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For Young Offenders, a Sentence of Shakespeare's Sentences

Tim, 15, an offender in the Shakespeare in the Courts program, has found some aspects he likes, including the swordplay
Tim, 15, an offender in the Shakespeare in the Courts program, has found some aspects he likes, including the swordplay

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This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

In the American state of Massachusetts, some teenagers who break the law are sentenced -- to Shakespeare.

ACTOR: "A kingdom for a stage ... "

Twelve young actors rehearse the opening of "Henry the Fifth." They started meeting three and a half weeks ago. They have less than two weeks to go before they must perform the play for the Shakespeare in the Courts program.

Fifteen-year-old Tim was not a fan of William Shakespeare. He is here for a violent crime -- assault and battery.

TIM: "You know, the judge sentenced me here, so my first thoughts were kinda, you know, uh, this is kinda, Shakespeare's not my thing. You know, plays, kinda, you know, I'd rather not. But it's a lot easier than picking up trash, you know, and doing that, so, you know, I gave it a try."

And he discovered there is a lot to like about the English writer who died in sixteen sixteen.

KEVIN COLEMAN: "So everyone has a sword?"

TIM: "Assault and battery and you hand me a sword in Shakespeare? I didn't think that was going to happen, not at all. I'm glad they trust us, though."

The young actors return the trust and respect that director Kevin Coleman shows them. They clearly enjoy working with him -- and with Shakespeare.

KEVIN COLEMAN: "If you present it to them in a way that engages their imagination, that engages their playfulness, that engages their willingness, they come alive."

Kevin Coleman is education director for Shakespeare and Company, a theater group in Lenox, Massachusetts. Many years ago, the principal of the local high school came to him to develop a theater program for the school.

That principal, Paul Perachi, later became a juvenile court judge for Berkshire County. He wanted to copy the program, to help the teens in court develop self-esteem and communication skills and better control their anger.

More than two hundred kids have been sentenced to Shakespeare. The program is ten years old. And it has received a lot of recognition, including an award in two thousand six from the White House.

Paul Perachi left the court last year at seventy, the age when judges in Massachusetts must retire. But Shakespeare in the Courts is still going strong under the direction of Kevin Coleman.

KEVIN COLEMAN: "We're not there to fix them. So will they get into trouble after they've done this program? Sure, because they're adolescents. Will they get into as much trouble? No."

Fifteen-year-old Tim already sees a change in himself. He says he has more patience to get through long scenes.

Paul Perachi says all the hard work is clear in the final performance.

PAUL PERACHI: "You got family members, parents, siblings, grandparents, friends. A lot of these kids invite their teachers, of all people, to come in. And their lawyers. And the relatives and the teachers and all are proud of these kids. So everybody's got big smiles and flowers for the kids and little gifts."

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report. You can watch a video of this report by Susan Logue at I'm Steve Ember.