MAPLEWOOD, NJ — In her quest to fully experience the world of Shakespeare and ensure others can as well, Maplewood actress Sarah Eismann, who founded the all-female Manhattan Shakespeare Project, is “Swimming for Shakespeare.” She is taking to the water in a swimming challenge to raise awareness for companies that use Shakespeare to better their communities.
Eismann plans to swim more than 40 miles in open water for this endeavor and has already completed 27.4 miles. She has swum 10.5 miles to cross Lake Tahoe, 1.5 miles to escape Alcatraz and make it to San Francisco, 10 miles through the Maui Channel in Hawaii, 2.3 miles at the Waikiki Roughwater Swim in Honolulu, Hawaii, and 3.1 miles at the Oahu North Shore in Hawaii. Next, she plans to tackle 6.2 miles around the Bermuda Sound.
Despite the physical toll these long swims can take, Eismann is enjoying the experience, although she was not thrilled by the severe jellyfish stings she received in 5-foot ocean swells in the Maui Channel. By “Swimming for Shakespeare,” Eismann is entering a new world with different inhabitants; her swim on the Oahu North Shore had a stingray at the starting line and a shark at the finish line. But it is all worthwhile to raise awareness of Shakespeare-inspired companies that serve their communities, such as Shakespeare Behind Bars.
“Shakespeare Behind Bars offers theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society,” Eismann told the News-Record in a recent email interview. “Now in its 22nd year, Shakespeare Behind Bars is the oldest program of its kind in North America. SBB programming serves incarcerated adults and youth using exclusively the works of William Shakespeare.”
SBB serves more than 150 incarcerated adult males with seven programs in two Michigan prisons, and serves more than 300 incarcerated adult and juvenile males in six programs in five Kentucky prisons. The annual cost of the program is approximately $500 per prisoner, according to the SBB website.
According to the National Institute of Justice, the United States has a recidivism average of 76.6 percent; however, in Kentucky, where SBB has programming, the recidivism average is 40.7 percent, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections. SBB’s recidivism average is only 6 percent.
In addition to Eismann’s passion for community service, she is just naturally drawn to Shakespeare, which has led her to programs like SBB. Although Eismann has stepped down as artistic director of Manhattan Shakes, her love of Shakespeare continues unabated.
“The love I have for the Bard’s plays transcends words — which is ironic because I love them for their words!” Eismann said. “Performing Shakespeare is the only time I feel like a fully expressed human being. In ‘real’ life I have to make my emotions, my thoughts, my feelings, how I express myself, how I interact with others smaller than I really am and feel. I have to make everything I am a diminutive version because I have to be socially acceptable — something all women can relate to. If I expressed everything that’s inside of me all of the time exactly the way I felt/thought it, I would either be excommunicated to a desert island or locked up in a loony bin.
“But because Shakespeare wrote the breadth and depth of the human condition into every character, every moment, every word, I have the ability to be 100 percent myself when I bring his characters to life off the page,” she continued. “It’s an immensely personal experience to have the chance to share myself with the world, in the hopes that my performances give others — specifically women and girls — the permission and freedom to be completely themselves as well.”
Eismann also finds herself drawn to Shakespeare because of the educational opportunities that come from the Bard’s plays.
“I have seen firsthand how cultural, economic and social gaps have been bridged through the words of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays express aspects of life that transcend time. Love, revenge, war and political intrigue are just a few themes found in his work that are applicable to any age,” she said. “He continues to be read and performed because those themes can still be connected to our own time, because the depth of each play and the intricacy behind each poem reveal a profound truth to every reader. He wrote to discover what life really means.
“The power of love, the seeds of ambition, the fight for justice, the corruption of a king — no theme is left untouched by the Bard,” she continued. “What he says is universal, appealing to our deepest thoughts and stirring our darkest secrets. And none of these themes are relegated to one race, one culture, one gender or one way of life. They are for everyone, so put two people from opposite sides of the world together with Shakespeare and they will always find their way towards each other. They will always find the love, the peace and the way to connect.
“This is how we will fix our world, by seeing each other as our kin not our enemy. I believe deep in my soul that Shakespeare has the power to do that,” she concluded.
While she is swimming to help programs like SBB and to honor her love of Shakespeare, this is also a personal project for Eismann, who said she chose to swim because it “is the only thing I can do!”
“So, funny story, this project started out as: ‘My friends are doing things to mark milestones. I am turning 40. I might as well do something to mark this arbitrary number in my human existence,’” Eismann said. “I had been endurance training and doing triathlons for three years now and so something in that vein seemed appropriate. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to get in a full Ironman (Triathlon) before I turned 40, and the thought of doing all that running training made my joints ache.”
Just as Shakespeare is a part of her, swimming has been a constant Eismann’s life.
“I have been swimming my entire life. My parents claim I swam before I walked — I think they might now be using this year as proof of that claim,” she said. “I competed on swim teams up until undergrad. I have been teaching swimming since I was 14. Swimming has just always seemed to come naturally to me. I joke that I am way more comfortable in the water than I am on land.”
But her love of swimming was not a good enough reason for her to take off on this endeavor, she said. She needed a reason, a cause.
“Enter Bank of America pulling their funding for The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of ‘Julius Caesar.’ I was livid, crushed, horrified, mortified, devastated and feeling completely, utterly hopeless and helpless,” she said. “So I’m Swimming for Shakespeare. And I’m doing it to tell the world about the amazing companies, like Shakespeare Behind Bars, that are changing their communities and making them better for the people living there. If my art won’t change the world maybe my swimming will!
“I have come to realize if I don’t have a huge overblown project that’s sucking every waking moment of my brain power on a quest to right all the righteously indignant wrongs I feel being perpetuated on this earth then I have no reason to wake up in the morning,” she continued. “And I just happen to be turning 40.”
While the cause was Shakespeare, Eismann has found herself coming away from Swimming for Shakespeare with unexpected gains.
“This has been a very personally profound experience. Long distance swimming leaves you with just your thoughts. I have been forced to confront myself in ways I never have before. I have had to confront my fears both physically and emotionally; I’ve been left to question if the person I am and the life I am leading is who I want to be and what I want to be doing,” she said. “I have come away from these swims with a much better sense of who I am and who I want to be, but most importantly how to be the person I want to be. I have more self-respect, less fear, more peace. I am a better person and a better actor.
“I very quickly learned that open water swimming is not about swimming, it’s about everything else: sunscreen, nutrition, escort boat, travel, crew support, documentation, sharks, jellyfish, training, salt water, water temperature, the list goes on and on. And that’s life, too. It’s about everything that happens on the journey, not about what is at the end of the road,” she continued. “The inmates that Shakespeare Behind Bars works with are life warriors on that journey as well, and Shakespeare is providing them with the tools to travel successfully.”
While Eismann has to do the swimming herself, she said she would not have been able to do it without the love and support of her family and friends, especially Curt L. Tofteland, the founder and producing director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, and her second family at the JCC in Manhattan, where she trains every day when she is not in the ocean.
To support Eismann and her mission, visit https://www.gofundme.com/swimming-for-shakespeare. And to keep track of Eismann’s progress on her quest to raise $10,000, follow the Shark Blog at https://saraheismann.com/s4s/.
Photos Courtesy of Sarah Eismann