Delaware Shakespeare believes that the magic of ‘The Bard’ should be enjoyed by not just theatregoers but children of all ages — even kids who have significant life concerns. For the theatre company, this means sharing the gift of Shakespeare’s magic with young people wondering when they will be released from a detention center or if they will ever land a job.
Delaware Shakespeare (Del Shakes) recently received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to teach Shakespeare at youth detention centers across the state.
The nonprofit organization has a robust outreach program already in place. But the NEA grant allows Del Shakes to reach a community it has never served, and one that is often overlooked. It’s all part of their mission to improve the accessibility of Shakespeare’s works.
“It’s a natural for us – to unlock some of the mystery of Shakespeare and allow these children to open their minds to the wonder of his work,” said David Stradley, the producing artistic director for Del Shakes.
The program includes visits to four juvenile detention centers: The Ferris School, the Cleveland C. White School, the New Castle County Detention Center and the Stevenson House Detention Center.
The program includes 10 visits with 90-minute sessions of nonstop action when students learn the history of Shakespeare and the art of acting, with many taking on roles themselves and sometimes sharing the stage with detention center teachers and staff.
The program is already underway at the Ferris School, where one student says the Shakespeare visits are the best part of his day. “I am loving it. To me it’s like a release. It’s not every day that you get to be someone other than you. I wanted to be an actor anyway, so this is awesome to me,” an 18-year-old told us.
Veteran Delaware Shakespeare actors Michaela Shuchman and Eric Mills have visited Ferris a number of times this fall teaching students there about Romeo and Juliet – the fall production that’s currently underway at Delaware Shakespeare. After asking students to take roles in a run-through of the play, Mills asks them, “Do you hear the poetry in Shakespeare’s words?”
Mills was delighted to be asked to help guide the outreach program to adjudicated youth. “It’s very fulfilling to work with these guys. They’re smart kids. And to be able to give them exposure to the theater — I think it should be a part of every kid’s education.”
With about 10-12 boys in the class, some observe while others perform.
The Ferris student told us arguments are fairly common inside the walls of the detention center. “Obviously this is a tough crowd to teach. But Eric and Michaela are respectful, and they try to encourage the students to be active in the roles in Romeo and Juliet. And before we start acting, they do games with communicating eye contact and gestures. I also love learning about ‘stage left’ and ‘stage right.’ They give advice on anything and everything. It’s very educational,” he said.
Del Shakes will host special performances of the romantic tragedy at The Ferris School in conjunction with their studio performances.
Shuchman says there are two objectives to her instruction. “One is for them to hear and enjoy Shakespeare and see things they can relate to in their own experiences. And the other is to help with their public speaking and confidence and their collaboration with each other. They have to listen and make eye contact. Teamwork is important in sports, school and the theater.
Stradley adds that students are learning technical acting skills such as articulation, projection, breath control, and memorization. “The students are also learning creative acting skills such as character development, text analysis, and making interpretive choices,” he says.
Delaware Shakespeare will return to Ferris and Cleveland White Schools for additional 10-class sessions in early 2020 and then again at next summer at Cleveland White for workshops which will focus on The Tempest.
The Department of Services for Children, Youth, and their Families (DSCYF) is the supervising body for the juvenile justice system, and Del Shakes has worked closely with the organization for over a decade.
The nonprofit hopes that the students will identify connections between Shakespeare’s plays and their own lives. “Del Shakes has time and time again seen youth make and be surprised by these connections,” said Stradley.
“It is one of the reasons a Delaware Family Court judge asked Del Shakes to offer programs to adjudicated youth more than a decade ago: to open their eyes to the fact that the adverse experiences that have influenced many of their lives are experiences that have affected humanity for centuries, and they need not feel alone in their life situations,” he said.
“Sometimes the themes are obvious, such as youth violence in Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes the themes are less obvious but no less powerful once explored, such as the desire for revenge and the need for forgiveness and restorative justice in The Tempest,” says Stradley.
Classes will conclude with the students participating in a final sharing, during which they may choose to perform scenes from Shakespeare or their own original work relating their lives to themes they have studied.