Teaching that the world's a stage

Program's teens learn from Bard

'These are adolescent boys, after all. . . . Really, this is just another opportunity for them to express themselves in a different way.' -- Robert Walsh (center), shown with Gary Abrams (left) and Evan Gentler. "These are adolescent boys, after all. . . . Really, this is just another opportunity for them to express themselves in a different way." -- Robert Walsh (center), shown with Gary Abrams (left) and Evan Gentler. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / March 15, 2009
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A bedspread and some other pieces of cloth cover the TV, the overhead fluorescent lights, and the doorway to the bathroom, while cast members and teachers play percussive instruments to set the mood. We're inside the Eliot Short-Term Treatment center in Roxbury, a residential facility run by the Department of Youth Services, where more than a dozen teenage boys are performing three scenes from William Shakespeare's "Othello," before an audience of teachers and some staff from the Actors' Shakespeare Project.

Most of the actors hold onto their scripts and speak shyly at first, but when there's an opportunity for some action - falling down drunk or stage fighting - every one of them is eager to get the job done.

"Yo, Cassio," shouted one cast member to another at the end of a scene. "I thought it was real. Good job."

The performance was the culmination of a monthlong collaboration between Robert Walsh, of the Actors' Shakespeare Project, and Evan Gentler, who teaches English at the facility, in a program called Unlocking the Light, which integrates arts into juvenile justice education. The goal of the program, says Derek Fenner, project coordinator for Unlocking the Light, is to link artist-educators with DYS teachers to find creative ways to motivate and engage students. Ranging in age from 12 to 19, this facility is the final stop in the juvenile criminal justice system for these young men, who have committed crimes, many of which involve drugs and theft. The teens spend from three to nine months at Eliot as a transition back to their regular lives.

"This is the third year I've worked with Evan," said Walsh, "and I think we've discovered ways to help each other get the idea of Shakespeare's story across both in his classroom and on our stage. It's also an opportunity for these students to be creative and work together, even though their age range goes from 12 to 19."

Shakespeare's tragedy "Othello" follows the noble general who is sabotaged by his jealous lieutenant Iago. Through Iago's deception, Othello believes his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful and murders her. The three scenes from "Othello" selected for the production touch on themes very familiar to these boys, said Walsh, including being set up, and having your reputation ruined and acting without thinking.

"It's about consequences," said 15-year-old Alex.

Walsh said it can be tricky getting the boys to perform in front of one another. "These are adolescent boys, after all," Walsh says. "But I found this group has a really good dynamic. They are all in class together and have a lot of interaction together and they tend to pay attention to each other in a good way. Really, this is just another opportunity for them to express themselves in a different way."

This year, rather than simply performing one scene, Walsh decided to expand to three scenes. He divided the residents into three separate groups, which gave them the opportunity to see different people play the same part.

After watching the Laurence Fishburne/Kenneth Branagh film of "Othello," the teens could choose a particular role or have one assigned to them.

"I chose Cassio," Othello's lieutenant who is promoted over Iago, "because he had a lot of lines," said 17-year-old Darren, who had nearly all of them memorized. "But he's also complicated, and he changed over the course of the play."

"I chose Gratiano [Desdemona's uncle] because he was more chilled," said 15-year-old Jasard, who said he'd done acting in his high school. "I like getting up there and pretending to be someone else."

The cast then works on the scenes as actors would for any other production. "We do table work, talk about blocking, and do some improvisation," said Walsh, "so they have a chance to put the scene in their own words."

"My favorite part of the play was the fight scene," said 17-year-old Jose. "We changed it a little when we were doing it, but I liked the way it really looked like we were hitting each other."

Neurel, a 15-year-old who played Othello, said he wasn't always in the mood during rehearsals, but "you get amped up with an audience watching. I think we did a better job because of that."

History teacher and educational coordinator Gary Abrams says: "This is a locked facility, but with only 20 residents, it doesn't feel like a prison. I also try hard to connect with programs like Unlocking the Light, or field trips to the Museum of Science and other places to give them a chance to feel like high school students anywhere. These kids are tough, and they've had their childhood taken away from them, but they're still kids."

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