When Ross Williams first launched Sonnet Project NYC, it seemed like a daunting, even overwhelming task. Could his theatre company, the tiny New York Shakespeare Exchange, find the time, energy, and resources to produce and curate short films for all 154 of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, each shot with a different actor and director at a distinctive New York City location? The Sonnet Project NYC mixed unknown performers with higher-profile actors (Billy Magnussen for Sonnet 108, Carrie Preston for Sonnet 27) and renowned locations (Yankee Stadium, Grand Central Terminal) with obscure ones (a bar in Staten Island, an outdoor staircase in upper Manhattan). Now, three years later, as the Sonnet Project, available for viewing at sonnetprojectnyc.com, finally approaches the finish line, Williams is already racing past to a new starting line.
It turns out that blending Shakespeare’s sonnets, short films, and New York was only the first step. Williams’s latest grand ambition, dubbed Sonnet Project 2.0, is to bring this same format—154 short films, each with its own cast and crew for each sonnet—to the rest of America and, separately, to the rest of the globe. At the same time that Williams and his team are planning for these 308 new films, they are developing a corresponding curriculum for high school and eventually college students.
“We are still getting people to understand what the project is,” said Williams, acknowledging that “many are mystified by what we’re doing.”
And then there’s the small matter of running a growing theatre. New York Shakespeare Exchange has put up one annual mainstage production each year since 2011, including Pericles, Othello, and Titus Andronicus. (The troupe’s latest show, Hamlet10, involved a cast of 10 exploring the psyche of the eponymous Danish prince.)
It’s all part of Williams’s goal to take Shakespeare to the people. It’s why the NYSE started ShakesBEER, in which a troupe of actors performs 15-minute scenes from four plays in four different bars on a pub crawl (AT, March ’15). And it’s why Sonnet Project NYC includes an app, which Williams is still fine-tuning. He’s been seeking a mobile app designer, in fact, to provide more functionality; the current version is “static,” but he wants one that is navigational, showing which other Sonnet Project locations are nearby, and has the ability to be searched by theme or keyword, to allow users to rate the sonnets and to leave comments that could create a dialogue about Shakespeare.
Carey Van Driest, an NYSE member who serves as associate producer on the Sonnet Project, said the company recently raised $41,000 through Kickstarter to help launch Sonnet Project 2.0. “We’re a very small company without full-time paid staff, so our biggest challenge is manpower,” Williams commented, acknowledging that some in the New York Shakespeare Exchange have asked whether the focus is shifting too much from theatre to the Sonnet Project. He countered that the recognition the project has brought the company has helped it to grow: This year they will add a second stage production for the first time.
“I’m still absolutely passionate about live theatre, but there’s a limitation to how many people we can reach,” he said. “Our mission is to make sure Shakespeare lives and breathes in people’s lives today, and with this Shakespeare can transcend barriers.”
Van Driest said they are still sorting out their goals and ground rules. For the New York iteration, 154 films meant the ability to range from world-famous locations to obscure ones, like the old bar in Staten Island. With 154 sonnets spread across numerous U.S. cities in one project and international sites for the other, it remains to be seen whether the focus will be on places like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, or if there will still be room for low-profile locales.
“That’s a good question, especially if we only have a few per city,” Van Driest said. “Maybe we will start with the most well-known and then find some combination with unknown spots.”
She says they have not yet determined how rigid they will be on limiting the number of sonnets per city, but it may depend more on how many good proposals they get. “We might be more fluid,” she said.
The biggest issue is developing relationships with filmmakers in different cities, adding that which cities get chosen may be dictated by where they find interesting and interested artists. “That will be a challenge, especially outside of the United States,” Williams said. In America, company members know filmmakers in many cities, though Williams also plans to find local organizations to partner with, whether it’s a film school in Los Angeles or a theatre in Minneapolis. They might be asked to coproduce and copresent a film or two, or to put them in touch with smaller local organizations or individuals, Williams explained.
Picking the right people will be even more critical in Sonnet Project 2.0. In New York, Van Driest was able to be hands-on, both in terms of dramaturgy and as a producer on location. “If I could, I’d be running off to the redwood forests to text-coach,” Van Dreist said, but that won’t be feasible. She will, by necessity, be giving filmmakers more leeway with their visions.
“We are not going to vet content and quality as much this time,” Williams said, noting that the 2.0 version will be more like user-driven content on the Sonnet Project platform. The team will also be open to darker films this time around; the Sonnet Project NYC had to be PG so it could be used in high schools. Still, Williams added, “If someone goes egregiously off base we won’t release the film.”
The first Sonnet Project 2.0 film will hail from Texas A&M University, which earned a slot on the Shakespeare First Folio tour for 2016. Carisa Armstrong, director of the Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts at the college, went to graduate school with Williams at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and started researching his company. She loved the Sonnet Project concept.
“The Sonnet Project brings Shakespeare into the age of technology,” Armstrong said. They decided to do a ShakesBEER pub crawl as part of the tour events and to shoot, edit, and screen a Sonnet Project film within 24 hours, making the creation of the project part of the performance.
“Most of my students don’t have cable—they watch everything on the Internet,” she said. “They may never enter a formal theatre to see a production of Shakespeare. But by bringing the material to them it increases the audience. And people are so connected to the places they live and see every day that by doing these projects in their areas, it gives them a sense of ownership over the work.”
The global Sonnet Project was initially going to roll out after the U.S. iteration, but two fortuitous events encouraged Williams to start both simultaneously. Last fall he submitted several of his NYC sonnet films to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust of England’s Short Film Competition. Not only did Sonnet 108 (starring Billy Magnussen) earn second runner-up; the trust was so impressed that they created a special commendation for the Sonnet Project. While Williams was in Stratford-upon-Avon to accept the award, he began talking to other filmmakers there. “That provided us with a great platform,” he said.
Then Williams was invited to Tokyo to direct The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at the Neptune Theatre by Edward Gilmartin, who had read the raves for NYSE’s Titus Andronicus and researched the company, only to realize that this was the same Ross Williams who’d been an undergraduate actor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas when Gilmartin was getting his MFA there. They reconnected, and now, in addition to Williams getting a directing job at Neptune, Gilmartin has spoken to a famous Japanese TV actor who is interested in Sonnet Project 2.0.
Along those lines, while Williams presumes there will be multiple films made in major English-language cities like London and Toronto, he wants films not only from Europe but even, despite any cultural barriers, from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
“I don’t want them all filmed in English,” Williams said, adding that he hopes that the filmmakers can find poets to translate so they don’t rely on word-for-word translations. “It’s important to pay attention to meter and meaning.”
Williams knows the international project will take years. “I’m not as focused on when we’ll finish as I am on keeping it moving. If it takes 10 years, as long as the conversation is still going, we’ll consider it a win.”
Williams and Van Driest are even hoping there will be more than 154 films for each project. Ultimately, the goal is “creating a cultural conversation,” Van Driest said. That means that if someone films a sonnet but doesn’t get chosen as an official Sonnet Project selection, Williams will create a unique hashtag so people can upload their films to YouTube and link them to the original projects.
“We want to create this in a searchable way so you can find 600 versions of Sonnet 18 from all over the world,” he said.
Williams added that he hopes some of those versions will be posted by high school students proud of their work. He has organized a team, including a dramaturg, two high school teachers, and a college professor to create a Sonnet Project high school curriculum for the 2016–17 school year. (A college curriculum will hopefully follow.) It will include a 10-lesson arc with instructions on how to condense it to five if teachers feel the need to.
The idea is to provide students with an introduction to Shakespeare’s language and meter by learning the sonnets and making their own films using smartphones or tablets. Schools can apply for scholarships if there are not enough students with devices, though Williams hopes to attract a computer company to donate products.
“We want to take Shakespeare off a pedestal and to give them ownership of their work,” Williams said. “If teachers use this before teaching Shakespeare’s plays, it will make their job easier when they get to Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar.”
Emily Fink, one of the teachers on Williams’s team, has already been using the Sonnet Project at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Manhattan.
“I’m always trying to figure out how to make the sonnets more accessible to my students,” she said. Noting that the word sonnet means “little song,” Fink tells her students that these were the pop songs of their day. And she makes sure to show several Sonnet Project videos before sending her students out to make their own.
“If I only show one they’ll imitate the model,” she said. She also lets them make their own mistakes as long the results aren’t offensive. “I had one troupe that wanted to do a campy version with wigs. I gave them my two cents but allowed them to do it.”
She doesn’t have to teach them editing—“The average 17-year-old is so technologically savvy, I learn so much from watching them”—but uses the filmmaking to weave in assignments on meter and imagery and close reading. At the end she holds a screening event.
Williams can’t wait for this project to go out to the rest of the U.S., and eventually the world. “When a school in India and a school in Kansas can compare their films of Sonnet 59, that to me is really exciting.”
Stuart Miller is a freelance journalist based in New York City.