From the moment the Elgin-based Janus Theater Company opened in 1999, founder and director Sean Hargadon has always stressed the importance of education and development.
"It's one of the things that's driven the company from the beginning -- education, training and development of people," he said. "That's a part of who we are."
Now, Hargadon said, the Janus Theater Company is starting to shift its focus even more onto the educational aspect of theater, and he is bringing forth a new method for aspiring actors to learn the works of William Shakespeare.
From July 26 to Aug. 2, Hargadon traveled to Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, for a weeklong intensive as part of Teaching Shakespeare, a program through the University of Warwick in collaboration with Royal Shakespeare Company artists and associates. The program is for educators and teaching actors and focuses on using active, on-your-feet techniques to teach the Shakespeare material.
"That's what's really amazing about the program is how it gets you out of your head and into your body. You connect with the material in a way that's not stuffy, it's not too intellectual; it's in a real, meaningful way," Hargadon said.
He said these techniques fit well with the practices of the Janus Theater Company -- which has a main goal to help younger generations appreciate Shakespeare and also equip them with the tools to work with his plays without feeling intimidated.
"At the end of the day, it's about appreciating, understanding and connecting."
Sarafina Vecchio of Huntley recently received a postgraduate award in the Teaching Shakespeare program and works closely with Hargadon through the Janus Theater Company in putting on workshops and intensives for kids and young adults. She said it is extremely important to educate younger generations about the Shakespearean style of acting.
"(Shakespeare) is theater at its finest," Vecchio said. "Kids are always so afraid of the Shakespeare unit, so it's kind of our goal to get kids to really break that barrier and connect it to their world."
In the week he spent in Europe, Hargadon said, he was immediately immersed in a Shakespearean culture, which helped him gain a better understanding of his work.
"It just kind of seeps into your pores," he said.
He attended performances, participated in workshops and exercises, and worked through Shakespeare's material in small groups -- techniques that he hopes to bring back to the city of Elgin, he said.
"It's actually like I'm bringing a gift back home that I get to share," Hargadon said. "I'm part of a larger tradition. I discovered something that I need to show you, that I need to teach you. It's very exciting."
In addition to spending a week in England working with the master teachers and leaders, Hargadon said, he has also been reading, writing and researching as part of his studies. A large part of the program is done through online Webinars, he said, and when he completes the program, he will receive a master of arts degree in the Advanced Teaching of Shakespeare.
Finding a graduate program that was suitable for his schedule was difficult, Hargadon said. Aside from working at the Janus Theater Company, he works in corporate communications for the United States Postal Service. He also has a family -- two young children, Maddie and Will, and his wife, Erin -- who encouraged him to pursue his advanced degree, he said.
Hargadon's involvement in the community doesn't end with the Janus Theater Company. He has been an active member of the Elgin Arts Commission and the Downtown Neighborhood Association for many years, and he helps to put on various festivals in Elgin, often those relating to the arts.
"He just does the work because he believes in it, because he loves it so much," Vecchio said. "I couldn't work so closely doing what we do with anybody else."
Hargadon said the Janus Theater Company has played a significant part in developing the artistic, urban feel of downtown Elgin. The theater has put on about 55 productions throughout the Chicago area since its inception, he said, and it has grown to become a steppingstone for aspiring actors.
To Vecchio, the Janus Theater Company has a responsibility to draw awareness to the arts.
"The arts are important for everyone to be exposed to, to learn more about our society and how we relate to each other on a human level," Vecchio said. "Elgin itself is filled with so many talented artists, and I think it's really, really important that they all bond together and try to create as much art as possible."
In the past few years, the Janus Theater Company has put on student productions, through which students are able to adapt classical work like Shakespeare plays into faster, more modern material, Hargadon said. This allows them to take ownership of the work, he said, adding that he wants to continue that practice moving forward.
"(The students) like the fact that it's an open, magnanimous environment," Hargadon said. "It gives them an opportunity to say what they think about a particular play, and they know it has value, and we use it. That's really refreshing."
The Janus Theater Company is currently working multiple productions that students will perform at upcoming festivals in the area, including in the Elgin Fringe Festival, an arts festival that will take place Sept. 11-14 in various downtown venues.
Later this year, Hargadon said, he wants to put on workshops that focus more on the techniques he learned while he was in Stratford-upon-Avon.
"We're trying to provide workshops that are affordable to give students a chance to do this kind of work," Hargadon said. "There are no right or wrong answers; it's all about doing. It's about working with other people and being a part of an ensemble.
"And all these skills I've been learning, I want to pass on to the (Janus Theater Company)."