Updated: Oct 23
In honor of National Make a Difference Day, we’re introducing Shakespeare in the Courts - a program that uses Shakespeare to make a difference in the lives of juvenile offenders!
How it Started
Over thirty years ago. Paul Perachi is a “regular ‘ole” Massachusetts high school principal who asks Kevin Coleman from Lenox’s renowned Shakespeare & Company to create a theatre program for students.
Years roll by. Then…
1997. Massachusetts’ Berkshire County Juvenile Court is birthed, with Perachi as its first justice. The clock manages to fit in a few ticks before Perachi calls up Coleman: “This thing we did in the high school, doing Shakespeare with kids, could we do that with the court kids?” And with this, the years-long generation of a revolutionary program commences.
2001. Same county. A group of teens acquitted of lower-level offenses, such as assault & battery, are spared from incarceration & community service. Upon entering the room, they’re handed real swords - No shield. A far-off voice commands them to face one another... And duel.
They were the first of hundreds.
2017 - Kevin Coleman and students in rehearsal for "Macbeth"
What It Looks Like
The Shakespeare in the Courts’ program typically lasts 6 weeks, with 12 hours of "rehearsal" each week. Before blocking the show, the teachers/directors guide the teens through the text, staying mindful of numerous participants’ lack of previous exposure to theatre/Shakespeare and/or inability to read at their grade level. This literacy lesson helps students understand the language beyond surface level, relating their own life experiences to characters & plot events... One may wonder if this personalization work more greatly influences the student's acting performance or way of life? Either way, it certainly seems to affect the teens an awful lot.
An education artist, right, coaches three young women as they rehearse the roles of witches for “Macbeth"
What’s the Point?
Looking back, Perachi recounts, "When I became a judge, I thought, these are the same kinds of kids I saw as a principal, they just come before me under different circumstances." He hoped to promote self esteem, communication skills, and self control. According to feedback, the program quickly accomplished all of these goals and more!
Not only do the young adults develop confidence and friendships but they also learn to deal with certain personal issues, such as anger and stress management. For instance, coming into the program, the participant playing Ophelia always ran away from stressful situations. But by the end of the course, before the show started, the nervous girl positioned herself backstage by a receptacle. “She said she was so nervous she was going to throw up,” Coleman remembers. “But she wasn't running away. She was committed to the production and going to stay with it. That was a profound change."
Kevin Coleman notes, “I can't say the program will 'fix' them or that they won't make bad choices. But they will make fewer bad choices. What's important is that the program changes these kids. Those who were fighting are now taking care of each other. They apologize if they've hurt someone. They don't run away.”
Just listen to 15 year old Miranda: "You can get over your fears.When I heard I had to come here, I thought I'd be defiant, rude, and not do anything. It turned out, I actually enjoy being here. I'll be back, even if it's not court ordered."
Rehearsal for "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Though the program has proven profitable for its participants and has won a “Coming Up Taller” award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, handfuls of onlookers remain skeptical. “They think we’re coddling them,” says Paul Perachi. “Whether they’re placed on probation or whether they’re sent away, someday going to come out, come back into the same environment and if we don’t help them get some new skills they’re going to continue on to a life of crime."
An education artist works with young students on a new scene during a break-out session during “A Midsummer Night’s Dream" rehearsal
Check out the clips below for more information right from those in the program!
Do you know there are other programs that use Shakespeare in prisons - juvenile & otherwise?
Photography by Jessica Hill & CBS News
The Berkshire Eagle. "Shakespeare In The Courts': Juvenile Court Gives Kids Second Chance Through Shakespeare".
CBS News. "Massachusetts Juvenile Offenders Offered Shakespeare -- Instead of Jail".
Voa News. "Juvenile Offenders Sentenced to Shakespeare".
The Seattle Times. "For Juveniles Sentenced to Shakespeare, the World’s a Stage".