In juvenile justice facilities across the country, creative healing is happening through an unexpected source: the work of William Shakespeare. These 400+ year old plays are helping youth explore their identities and find opportunities for healing through the Shakespeare in American Communities program.
Just how does Shakespeare help young people express themselves, connect to others and transform? The answer is in the resonant words, themes, and characters present in plays like “The Tempest.” At the beginning of the show, Caliban, who has been forced against his will to serve Prospero, a newcomer to Caliban’s island, explains his circumstances via a lament:
I loved thee, and show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so! …
First was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ the island.
Reading those words aloud, feeling the shapes they make in your mouth — the cutting “sty,” dancing “brine-pits,” radiant “mine own king” — you may find that they become firmer, more real in your own voice. You may begin to feel Caliban’s deep remorse, his powerful and painful regret at being isolated and forced under Prospero’s will.
That’s intentional, says Keith McGill, a lead facilitator at Kentucky Shakespeare’s Juvenile Justice program, which is funded in part by Shakespeare in American Communities.
Keith McGill teaches at Clark County Clementine B. Barthold Juvenile Detention Center
“When you say the words of someone, the words become a part of you,” says Keith. “Once [my students] say the words, they can be like ‘oh, I’m not a monster on an island where a guy does magic, but I feel this. I felt betrayed by somebody; I have to stay on a rock and that rock is called Clark County Juvenile Center.’”
Twice a week, Keith McGill works with around a dozen teenagers at the Clark County Clementine B. Barthold Juvenile Detention Center in the Indiana Department of Correction, which is across the river from Kentucky in Jeffersonville, Indiana. The juvenile program started in 2008, but 2021 was its first year at the Clark County facility. Many residents are awaiting trial.
Every session is different, McGill says. Often, he will start by asking the group a question. “What do you like on your pizza?” Sometimes they go a bit deeper: “Tell me about a time you surprised yourself.” A theatrical warm-up game is played, such as charades. Made-up Shakespearan insults are concocted and hurled across the room; storytelling is improvised. Then, they talk about Shakespeare, usually digging into stand-alone scenes, since participants come and go with trial proceedings. McGill tells the story before reading a word of text.
“You can’t come in and be like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society,” McGill laughs, “because they’ll be like ‘okay, you’re full of crap.’” Instead, he keeps it simple. “We’re going to tell some stories, I’m going to try to get you out of the humdrum of the rest of the day. Showing up is huge for me. If you show up and listen, and that’s what you can do, that’s cool. But I feel like you can do more. It’s a slow process. And then the people that have bought in start to carry the group.”
Listening & Learning
According to the ACLU, on any given day there are 60,000 children locked up in juvenile facilities in the U.S. Every year, an estimated 218,000 young people spend time in detention facilities. Children of color, particularly Black children, continue to be overcriminalized and are 2.4 times more likely to be arrested than white children.
Ashley Cabrera, a Kentucky Shakespeare Artist Educator
Because of the pandemic, students are not able to receive visitors at the Clark County facility. That means their interactions with adults are limited to those employed by the state. McGill is one exception. While facility-mandated counseling, therapy, and life skill sessions offer students the opportunity to reflect, as a third party McGill says he tries to provide a space where students can learn in a different way.
“There are so many extenuating circumstances for why juveniles commit crimes,” he says. “[They] have experiences that I will probably never have and vice versa. But what I’ve observed is that [offending] is a losing game.”
Decreasing the rate of recidivism for participants is a noted goal of the program. Shakespeare Behind Bars, a similar program, has proven to be effective in that way, with participants re-offending at a rate of just six percent. But McGill says Shakespeare isn’t magic. Good outcomes come when students listen and are listened to. When they are able to use the experiences of others, fiction or not, to reflect on their own trajectories.
“If you are willing to figure out that you can find a place for yourself in the world, to listen to the lessons of other people in the circle, that will then lead you to think [about whether you] want to keep [offending],” he explains. “If you get heated up like Romeo does, what’s a better choice? What could Romeo have done differently?”
Bad Guys & Beyond
Why has Shakespeare’s canon persisted over centuries and continents? While the plots vary, there are trends. In tragedies, usually one or two people set something in motion and realize too late after they have lost control. It is the job of the observer to determine how one decision led to the next — how consequences piled into tragedy. In comedies, somebody gets married and the bad guy faces consequences.
“What’s interesting about Shakespeare’s comedies is the bad guy isn’t always the bad guy,” McGill explains. Class will sometimes begin with a monologue from “one of those characters that is supposed to be horrible.” Caliban, for example, is labeled a monster by his captors, “which is just a metaphor for foreigners, outsiders,” McGill says. He asks students to wonder why someone might be considered a bad guy. How do circumstances influence negative choices? How does society influence how someone is treated? This question is not limited to the text. When there is conflict in the facility, McGill listens closely to how it is discussed in the group and pulls in a larger narrative.
“What you do results in what happens,” he says. “I don’t want to shame anybody. Like, ‘you’re a criminal, or you did that horrible thing therefore you’re a horrible person.’ I’m constantly saying ‘you are not what you’ve done, [but] there are consequences.’”
Optimism & Agency
Google the words “creativity” and “healing” and thousands of results appear, ranging from group therapy circles, to self-help books, to academic studies. One organization called Justice Art Coalition unites currently and formerly incarcerated artists to “reimagine justice.” “Creative expression is essential to healing, reconciliation, and community-building,” the website states. “Participation in the artistic process significantly affects a person’s self-worth and sense of purpose and meaning.”
Work from youth during a Kentucky Shakespeare session
Over his years working artistically with incarcerated adults, McGill has noticed that many are at a stage of working to forgive themselves. Adults can usually see how actions resulted in circumstances, whereas young people who are accustomed to having decisions made for them may not fully conceptualize where they have agency.
“As you get older, the consequences of your choices just get harder,” he says. “With youth it is ‘how do I choose to not come back here.’ With adults it is ‘how do I deal with a situation that I can’t get out of.’”
For someone to feel agency over their lives, first there has to be optimism. But optimism doesn’t mean being blind to the world, McGill says. “Optimism is [knowing] stuff is going to happen but also knowing I can do something about some of the stuff just by how I receive it and what I try to do to change it.”
Sometimes optimism means understanding that you are not the only one who has ever gone through something, or felt a certain way. Shakespeare’s stories have been told for over 400 years for a reason – the themes and struggles still resonate to this day. As you read along, you can realize that “You’re not the only one who has done this. You don’t have to feel like there is something wrong with you, “ says McGIll. ”You can actually make your life better.”
McGill sees optimism as a potential byproduct of the program, not an explicit goal. The goal, really, is to have fun. Fun enough that kids want to listen, to be a part of it, to read the words aloud.
“You are a different person for a page and a half,” he says. “You are not somebody who has committed some felony. You’re not a person who is being told when to eat, when to bathe, when to sleep, when to go to school. For just that moment, you get out of your circumstances.”
SONNET CREATED BY THE STUDENTS
Their watchful eyes watch all we do right now.
A lonely place—we feel no trace of love.
Together, we can change our path somehow.
Talking to clouds, waiting for words above.
Keep faith and know our paths don’t define us.
The choice that I make do not own me.
With hope, we can put our past behind us.
Fake friends make white walls—Rather be lonely.
So, take a stand and make a change for greatness.
Let’s go to school and get an education
We must be quick; we have no time for lateness.
Till then, we have to learn how to be patient.
The future is bright, where it once was bleak.
We need a change—time to stand up and speak!
Kentucky Shakespeare is a Shakespeare in American Communities grantee.
Shakespeare in American Communities is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.