PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Minutes before an 11th-hour rehearsal is scheduled to begin, a group of first-time actors are chatty and nervous about their roles in Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
Sixteen-year-old Jesus introduces himself as his character in the play.
“I am Nym, the drunken idiot!” he proclaims, cracking up.
Jesus, along with the dozen or so other kids here, is also a juvenile offender. (I’ve been asked to refer to them by their first names to protect their privacy.) They fill a circle of chairs in a church just a block away from the Berkshire Juvenile Court in Pittsfield. As they wait for “check-in,” they snack, joke, flip middle fingers at each other and create some real-life drama of their own.
Jesus gets into an argument with another 16-year-old who rolls into rehearsal a little late. “You almost got me in trouble,” he says, then repeats, “My probation officer told me that you almost got me in trouble!”
All of the actors here have probation officers. Some have been sent to lock-up. One girl is under house arrest and wears an ankle bracelet. Jesus — sporting an over-sized red hoodie and a slight shadow of facial hair — says he was convicted for beating someone up.
“Yea, it’s not good,” he says. “It was assault and battery with a deadly weapon.”
Jesus admits he was shocked when the judge sentenced him to six intense weeks of Shakespeare.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is Shakespeare? I don’t want to do no damn Shakespeare. Shakespeare is whack.’ ”
But then Jesus came here, he says, “And, I seen all my friends, and then Kevin, I love Kevin. Kevin’s my boy. It’s the only reason why I come, it’s cause of Kevin.”
Jesus is talking about Kevin Coleman, a co-founder of Shakespeare & Company in nearby Lenox, where he’s also the education director. Coleman runs the “Shakespeare in the Courts” program. He muses: “To be sentenced to perform in a Shakespeare play is a little, um, unimaginable.”
When the kids first enter the program, Coleman says they’re moody, unmanageable and angry. He and a team of two other directors work hard to wrangle the rambunctious, fledgling actors so they’re ready for their mandatory stage debut.
Over the course of six weeks, though, most of the kids get with the program, according to Coleman. After a warm-up, the tall, thin, arts educator drills them on their lines from “Henry V.”
“One line from the play, we’ll go around this way,” Coleman yells out. “One line, yours or somebody else’s from the play, then we’ll repeat it.”
Jesus steps up and forcibly proclaims, “Pish!”
The whole group repeats the Shakespearean word — in unison — and on it continues, around the circle.
Juvenile Court Judge Paul Perachi offers his own line from a different Shakespeare play when I asked him about “Shakespeare in the Courts.” “As McDuff is quoted in ‘MacBeth’ as saying, ‘I have no words / My voice is in my sword,’ ” he says.
Perachi says that quotation describes many kids who resort to violent or criminal behavior. Ten years ago, he and Coleman dreamed up this idea of forcing juvenile offenders to “do time” with the bard — three hours a day, four days a week, for six weeks — or get locked up.
“They don’t know how to communicate their feelings,” Perachi says, “and in frustration, they lash out with a clenched fist, a shod foot, a weapon, a baseball bat or whatever’s available.”
But here — and especially in a play about war like “Henry V” — these kids are supposed to get violent in a safe way, according to Perachi. He says pretend sword fighting and battle scenes somehow help the kids learn to talk and manage their anger.
During rehearsal the kids run around the room, playing out the battle of Agincourt. Jesus slices and stabs at the air around his friend — the same guy he was arguing with at the beginning of rehearsal.
Jesus believes his six-week bout with Shakespeare has affected him. He admits that even earlier this day he punched a locker at Pittsfield High in rage — instead of an antagonistic classmate. But six weeks ago Jesus says, “I would’ve hit him. Boom! Not one word, just hit him.”
So I ask Jesus: is this program teaching him patience, self-control?
“Yeah,” he answers, “I guess. Yeah.”
And his friend, a blue-eyed 16-year-old named James, says doing Shakespeare has changed his act, too.
“I’m doing better in school,” he says. But for him this experience is doing more than that.
“Am I allowed to say whatever I want?” he asks, then continues, “I don’t know, it just gives me something to do after school so I’m not selling drugs.”
And while this award-winning juvenile program appears to be transformative, Coleman says it’s not a silver bullet.
“There’s an unspoken question hovering in the background,” he says. Then he asked it: “Does this fix them? It doesn’t fix them. This program is not designed to fix them. And that’s not our goal.”
The goal, he says, it to open these kids up so they can shake off their armor, even for a little while. Even with the chance that they might re-offend. But, as Coleman explains it, he and his team from Shakespeare & Company aren’t therapists.
“But Shakespeare — oh God, I’ll get in such trouble for saying this — I would say Shakespeare is a really good therapist,” he says. “His insights are profound, they reveal human nature so accurately. I mean, they’re working with about the best therapist they could ever have in doing these plays.”
The kids will be doing “Henry V” Tuesday night, with a song in Latin, on stage at the company’s Founders’ Theater. The audience will be filled with their parents, probation officers and Perachi.
The now-retired judge hasn’t missed a single “Shakespeare in the Courts” performance in 10 years.