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Recasting, Restorying, and Restructuring Shakespeare for Liberation

My first intentional interaction with Shakespeare was not in a high school English class, but at a Shakespeare summer camp as a nine-year-old. I played Hermione in The Winter’s Tale in fifth grade, when I was also a target of bullying and burgeoning middle school meanness. In middle school, I saw my nascent sexuality represented in playing “pants parts” across from girls I would eventually fall in love with. And before I had words to describe how I felt about gender, I played Rosalind, trying on power through masculinity and returning to myself with a changed worldview.

These experiences had a profound impact on me, not only in my appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare but in my ability to make meaning of the world and my role in it. Shakespeare made me, me. This was not the experience of many of my peers, and I must acknowledge the harm Shakespeare has caused as a tool of white supremacy, colonialism, and upholding educational norms.

I cannot speak directly to experiences of racism and colonialism through Shakespeare, as a White settler-American. But as a Queer woman, I found my liberation through Shakespeare. And now, as an educator working primarily with Shakespeare, I see similar experiences with students. When I had the opportunity to design a research project for my MFA thesis, I wanted to explore whether others had similar experiences. And so I designed a project intended to answer the question: to what extent can Shakespeare’s works be used as a tool for understanding power and identity?

I spent Fall 2022 researching Shakespeare in the classroom through a review of case studies and interviews with adults who experienced Shakespeare in high school. I set out to learn whether this deeper understanding was possible through Shakespeare, keeping in mind that Shakespeare’s work has been used, at times, as a contributing factor in systemic inequality. Based on findings from my research, I created and implemented a six-week rehearsal process with the goal of creating a devised theatre piece in response to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I found three elements to be most important in creating a liberatory education experience with Shakespeare: recasting, restorying, and restructuring.

A group of actors rehearse a scene.

Mel Tanaka, Andy Ambrose, Rian Flynn, Nick Chieffo, and Emilia Fox Hillyer in a devising rehearsal for Blood Will Have Blood, produced by Fork & Shoe Theatre Co-op. Facilitated by Rainier Pearl-Styles and created by participants. Photo by Rainier Pearl-Styles. 

Recasting refers to giving a metal object new life by melting it down and reforming it. By taking Shakespeare out of the classroom and putting the experience of Shakespeare into the hands of those working with the text with a focus on embodiment, we give a new form to the old work.

Restorying is positioning the stories in relation to ourselves and taking liberty with our own interpretations of characters, plotlines, and subtexts to make the story meaningful to a modern community.

Restructuring the current power inherent in Shakespeare’s works allows us space to practice envisioning the world in which we wish to live. Not only do Shakespeare’s themes and stories uphold structural power, but Shakespeare is often used as a tool of western, imperial, white supremacy. For instance, Shakespeare’s first role in the classroom was as public speaking practice in rhetoric and elocution, which we know has been used to maintain control over Black children’s speech patterns. However, by restructuring the norm of putting Shakespeare on a pedestal, we can begin to dismantle larger systems of power.

My project built upon many traditions of reimagined Shakespeare, and applied theories across educational disciplines to a performance project with the goal of deepened self-awareness and sense of self-in-community. I specifically focused on the role of embodied exercises not as a tool for understanding the text, but for understanding the self and community. Through the lens of Brazilian Marxist educator Paolo Freire’s “liberating education,” I argue that grappling with historical power structures deepens understanding of modern power structures and personal-political identities. And so, the touchstone guiding my work is a quote from Freire. In the seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he posits “there’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” Or, to paraphrase Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but [teaching] makes it so.”

The Process

Macbeth has been at the forefront of my mind for a few years; I was particularly interested in Macbeth as a “rehearsal for the revolution,” watching an attempt at government-overthrow go wrong and watching characters fight back against fascism. In Macbeth, the characters are royalty—princes and lords. How did the proletariat fight back?

The rehearsal process was divided into three parts: exploration of themes/community identity, creation and workshop of material, and compiling material and polishing the show. While a lot of the curriculum I drew upon stemmed from positive experiences interviewees had with Shakespeare education, I held their negative experiences in my mind too. Many of the participants in the project had studied theatre at the high school or college level, some even working as theatre professionals for a period of time. Many of them had experienced marginalization from their Shakespeare education and/or the professional theatre industry in some way. The most important outcomes of my project were for participants to have a joyful time being in community, and to feel like they had something unique and important to add to the Shakespearean tradition. To do this, I set an expectation from the first rehearsal that this was not an adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but a response to it. I was clear with participants that I was interested in their thoughts and experiences more than the original text. When a participant expressed dissatisfaction with something that happens in the original play, I reiterated that disagreeing with the text was celebrated. I also didn’t participate in reflective writing or scene creation, but drew others’ writings together as a facilitator and organizer. I didn’t want to guide the conversation more than I already was as the leader of the project. These principles allowed us to position ourselves as experts in relation to the text—not because of any official Shakespeare training, but because of everyone’s own experiences. We were co-constructing an understanding of the play anchored in the community identity that had formed. As radical doula adrienne maree brown says in Emergent Strategy, “There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.” The story told in the devised piece was a reflection of individual and group identity, which rejects conformity in Shakespeare education.

Before rehearsals even begun, we had recast the play into something uniquely ours.


The first phase began in February 2023 with monthly “text parties.” Participants came to my house and I cooked a meal for everyone. We sat in the living room and played with, manipulated, rearranged, discussed, and rejected monologues and quotes from Macbeth. In an exercise I learned from JD Stokely—a self-described “trickster-in-training” and theatre studies scholar—called “aggravating the text,” we manipulated original Shakespeare text into found poems. This was an informal gathering with friends and strangers, some of whom continued with the process and signed up to participate in the show, others who didn’t. The poems written at the text parties were used in the final show and as source materials for dialogue. Shakespeare was played with and changed to tell the story the participants felt was most important. Before rehearsals even begun, we had recast the play into something uniquely ours. Positioning the play as a jumping off point rather than a final product changed the goal from understanding Shakespeare to understanding the self and community, which is the goal of liberatory education.

A group of participants draw on a large sheet of paper on the floor.

Shira Weiss, Lara Brennan, Nick Chieffo, Andy Ambrose, V Brancazio, Emilia Fox Hillyer, Devin Doherty, and Hillary Bushnell at a text party for Blood Will Have Blood, produced by Fork & Shoe Theatre Co-op. Facilitated by Rainier Pearl-Styles and created by participants. Photo by Rainier Pearl-Styles. 


Because of the text parties, when we began rehearsals in April, themes about the play had already surfaced. We spent the first two weeks of rehearsal playing theatre games and exploring the themes, getting to know each other and the work. The group restoried the play—pulling out and adapting specific storylines that impacted them. A theme that the group centered in many tableaux was that of getting stuck in downward spirals and being unable to break out of them. One mistake leads to more, or as Macbeth says, “blood will have blood.” But some participants expressed dissatisfaction at the pessimism of this narrative. Indeed, our work so far had varied in theme, tone, and imagery. I initially had trouble figuring out how they all fit together in the final piece. I realized that in trying to make all the poems fit into a single narrative, I was ignoring the pedagogy I was imparting. The point is that there is no correct way, or rather, there are multiple correct ways to interpret the play. Each individual restoried the play to connect to their own experiences while working as a group to develop a community identity. We created a poetry slam between Macbeth and his brain, with guest poet Lady Macbeth, to weigh all the options for action.

For me, as a Queer director and facilitator, and as someone who personally experienced the liberation of gender-creative performance, restorying goes beyond the themes and connects to personal/political identity. Throughout the devising process, connections to characters emerged as each participant gravitated towards certain roles and themes. Following their connections, my process for Blood Will Have Blood differed from what I might do if I were casting a show based on auditions. When we solidified a structure and the characters, I did not cast the show but asked participants if they were willing to play a certain role. They could agree or disagree, and if they disagreed I had a plan to shuffle participants around until everyone had a part. Everyone agreed. There were only two characters played by cis actors; the rest of the cast was trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) and played roles across the gender spectrum. Because I had a gender diverse cast, it was important to me that I was not assigning roles based on gender, but allowing participants to be led by their response to the play. One trans participant connected to the witches because of our discussion about how they are described as “Women / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so.” My goal was not to remove gender roles from the process, but create space for participants to seek out the connections they found the most meaningful.

It’s not only that we see our modern experiences reflected in older stories, but we deepen our understanding of our current world through historical interpretations. This is what Paolo Freire calls “invention and re-invention,” a core theory of liberatory education. Shakespeare offers a chance to apply our modern worldview to past experiences and understandings.

A group of performers rehearse with large pieces of fabric.

Lara Brennan, Andy Ambrose, Sid Jepsen, Rian Flynn, and Hillary Bushnell in Blood Will Have Blood, by Fork & Shoe Theatre Co-op. Facilitated by Rainier Pearl-Styles and created by participants. Set design by Hillary Bushnell. Photo by Katherine Callaway.


It can be hard not to apply a modern understanding of power to over-four-hundred-year-old texts written in a time with vastly different constructions of power. I believe that to use Shakespeare effectively in liberatory education, we must examine and deconstruct those power dynamics, practicing to deconstruct and reconstruct power dynamics we see today.

This instance reminds me of Marc Weinblatt and Cheryl Harrison’s “Theatre of the Oppressor” concept. They work with Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed technique, where embodying oppression helps find solutions to break out of it. Boal calls this “rehearsal for the revolution.” Weinblatt and Harrison, both experienced Theatre of the Oppressed practitioners, frame exercises so that those with systemic privilege embody “the oppressor” to deepen their understanding of their role in systematic oppression. In this opposite approach to Theatre of the Oppressed, embodying the oppressor helped one participant deepen his understanding of his own power, exemplifying that “we learn much about ourselves by playing characters we don’t want to be.”

One Theatre of the Oppressed exercise, “Cop in the Head,” embodies and externalizes internalized oppressions by having participants act out the “cops in the head” of the protagonist and having the protagonist try to move away from them. I used Cop in the Head as a devising technique and it was so successful in deepening our understanding of Macbeth that we included it in the show. As a group, we identified the voices in Macbeth’s head pulling him one way or another: Macbeth’s dead child, the kindness of King Duncan, and the meanness of Macbeth’s own father. Participants analyzed the power of oppressive voices in Macbeth’s psyche through the Boal exercise by bringing their own understandings of power to the play.

Not only did we reconstruct the power within the play, but we problematized Shakespeare’s work itself in our larger culture. Augusto Boal developed his Theatre of the Oppressed work in Brazil under an oppressive military regime, using theatre as a “rehearsal for the revolution” against systems of oppression. By applying Boal’s work to Shakespeare, we identify Shakespeare as an oppressive force in our culture, and by grappling with the power his work holds in a safe community, we practice de-pedestalizing hegemony beyond Shakespeare. 

About halfway through the rehearsal process I asked for participants’ thoughts about a certain theme in the play. One participant said they didn’t feel they should be the one to answer because they still had never read or seen Macbeth and they weren’t confident in their knowledge. I asked them what they thought the play was about based on the work we had done. They said it was about getting stuck in an unbreakable cycle and free will. Without ever studying the play before, this participant contributed to Shakespeare discourse because of the connections they made through embodied learning.

The process of engaging in the power dynamic allows participants to construct their own understandings of power. Whether connecting to the characters through understandings of gender, analyzing our roles as oppressors, or messing with Shakespeare’s text as a way to claim ownership over it, participants constructed their own understandings of power throughout the process. As one participant shared, he was made aware of his role as one of the only cis, straight, white men involved in the project. And when cast as a character in a position of power, the “domination just felt weird to me. And I think it was important for me to hold on to that weirdness.” To me, this is the key finding of the project. Shakespeare can teach us how to confront, deconstruct, and grapple with the oppression we experience and the hegemonic systems we operate in, as we fight for liberation.

We can take Shakespeare off the pedestal and stake our own claim in it. 

I don’t claim that Shakespeare is universal because it is impossible to fit every culture into a Shakespeare template. We can take Shakespeare off the pedestal and stake our own claim in it, by acknowledging his fallibility or rejecting it altogether. It is not Shakespeare’s work that can be liberatory, but the way it is taught or facilitated. The recasting of Shakespeare’s text, the historical tradition of restorying, and reinterpreting the power dynamics Shakespeare writes about, as well as the power dynamic of Shakespeare as oppressor, gives teachers and facilitators socio-political-historical-personal tools to educate for freedom. It is our responsibility to “make it so.”

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This was such a cool project to be a part of! The opportunity to recast this story really helped me fall back in love with Doing theatre.

This was such a cool project to be a part of! The opportunity to recast this story really helped me fall back in love with Doing theatre.

Deeply thought and inspiring for reclaiming Shakespeare's narratives and bringing them into the present, liberating artists and audiences alike. Seeing this performance, I left with images and sounds that I thought of for months to come! Let's rehearse this revolution, baby! 

oh man, I remember seeing this show back in may. amazing cast, music, puppets. how cool to learn about the creation process! i completely agree, we need to find liberatory ways to teach this stuff that's in our educator's curriculums. thanks for laying out your process so succinctly and adding to the field!