by William Shakespeare
“Arden/Everywhere” is my re-imagining of “As You Like It” as a story about refugees. Produced by New Feet Productions and hosted by Baruch Performing Arts Center in the fall of 2017, it was performed by a cast of both professional actors and non-professionals from the refugee and immigrant communities – 16 actors from 9 different countries.
My relationship with Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” is like a screwball comedy: I thought I hated it, only to discover it was really love. In every production I have ever seen (and I have seen many), the usurped Duke and his courtiers look like they were at a picnic in the LL Bean Catalogue. They were banished, living in the woods – why weren’t they starving? I used this complaint to dismiss the play. But a revelatory conversation with a friend pushed me past my former glibness; I started exploring the play through the exact lens I had used to criticize it. What if you take the characters’ plight seriously, and tell that story?
I have been thrilled to discover a whole other play, hiding in plain sight – one that looks into a painful world of dislocation and exile to discover resilience, reconciliation and love. It becomes a complicated story – less simply delightful, more ambivalent – that brings this four-hundred year old play firmly into the present.
I would go on to spend more than three years developing “Arden/Everywhere.” I investigated the text through a series of workshops, holding my ideas up to the close scrutiny of table work (New Feet Productions staged reading, 2015; Drama League Rough Draft residency, 2016). I spent several days in the country collaborating with a movement director to explore how a movement vocabulary rooted in soccer informs the storytelling (Holes in the Wall retreat, 2017). I taught refugees, asylees and immigrants in New York City (International Center, FEGS, Refugee Youth Summer Academy, Arab-American Association, Baruch Performing Arts Center). I taught a theater workshop at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya with Film Aid International.
Every stage of the process revealed something crucial to me about the story I needed to tell. Working with ESL students and resettled refugees taught me the importance of hearing stories from the people who have actually lived them. From the young people I taught at RYSA, I discovered the importance of soccer. The Drama League residency allowed me to deeply investigate Audrey and Phebe; in our production, they were not simply the butt of the jokes (stupid and slutty, or arrogant and ugly), but characters with agency and complexity. A devised piece created in a workshop for immigrant actors at Baruch PAC led to the stories of cast members being included in the final production. Most importantly, my experience with the refugees in Kakuma showed me that no matter who you are, hardship and joy live together in intimate proximity. My job is to tell this story – that every human experience we all lay claim to is also happening for refugees. The panoply of experience that Shakespeare offers in “As You Like It” belongs in a refugee camp as surely as it does in the gentlest vision of Arden.