created street “guerilla theater” based on Shakespeare’s works. In Brazil, I created new works devised from Shakespeare’s plays. In Scotland, I got my master’s in classical and contemporary text from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where I learned theater directing.

In England, I walked the boards at London’s Globe theater, the famous Elizabethan playhouse where Shakespeare worked and wrote his plays. It sits on the south bank of the Thames River, and every day, as I crossed Millennium Bridge in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Rebecca Haley directed Santa Cruz Shakespeare's fringe show this year.
Rebecca Haley directed Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s fringe show this year. Credit: via Rebecca Haley Clark

Yes. I’ve spent a lot of hours getting to know ol’ Billy Shakes. And yet, each time we meet, I perpetually ask, “What about this dead, old, white guy really matters anymore?”

It’s a conversation worth having and that I have all the time in Santa Cruz — particularly with the youth I work with.

I’ll be bringing these questions to classrooms this year as part of a program I’ve created called “Shakespeare and Social Justice,” through my role as the education programs manager at Santa Cruz Shakespeare. The program will give K-12 students a chance to study and perform Shakespeare while maintaining a critical lens on his works. We will approach Shakespeare in the way that actors do, with a sense of wonder, and not the dread that he is untouchable.

But I get ahead of myself.

To understand why I’m doing this, you have to follow my journey.

My journey began with a purple cape

Santa Cruz is my hometown, and I returned in 2019, filled with questions about Shakespeare’s relevance and with an expired student visa.

I did not want to be back. I did not want to reckon with where I was coming from and what was next. I wanted to stay in Scotland.

Then I met with Mike Ryan, artistic director of Santa Cruz Shakespeare.

Rebecca Haley Clark
Rebecca Haley Clark. Credit: Via Rebecca Haley Clark

I told him about the program “Shakes-To-Go,” which brings short versions of Shakespeare’s plays to schools. I told him about the lasting impact that program had on me, including a scene in “The Tempest” where the actors used their bodies to create a boat that swayed and pitched in the storm.

Mike looked at me and said, “I actually directed that.”

It felt like fate — and a reminder I can’t disentangle Santa Cruz and Shakespeare from who I am.

Shakespeare was my theatrical start. He’s what got me hooked. It happened in kindergarten.

Each year, the sixth graders at Gault Elementary School put on a Shakespeare play, and when I was in kindergarten, they did “Macbeth.” Jackson, one of the stars, went to the Joyful Noise after-school program with me and had been practicing for weeks.

As soon as the production started, I was immersed into the world of witches and prophecies, madness and duels. I can’t say I fully understood the story. I mostly remember Jackson’s purple silken cape sashaying across the stage.

But the theater bug bit me hard. I made my dad take me back.

I could not wait to reach sixth grade and perform my own Shakespeare play. I would practice reading “Romeo and Juliet” with my dad using a dusty copy of collected works. When I finally joined Nancy Street’s sixth-grade class, we got our play: “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

We were 12 and were memorizing, rehearsing, and performing Shakespeare. We didn’t know enough to be scared. For us, it was about stories, wonder and adding our own spin to make the play relevant — which in this case included a rendition of “Back in the USSR,” complete with dancing dogs. But that’s another story.

Rebecca Haley Clark in kindergarten, when her love for Shakespeare began
Rebecca Haley Clark in kindergarten, when her love for Shakespeare began Credit: via Rebecca Haley Clark

I was brought up in a tradition that taught me that Shakespeare could be changed, updated, moved around — and still maintain respect for the poetry of his words.

At that 2019 meeting, Mike asked me to direct the 2020 fringe show with Santa Cruz Shakespeare.

A dream.

Until it wasn’t. Until the pandemic hit.

There was a plague. The playhouses were closed, and it felt like we were actually living in Shakespeare’s time.

For artists, it was a devastating period, but “necessity is the mother of invention.”

I’m proud to say that we artists were an integral part of keeping the world going. We innovated. We brought theater to Zoom. We gave away our art to let people know they weren’t alone. It highlighted why we do what we do, and why we tell the stories that we tell.

Along with that came a reckoning of social justice and a realization about the importance of human connection. We don’t go to the theater only to be entertained, but also to find our place within the human experience to commune, commiserate and bear witness.

And in a time when we have been isolated, when we are fighting for connection, what place does theater occupy as we begin to emerge from a pandemic?

Reckoning with Shakespeare’s legacy

When I was in Brazil, focusing on race and Shakespeare, I learned that the stories we tell are integral to creating the world we want to live in. I learned that I — a young, mixed-race, Jewish, American woman, so different from Shakespeare and the times he was living in — could also find herself in his stories, and she could also stand up to his intimidating legacy.

As James Baldwin once said about his love for America, I can say that I love Shakespeare very much and it is “exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize [him] perpetually.”

The reorganization that came with “the reckoning” — after George Floyd’s murder and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement — was global. It made everyone rethink.

I’m thrilled to be on the forefront of making those changes in the theater — right here in Santa Cruz.

With “Shakespeare and Social Justice,” my team will come to classrooms and set up workshops. We will help the next generation figure out how to make sense of Shakespeare for themselves and to tap into what they bring to his work.

There is grant money up to $2,000 available for Santa Cruz County schools interested in hosting the program. The deadline is 4:59 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9.

I am proud to use the skills I have developed across many countries, cultures and languages to change the way our young people interact with Shakespeare. I get to make sure that he is not a source of fear and apprehension and — through their exploration — I will make sure he speaks to their generation. Most important, when he is harmful I will give them the tools to change him.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare
Credit: Via Santa Cruz Shakespeare

I get to see his works through their fresh perspectives, the joy of experiencing those stories for the first time. Using rehearsal-type exercises, we will take Shakespeare off of his pedestal and put him in a place where he can be most enjoyed, just like he wanted.

The best part of this is I get to give back. I am inviting others to join me, right where I started, as a 6-year-old girl, sitting cross-legged, eyes wide in an elementary school auditorium, mesmerized by words and the stage. I can take Santa Cruz kids on that very same journey.

And they don’t have to cross the ocean or travel to the bright lights of Broadway or to the Globe. They can stay in our little surf town on the Central Coast.

There is a legend about Santa Cruz that says you will always come back.

Well, here I am.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I am grateful to be here, making a difference in the community I will always consider home.

Rebecca Haley Clark is a theater director and practitioner who has worked in New York, Brazil and Scotland. She is currently the education programs manager with Santa Cruz Shakespeare. She received a master’s in classical and contemporary text directing from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2019. She received her undergraduate degree in drama and comparative ethnic studies at Columbia University and a Fulbright research grant to study Shakespeare and race studies in Rio de Janeiro. She was born and raised in Santa Cruz. For inquiries about programming, contact her at education@santacruzshakespeare.org.