Sam White makes the Bard’s enduring themes on the human condition relevant to Detroiters

Shakespeare…in Detroit? Sam White not only thought it could happen, but also that it should. So, in 2012, she founded Shakespeare in Detroit.

White – an actor, comedian, journalist, marketer, teacher, and theatre-lover – moved out west to Las Vegas back in 2007. In 2008, she attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival. As a lifelong Shakespeare fan, she found herself thinking, “If they can do something like this in the middle of the desert, we can surely do something like that at home in Detroit where we have all of these parks and [water].”

She moved back to Detroit in 2008, but spent most of her time trying to find a job while still doing stand-up comedy. In 2012, she worked with Detroit’s respected business accelerator, TechTown, to create a business and feasibility plan for her theatre troupe, and in August 2013, Shakespeare in Detroit (SID) put on their first performance.

“I didn’t know if anyone would come,” she says. “About 500 people showed up, and that showed me I was on to something.”

That first SID performance, Othello, was held in the open air at Grand Circus Park. Next came Antony and Cleopatra at the Recycle Here! facility on Holden Street. “We used the venue as inspiration,” White says. “We did it with no sound [system]. All of the costumes were repurposed or recycled since it’s a recycling center.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed in New Center Park to a crowd of 800, Romeo and Juliet bowed at both Mumford High School and Grand Circus Park, and The Tempest kicked off the 2014-2015 season at the YMCA’s Marlene Boll Theater. Next up will be King Lear at Marygrove College in April and Macbeth over the summer.

“We perform in places where people live and work and play,” White says. Sometimes her troupe is invited to perform in a certain space, and sometimes she is inspired to approach a particular place. She recalls seeing the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings “Structurally Sound” presentation at Recycle Here!, hearing Marcus Schoon perform on an electric bassoon while promising the audience that he was going to change the way people thought about the bassoon and make them think about it in a new and interesting way. “I thought, ‘Well, if he can do that with a bassoon…what he’s doing with music is what I want to do with Shakespeare.’ So I was inspired to do that show at Recycle Here!”

White says that SID is different from other Shakespeare companies in a few ways. First, because they “do crazy things like have performances in places like parks and recycling centers where people would be anyway.” Second, because she herself has roots here – she jokes that people love to hear her “Seven Mile to Stratford” story, about how her mom got her into Shakespeare at a young age and “this little girl from Seven Mile and Greenfield fell madly in love with this guy from Stratford.” Ultimately, though, it is SID’s approach to its audience engagement that really differentiates the company.

“For me it’s important to make it connect with the audience,” she says. “It has to be relevant in some way to them. With Othello, at the time there was this questioning of the legitimacy of the mayoral candidate because he didn’t look the way others did, [so we were] looking at Othello as being an outsider despite his qualifications ” – here she is referring to Caucasian mayoral candidate Mike Duggan, who would become Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years, but not without some resistance based on his race and suburban affiliations – “Then, with Antony and Cleopatra, the Romans wanted to hold on to all the old things; they didn’t like change, they didn’t like things that were new and different; but then you had the Egyptians who loved everything new and different. [This was about] old and new Detroiters [coming together to see] wonderful things to come for the city. We try to make it relevant for people to their everyday lives and speak to their lives.”

If the Bard’s enduring popularity over the centuries reflects the universality of his themes on the human experience – on life and love and power and jealousy and rage and loss and wonder and hope – then White’s approach reflects a universality in the Detroit experience as reflected in these works from half a millennia ago. She also seeks to make Shakespeare approachable to all Detroiters – not just those who are seasoned theatre patrons and/or those who can afford it.

“We are committed to having one free summer show per year,” says White. “We are huge on accessibility and having more kids from Seven Mile come out to enjoy Shakespeare. Not everyone has money for a ticket or even transportation, so we need something [free and] on the bus line.”

Additionally, SID seeks to break the mold of the “typical” theatre-goer, and has so far been successful at doing just that.

“The [stereotypical] traditional theatre goer is 65 years old,” White says. “Our typical audience member is 30 and she’s really incredible. I like that we’re getting young people to get out and see Shakespeare. The thing about a lot of other businesses coming to Detroit is that they have maybe a few years of examples that work in other cities; with Shakespeare you have centuries of proven consumer engagement. People from all over the world come to theatres to see Shakespeare.”

It’s also a potential tourism driving force for the resilient city working tirelessly to rebuild itself to retain the people already here while also attracting new ones. “The reason why New York City is New York City is because there is such a healthy theater community. If you want to create a tourism community, you have to give [tourists] worldwide experiences. Shakespeare is that. People go to Stratford [Ontario] for Shakespeare; why not make Detroit a hotspot too and have international tourism here? Art can’t be an ‘or,’ it has to be an ‘and,’ and we need to keep art talent here. People aren’t going to stay if they don’t have those experiences. If we really want to have a healthy, thriving city, we need to have our artists, and Shakespeare is great bait.”

White’s passion and commitment hasn’t gone unnoticed; in 2014, she was named by Crain’s Detroit Business 40 Under 40 and also delivered a talk at TEDxDetroit.