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Juvenile Offenders Sentenced to Shakespeare

Massachusetts teens who act out can end up in drama camp

Tim has discovered there are some aspects he enjoys about performing Shakespeare, especially the sword play.
Tim has discovered there are some aspects he enjoys about performing Shakespeare, especially the sword play.

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For most American teens, performing Shakespeare is an optional activity. For some teens in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, the course is mandatory.

"Some people are here for worse reasons than others. I'm here because of assault and battery," says Tim, 15.

Tim is among 12 teens sentenced by a juvenile court judge to participate in the Shakespeare in the Courts program. "The judge sentenced me here, so my first thoughts were, 'Shakespeare is not my thing. I'd rather not.'"

He decided the punishment could be worse. He could be picking up trash or be locked up.

Developing trust

More than halfway through the five-week program, Tim has discovered there are some aspects he enjoys about performing Shakespeare, especially the sword play.

"Assault and battery and you hand me a sword in Shakespeare? No, I didn't think that was going to happen at all. I'm glad they trust us, though."

The trust and respect director Kevin Coleman shows his young actors is returned in full. The teens clearly enjoy working with him. He has them singing in Latin, dancing to Elizabethan music and inspires them to embrace Shakespeare.

"If you present it to them in a way that engages their imagination, that engages their playfulness, that engages their willingness, they really come alive," Coleman says.

Coleman is director of education for Shakespeare and Company theater in Lenox, Massachusetts. He was first approached to develop a theater program for students more than 30 years ago by Paul Perachi, the principal of a local high school.

Kevin Coleman is director of education for Shakespeare and Company theater in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Kevin Coleman is director of education for Shakespeare and Company theater in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Perachi later became the first presiding juvenile court justice in Berkshire County.

"As soon as that happened he called me up and said, 'This thing we did in the high school, doing Shakespeare with kids, could we do that with the court kids?'" says Coleman.

"When I became a judge," Perachi says, "I thought, these are the same kinds of kids I saw as a principal, they just come before me under different circumstances." He thought that working with professionals at Shakespeare and Company would help them develop self esteem, communication skills and manage their anger.

A decade and more than 200 teens later

The first group of teens went through the program 10 years ago. Since then, more than 200 kids have been sentenced to Shakespeare, and the program has received wide-spread recognition, including a 2006 award from the White House.

There are success stories. One individual Perachi describes as "a rather violent offender" is in her third year of college.

"Even if we only have a few [successes]," he says, "it is worth it."

Kate, 17, gets fitted for her costume for Henry V.
Kate, 17, gets fitted for her costume for Henry V.

Perachi stepped down from the bench last year when he turned 70, the mandatory retirement age for judges in Massachusetts. But teens continue to be referred to the program, and Shakespeare in the Courts is still going strong under Coleman's direction.

His goal is for the kids to complete the program. Not all of them do. Some are asked to leave when they don't participate.

"They come in with a backpack full of hurt and resentment and fear and injustice," Coleman says, adding the program "is not about fixing them." He says many of them will probably get into trouble again. "Will they get into as much trouble? No."

Judge Paul Perachi, now retired, conceived of the Shakespeare in the Courts program, which he says develops good citizens.
Judge Paul Perachi, now retired, conceived of the Shakespeare in the Courts program, which he says develops good citizens.

Positive changes

That's because the teens do change.

Tim says the program has given him more patience. "How long it takes us to do scenes sometimes, we've got to be patient and get through it."

That alone may prevent Tim from ending up in court again.

All of that patience and hard work definitely pay off at the final performance, says Judge Perachi. "A lot of these kids invite their teachers of all people, and their lawyers. And their relatives and the teachers and all are proud of these kids. Everybody has got big smiles and flowers for the kids and little gifts."

For many of the young actors, it's the first time they have been praised for an accomplishment.

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