Nancy Bell's 'Old Hearts Fresh' Brings Forgiveness To The Grove For Shakespeare In The Streets

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

When the Shakespeare Festival presents Shakespeare in the Streets in The Grove this week, it won’t be as if they’ve haphazardly plunked down a play in the neighborhood that has no real connection to the town or its residents. Indeed, “Old Hearts Fresh,” by St. Louis playwright, Nancy Bell, was written only after many discussions, conversations and soul-baring sessions with locals. The play is truly organically grown, grassroots, like a sturdy tree—a Maplewood, if you must—with roots that stretch deep into the community.

Drew Battles, Antonio Rodriquez and Jacqueline Thompson in "Old Hearts Fresh" Shakespeare in the Streets, 2013. Photo by David Levy

Drew Battles, Antonio Rodriquez and Jacqueline Thompson in “Old Hearts Fresh” Shakespeare in the Streets, 2013. Photo by David Levy

Bell and director Alec Wild spent nearly a year meeting with residents wherever and whenever the opportunity arose, sitting down, recording talks and conversations and researching the neighborhood. The theme that kept appearing over and over was forgiveness, which led Bell to choose “The Winter’s Tale” for adaptation. Forgiveness weighs heavily in the Shakespeare original.

Shakespeare in the Streets began last year when Shakespeare Festival St. Louis executive director Rick Dildine began the program in the Cherokee Street neighborhood. For that production, Bell wrote, “The New World,” based on “The Tempest.” The process was new, and Bell confesses they were making it up as they went along. “We learned a lot and drew on our experiences from last year,” Bell says. “The ways that it was successful are really intriguing to me, and I’m incorporating those things into this year.”

Drew Battles, Antonio Rodriquez and Jacqueline Thompson in "Old Hearts Fresh" Shakespeare in the Streets, 2013. Photo by David Levy

Don McClendon and Lamont Rogers in “Old Hearts Fresh,” Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, 2013. Photo by David Levy.

Bell is a local actress—formerly of Los Angeles—who has performed all over the country and last year was awarded a 2013 St. Louis Theater Circle award for outstanding actress in a drama for her performance in “Clybourne Park” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. She also teaches theater at SLU, but didn’t start to focus on writing until five years ago. Already she’s receiving recognition, including a winning entry in the Neal LaBute Theatre Festival last July at the St. Louis Actor’s Studio.

But Bell, who’s been part of professional theater her whole life, says writing for Shakespeare in the Streets is unlike a normal theater experience. The level of collaboration is much higher and more intense. Then there’s the communication issues with pairing professional actors with locals—people who may not have ever been on stage before. “There isn’t a playbook,” Bell says. “Non-theater people have a different language and expectations versus theater people.”

Antonio Rodriquez, Marty Casey, Nathan Bush and Drew Battles in "Old Hearts Fresh," Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, 2013. Photo by David Levy.

Antonio Rodriquez, Marty Casey, Nathan Bush and Drew Battles in “Old Hearts Fresh,” Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, 2013. Photo by David Levy.

One gets the strong feeling that the process has been a transformative experience for Bell, sitting with strangers and having really deep conversations about things that matter, and then bringing their personal stories to the stage in a way that will positively affect other people. Every person is a universe, she says, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to explore the universes of so many.

“It gives me hope,” says Bell. “I’m trying to do positive things in the world. Maybe I can do some good.”

Shakespeare in the Streets’ “Old Hearts Fresh” will be performed in the Grove/Forest Park Southeast neighborhood at 4226 Manchester Avenue, Sept. 19-21, nightly at 8pm. For more information, visit the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis website. Admission is free.

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