The Shakespeare Sonnet Project

Maya C. Popa
From the November/December 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In 2013 actor and director Ross Williams, founder of the nonprofit New York Shakespeare Exchange, set out to film all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, each performed by a different actor in a New York City location. After raising nearly $50,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, filming began. The original deadline was Shakespeare’s 450th birthday (April 23, 2014), but the project’s aim—to merge the literary and visual arts, and bring the poetry of William Shakespeare to the poetry of New York City—quickly proved more ambitious than expected. 

As Williams and his team—made up of producers, a copy writer, and text coaches—began to film the sonnets, it became clear that the project transcended a mere collection of recitations. Each video became an artistic object in its own right. “This project is unlike any I have seen before,” says Mark Karafin, who directed Sonnet 108, which won runner-up in the annual Shakespeare Short Film Competition in 2015. “I read Sonnet 108 and it spoke to me immediately.” Filmed at the John T. Brush Stairway in Harlem, where the Polo Grounds, the original New York Giants baseball stadium, once stood, the sonnet explores “the first conceit of love, and its agelessness.” “I felt strongly about this location,” says Karafin. “It had substance and relevance to New York. There was history here.” Billy Magnussen, an actor who earned a Tony nomination for the Broadway production Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, stars in the film, and recites the sonnet in a voice-over. “My favorite part of this project was the opportunity to collaborate with such talented and inspiring artists in every department,” says Karafin.

Each of the project’s short films, released online and through a mobile app, offers a unique stylistic take on the sonnets: The adaptation of Sonnet 73, which opens with “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,” depicts a gray, blurry image of a man sitting beneath a wintry arbor in Central Park while another man plays the saxophone. Sonnet 116—“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”—features a couple walking along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade in the rain. Sonnet 44—“If the dull substance of my flesh were thought”—uses special effects to portray a man walking in an abstract, geometric landscape as his skin morphs into different metals. 

The Sonnet Project app, which was launched in May 2013, has been an integral part of the project’s success, offering a catalogue of the filmed sonnets and a mapping feature that shows the setting used in each production. This allows the project to highlight locations in New York City that tourists and locals alike might otherwise overlook. “That’s been a part of the project that really makes people notice us,” says Williams, who adds that the interactivity of the project “could really make an impact” in terms of its reach. Additionally, each video provides a transcript of the sonnet, including a brief analysis and explanation of the wordplay. “It’s a unique platform to learn and expose all parts of Shakespeare,” says Karafin.

Ultimately, the project aims to nurture the next generation of readers and artists, helping them gain confidence with Shakespearean language and inspiring them to take on creative projects of their own. “We are currently deep in the creation of the Sonnet Project educational tools,” says Williams, who, by the end of the year, plans to unveil a two-week curriculum for high school students that teaches Shakespearean language and encourages students to create their own Sonnet Project films on their mobile devices. “We have had a number of educators tell us that they like to use the Sonnet Project in their classroom because it’s the one time of day they can stop telling their students to put their phones away,” says Williams.

So far, the Sonnet Project has engaged more than five hundred artists and produced videos for all but approximately thirty of the sonnets. Filmmakers and directors are invited to apply to create an original video adaptation of any of the remaining sonnets; if accepted, the Sonnet Project will work with that filmmaker to assign a New York City location, actor, and text coach for the film. In his plans for 2017, Williams hopes to launch a second series of videos of the 154 sonnets, this time filmed in locations all over the United States and abroad. The team also hopes to add several new mapping features to the app so that it can support walking tours and even scavenger hunts. “Our goal is to create a global conversation about Shakespeare,” says Williams. “By existing in a cinematic space, Shakespeare can feel alive and present.”


Maya C. Popa is a writer and teacher based in New York City. Her website is