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Mark Williams

For inviting the Bard into the barbershop.

Mark Williams
[William Shakespeare: Georgios Kollidas via Shutterstock]

The Problem

One spring afternoon in 2014, former cable TV marketer Mark Williams spent 90 minutes waiting to get a haircut at a local barbershop in Pineville, North Carolina, and noticed that the other patrons–teens and young men–never looked up from their tablets or smartphones. “We literally weren’t communicating,” he says.

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The Epiphany

Williams approached the shop owner about starting a youth literacy program, and after getting the green light, he settled on a curriculum centered on Shakespeare. ”He’s been around for 500 years and talks about the human condition–betrayal, love, trust, and more,” explains Williams. “These are topics we still talk about today.”

The Execution

After securing a $1,000 grant from the Pollination Project, Williams built a website and worked with a local professor to create an eight-week syllabus that would be taught for free every Monday evening at the barbershop. The first play was Othello, and lessons, which began that summer, included group readings as well as watching film versions on a projector (“Laurence Fishburne and Laurence Olivier,” Williams notes).

The Result

Twenty 10- to 14-year-old boys and girls took part in the first cycle. Last fall, he expanded the course to a classroom in a Charlotte public school, teaching 21 fifth graders passages and monologues, in addition to his barbershop syllabi. Williams is contacting local theater companies in Charlotte to reach his other goal: “I want the kids to perform, enter oratorical contests–and win. I want them to see all the things they can do now that they’ve learned Shakespeare.”


Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

I seek creative inspiration all throughout the day, from the places that I travel to the people that I meet and magazines that I read (like Vanity Fair and National Geographic). Every Sunday for the past 25 years, I‘ve watched CBS News Sunday Morning–I have learned more about the world from viewing this program than from any other single source of information.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I am at the gym at 4:30 a.m. every morning, and when I return home, I turn on CNN for an update on national and world news.

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

That children as young at 9 years old are willing, able, and excited about expanding their vocabulary, by reading and reciting William Shakespeare.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

My favorite Twitter account is Chicken Shop Shakespeare @csshakespeare. They are a performing arts troupe in the U.K., bringing the works of Shakespeare to unexpected situations and environments.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

I enjoy going to the local bookstore and browsing through magazines, and discovering new recipes for my favorite Italian dishes.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

I am inspired most by my parents who understood the importance of interaction with other cultures at a young age, and ensured that we regularly traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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About the author

Ayana Byrd writes about people, ideas and companies that are groundbreaking and innovative.

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