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For juveniles sentenced to Shakespeare, the world's a stage

Associated Press logo Associated Press 3/22/2017 By DENISE LAVOIE, AP Legal Affairs Writer
In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, Kevin Coleman, right rear, director of education at Shakespeare & Co., works with a teenage man, left rear, playing the role of a soldier, as another young man, left front, portraying Macbeth, practices a sword fight with another young man, right front, portraying Macduff during a rehearsal for Shakespeare's "Macbeth," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, Massachusetts, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare onstage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) © The Associated Press In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, Kevin Coleman, right rear, director of education at Shakespeare & Co., works with a teenage man, left rear, playing the role of a soldier, as another young man, left front, portraying Macbeth, practices a sword fight with another young man, right front, portraying Macduff during a rehearsal for Shakespeare's "Macbeth," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, Massachusetts, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare onstage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

PITTSFIELD, Mass. (AP) — For some juvenile offenders, their choice is straight out of Hamlet: to act or not to act.

In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, education artist A.D. Newcomer, right, coaches three young women as they rehearse the roles of witches for Shakespeare's "Macbeth," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) © The Associated Press In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, education artist A.D. Newcomer, right, coaches three young women as they rehearse the roles of witches for Shakespeare's "Macbeth," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, Massachusetts, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare onstage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention.

In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, a young man, 17, playing the role of Macbeth, learns from Kevin Coleman, right, how to handle a sword for a scene in Shakespeare's "Macbeth," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) © The Associated Press In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, a young man, 17, playing the role of Macbeth, learns from Kevin Coleman, right, how to handle a sword for a scene in Shakespeare's "Macbeth," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Juveniles sentenced to Shakespeare read the bard's works, take on the role of one or more of his characters, come up with ideas for costumes and sets, memorize their lines, rehearse and then act out their roles for an audience of family, friends and court personnel.

In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, teaching artist Tom Giordano holds a script for a scene as youth rehearse Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) © The Associated Press In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, teaching artist Tom Giordano holds a script for a scene as youth rehearse Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

The kids almost always hate the idea of performing Shakespeare at first, but by the end of the six-week program, many say they've found new friends and a new sense of accomplishment.

In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, education artist A.D. Newcomer, rear, works with children during a break-out session to review a new scene during a rehearsal for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) © The Associated Press In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, education artist A.D. Newcomer, rear, works with children during a break-out session to review a new scene during a rehearsal for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

"Honestly, you would never catch me doing this stuff if I didn't have to, but it's taught me teamwork and to just chill out and listen," said one 17-year-old boy who will play Macbeth in a March 22 production that will include scenes and monologues from various Shakespeare plays.

In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, teenage women, both of Pittsfield, Mass., rehearse their roles of Hermia and Helena with Jennie Jadow, left, director of the Shakespeare in the Courts Program, and teaching artist Tom Giordano, right, during a rehearsal of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) © The Associated Press In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, teenage women, both of Pittsfield, Mass., rehearse their roles of Hermia and Helena with Jennie Jadow, left, director of the Shakespeare in the Courts Program, and teaching artist Tom Giordano, right, during a rehearsal of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Pittsfield, Mass. Shakespeare & Company, a theater company in Lenox, works with the courts to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Similar Shakespeare programs are offered to inmates in prisons around the country as a way of boosting self-confidence and literacy.

In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, Berkshire Juvenile Court First Justice Joan McMenemy poses for a photograph in front of a portrait of retired Judge Paul Perachi in Pittsfield, Mass. Perachi had worked with Shakespeare & Co., a theater company in Lenox, Mass., to develop a program to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. McMenemy has continued the program. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) © The Associated Press In this Thursday, March 2, 2017 photo, Berkshire Juvenile Court First Justice Joan McMenemy poses for a photograph in front of a portrait of retired Judge Paul Perachi in Pittsfield, Mass. Perachi had worked with Shakespeare & Co., a theater company in Lenox, Mass., to develop a program to get youngsters who run afoul of the law sentenced to perform works of Shakespeare on stage as an alternative to community service or juvenile detention. McMenemy has continued the program. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

For the past 17 years, Shakespeare in the Courts has been used to sentence youths accused of a variety of lower-level crimes, including larceny, assault and battery and vandalism. In 2007, the program won a national "Coming Up Taller" award from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

The probation officers, teachers and others who work in the program hope it will help the teens respect the feelings of others, fulfill a commitment and foster a sense of pride.

"I never really tried acting or theater, so coming in, it was challenging," said the 17-year-old playing Macbeth, shortly after practicing the famous sword-fighting scene during a recent rehearsal at a Pittsfield church.

The Associated Press is not using the teens' names because they are minors and their identities are protected by the court.

The program was started by Paul Perachi, a former high school principal who recruited the theater company to work with his students. Years later, after he became a judge, Perachi asked the theater group to develop a Shakespeare program for juvenile offenders.

Since then, Kevin Coleman, a founding member of Shakespeare & Company, has worked with more than 300 teenagers, many who have struggled with poverty and family issues.

"We take baby steps into it, because they'd rather go to jail than be involved in this project," Coleman said.

"We get them to work together as a group, getting them to talk about themselves, getting them to name feelings. And then, bit by bit, we start with small bits of text, then larger amounts of text, then individual soliloquies and then group scenes."

During a recent rehearsal, three girls appeared to relish their roles as witches in "Macbeth," creeping and crouching, then leaping around a small table. "Fair is foul, and foul is fair!" they chanted.

Only a handful of teens have refused to participate or dropped out before finishing the program, Coleman said. Those teens have been sent back to the judge to be resentenced to community service or another alternative program.

Juvenile Court Judge Joan McMenemy said the program stems from a rehabilitative approach to juvenile justice.

"This just broadens their horizons beyond what they could have had if they had been sentenced to pick up trash on the side of the road or other community service options," McMenemy said.

The program's success is difficult to measure because the court hears only occasional anecdotal information about what the participants do later in life. But McMenemy said one indicator of success may be the huge smiles on the kids' faces when they stand on stage after their performance and hear applause from their family, friends and teachers.

"I think it gives them confidence to overcome their fears, get up on stage and knock it out of the park," she said.

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