Friday, Dec. 2, 2011

Shakespeare for Youthful Offenders

A Proposed Milwaukee County Children’s Court Shakespeare Program

By Russ Bickerstaff
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It’s a white, plastic card with a purple outline of the state of Wisconsin on it. When I first got it in the mail, it felt kind of weird literally being a card-carrying victim of violent crime in Wisconsin. That being said, getting the VINE/VOICE card from the Wisconsin Department of Correction meant taking kind of an active interest what happened to the man who attacked me after the conviction. Having read a little bit on the prison system, I think that traditional notions of getting “tough on crime,” are profoundly stupid. That’s why the Shakespeare in the Courts program currently being proposed by a committee with the Milwaukee County Board sounds like a really, really good idea to me.

The idea works something like this—a youthful offender having been convicted of a crime would, if that person qualified for the program, be paired with a professional acting coach from UWM Theatre Program. They’d work with the acting coach on an intensive six-week course that would result in a fully costumed performance for family and friends.

The idea may sound kind of weird—and there are endless jokes to be made here about Shakespeare being used as punishment, but really . . . studying the passions and motivations behind Shakespearian drama could help kids on a counter-productive life path understand the deeper motivations beyond the that life path so that they can avoid it. Perhaps an individual can avoid a towering self-inflicted tragedy in their lives by studying the amplified passions and tragedies of figures like Hamlet or Macbeth. It wouldn’t work for everyone obviously, but this could easily pull the right kind of people out of the kind of cycles that result in serious problems that perpetuate the criminal element. So I like this idea.

Interestingly enough, there was a quote by Supervisor Joseph Rice in the piece on the program in this morning’s daily . . . he said, “If I were a victim of assault with a deadly weapon and I knew the offender was sentenced to play acting, I might be offended.” Okay, so I realize that, as a theatre critic, I’m not exactly unbiased here. And it wasn't asault with a deadly weapon, but I was a victim of a physical assault—a random act of violence that caused irreparable damage to my right eye. I wish the man currently serving a two-year sentence in a medium security prison for that crime could participate in a program like this. As the assailant in question is old enough to be my father, that’s not going to happen. So he’s in prison right now—but of what use is prison for this man? It’s only keeping him off the streets for two years. After that, he’s facing the same problems he had before he attacked me. I sincerely hope that this Shakespeare in the Court program gets approved. It’s a step in the right direction for the local prison system. We need more programs like this. 

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