Kendall Harmening said part of what drew her to "Shakespeare Beyond Bars" was that it was being offered at a safe place: Out On The Lakeshore Community Center in Holland.
So, while reading through one of William Shakespeare's sonnets about love and loss, in the homey confines of the new LGBT community center, at 451 Columbia Ave., she felt comfortable sharing that she too experienced love and breakup with her ex-partner.
"This is a safe place and I love that we have this available to the community," Harmening said, prior to taking part in the 'Shakespeare Beyond Bars' experience at the center.
"It allows people to speak about their lives in a place where they feel safe," added Rachelle Oppenhuizen, another 'Shakespeare Beyond Bars participant.'
Indeed, since the Out On The Lakeshore Community Center opened in May, it has provided a number of safe opportunities to people in the Holland area, and some unexpected alliances with people and organizations it might not have otherwise formed.
The experience of exploring and better understanding Shakespeare's works while simultaneously plumbing personal depths, through Curt Tofteland's 'Shakespeare Beyond Bars,' is one example.
Another is committee members from the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance stopping in the center and asking OOTL if it would join efforts to stage a Jan. 20 Women's Anniversary March in Holland.
Then there was Pathways of Holland holding a focus group at the center to explore the issue of homeless youth, the Big Read Holland Area hosting one of its book club discussion groups there, a comics art class being held and an Art Drop-In planned for next year and a number of organizations simply connecting with the center.
Hardly what the OOTL Board expected when it held its OOTL Community Center open house in May, with dreams dancing in their heads of LGBT youth dropping in to connect with one another.
"Some of what's happening is we're becoming more a resource to the community than we originally thought we would be," noted the Rev. Jen Adams, an OOTL board member. "Just our existing has brought people to us that I didn't think would be connecting with us.
"It's grown in ways we didn't expect and we decided to let it organically develop rather than pre-determining what it should be."
The OOTL community center still isn't centered on LGBT issues, and it has reached out to gay straight alliances at local schools, will hold pop-up hours for Equality Michigan's Department of Victim Services beginning the second Monday of February, holds a Gender Safe transgender support group the first Saturday of every month and has hosted such LGBT events as LGBT Reads, a gay book club.
And the unexpected new alliances allow OOTL to broaden its base in Holland -- known as one of the most conservative areas in the state -- and build toward a future when LGBT people will be better accepted in a city that has rejected attempts to protect LGBT people against discrimination.
Then there are those occasions when art and LGBT issues just naturally align, such as this performance.
Shakespeare Beyond Bars participants (left to right) Kendall Harmening, Rachelle Oppenhuizen and Elisha Toth explore the bard's words. BTL Photo; Jim Larkin.
From prisons to the community
Curt Tofteland, a Holland resident, founded "Shakespeare Behind Bars" more than 20 years ago as a program that could help prisoners transform themselves while incarcerated. It combines art, theatre and the works of Shakespeare to create Restorative Circles of Reconciliation in prisons, a step in Tofteland's program.
When OOTL Community Center opened, he thought it presented a great opportunity to pilot his program, then taking it and offering it outside of prisons. While reading and exploring the meaning behind Shakespeare's works, participants also go through their own self-discovery - such as Harmening, relating her own personal loss to a Shakespeare sonnet.
While participants read Shakespeare out loud, Tofteland gently prods them, encouraging them to "learn self-truths from the verse" and explaining that understanding our mistakes allows us to grow as human beings.
"It's confusion that shuts us down," Tofteland said.
It matters not, he explains, that Shakespeare may have written his verses about a man and a woman's relationship. Love is love and loss is loss, he notes. They know no gender boundary.
Through the process of exploring Shakespeare and discovering how his works personally relate, Tofteland wants participants to answer several key questions: Who am I? What do I love? How will I live my life knowing I will die? What is my gift to humankind?
"The process of self-reflection just helps you work out a lot of stuff," Tofteland said. "You learn to live with it and move on."