Teens Seek Healing Through Shakespeare

Working with Elm Shakespeare Company, local teens with Ice the Beef confront real traumas while producing an original live version of Romeo and Juliet.

Ice the Beef and Elm Shakespeare
Students from Ice the Beef rehearse Romeo and Juliet with Elm Shakespeare. Photo Credit: Joel Callaway Photography

Teenagers from the New Haven-based anti-violence group Ice the Beef took on the challenges of the pandemic and created an original adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The youth group premiered the play at the 2021 International Festival of Arts and Ideas after several months of engaging with the text and each other, using Shakespeare’s weighty themes to cope with the real-life traumas of violence and loss.

“They are making Shakespeare their own,” said Producing Artistic Director Rebecca Goodheart. They are using Shakespeare to enhance and better understand their world.”

Watch the performance

The production resulted from a growing partnership between Elm Shakespeare and Ice the Beef that began four years ago. In the fall of 2020, participating students unanimously chose to explore and perform Romeo and Juliet. They expressed a desire to create a performance that might help their community and spread their message of seeking alternatives to violence.

Interruptions because of the pandemic nearly derailed the project several times, Goodheart said. Many of the students lived in communities that were among the most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But they kept showing up. They drew on their personal experiences when reading and performing Shakespeare, and when engaging in deep conversations prompted by the play.

“This is the best of what we do,” said Goodheart. “It is organic. It is connected to the community. It is looking at connecting with Shakespeare and each other in new ways.”

Elm Shakespeare’s work with young people throughout 2020 was supported in part with a $50,000 general operating support grant from The Community Foundation. Used in combination with a federal emergency loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, the grant helped the nonprofit hire additional teaching artists for delivering effective online programming to the many students it works with in the schools and over the summer.

Although Elm Shakespeare was able to hold few other in-person programs during the past year, the community theater company focused on adapting and designing various educational curricula to be meaningful and engaging online.

Teen Troupe performing live in Edgerton Park, Halloween 2020, "Taste of Fear- Spooky Scenes from Shakespeare" Performed for three socially distanced audiences of 50 people each performance. Photo credit: Elm Shakespeare

Elm Shakespeare also held “Building a Brave New Theater: Exploring Race & Shakespeare,” a 5-part multi-week online series that attracted more than 800 people in the summer of 2020. The program explored the issues raised at the intersection of race and Shakespeare and asked the question, 'How can Shakespeare serve our community in this moment?'

About Elm Shakespeare

Since 1995, Elm Shakespeare Company has worked to transform and engage our community through the arts and education. View the Elm Shakespeare profile on giveGreater.org.

About Ice the Beef

Founded in 2014, Ice the Beef is a teen community organization dedicated to de-escalation of and healing associated with gun violence. Under the leadership of Chaz Carmon, the teens of Ice the Beef have established a core mission to include violence prevention through creative expression.