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Rochester youth find consequence and conscience in ‘Macbeth’


The three teenage actors on stage are working through Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," a crucial scene in the tragedy. Lady Macbeth, tormented by guilt and sleepwalking, can't clean her hands of the deaths of King Duncan and others who have stood in the way of the ambitions of her and her husband.

With three adult women standing close behind and whispering lines into their ear, the students — Arikia as Lady Macbeth, Anastasia as the Gentlewoman, and Eva as the Doctor — strive to project their presence on stage.

But that's not the only activity in the small theater at Wilson Foundation Academy. Other adults are helping students go over action and lines for their own scenes, and there's some talking going on in the back of the room and outside in the hallway.

"To bed, to bed. There's knocking at the gate. Come, come. Give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone," Lady Macbeth says, exiting the stage, as the Gentlewoman and the Doctor look on. The scene ends, and people in the theater applaud.

Bernard Plansky, the play's director, wants to use the commotion in the theater as a teaching moment. In the actual performance, there may be people in the audience not paying attention, talking, or moving around.

"You have the freedom to use that," he says, and he tells the actors to direct their focus to the part of the room where the distraction is taking place. Then he calls Arikia, Eva, and Anastasia back to the stage to go through the scene again – but this time with three rows of boys snapping their fingers and talking. Arikia, Eva, and Anastasia meet the challenge and project their voice out over the theater.

"I love it," says Arikia, who is 16, about playing Lady Macbeth. "I feel like myself. I'm a powerful female, so I like being able to express that."

The students are rehearsing for a March 23 performance of excerpts from "Macbeth" at the Wilson Foundation Academy's theater. This is the third year for Shakespeare from the Streets, a project of Reinvesting in Youth, a program led by the Hillside Family of Agencies. RIY is a collaborative between Hillside, Education Success Network, Charles Settlement House, SWAN, and Community Place of Greater Rochester working with local 11- to 17-year-olds who are at risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system or are already involved in it. Their situations range from chronic truancy to having already been in juvenile detention.

Shakespeare from the Streets began in 2016 with "Henry V," and its participants performed excerpts from "Julius Caesar" in 2017. The program leaders want to explore students' stories and confront trauma through the lens of Shakespeare, says Jen Perry, RIY's program manager. "Macbeth's" theme of betrayal, especially by people who should keep young people safe, has stuck out this year, she says.

"Our kids often are betrayed by systems, whether it's the justice system, the social welfare system, the school system, or their family systems," Perry says.

Since the early 2000's, there's been an increase in programs connecting Shakespeare with people in the criminal justice system. Shakespeare Behind Bars, which started in 1995 and is now in facilities in Kentucky and Michigan, is perhaps one of the best known; a well-received, eponymous documentary about the program was released in 2005. The arts are often used to help people who have experienced trauma, and Shakespeare's use of language, complex stories and characters, and wide range of writing has made it easy for people to see themselves in his works.

Shakespeare from the Streets came together while Perry and retired Deputy Police Chief Wayne Harris — who could be seen helping out during last week's rehearsal — were both on a committee for the Rochester Youth Violence Partnership, a violence intervention program run by UR Medical Center. Harris's own doctor, Bernard Plansky, a physician and an avid Shakespeare lover, came in to give a presentation about work he had done staging "Henry V" in Bath with veterans battling opioid addiction.

Perry says she had previously seen the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary, and what appealed to her "was the theory of taking on a character who has had a traumatic event, and allowing that to process your own without feeling like you're processing your own."

Arikia says she's been able to express herself through Lady Macbeth. "Lady Macbeth has a temper," she says, "and I have a temper, so it's fun to be able to express that without someone yelling, 'No!'"

Sixteen-year-old Johnny is portraying Macbeth, and he says he's been pushed to tap into his own feelings and life experiences to "make the play come to life, make it more real."

Fourteen-year-old Roberto portrays the king, who was betrayed by his general. He says he has faced real trust issues in his own life, and he sees it reflected in his character. At first, he says, he thought acting would be boring, "but with more days I came, it got better, easier, knowing it more."

The actors say they like the experience, but — cue every high schooler in history — sometimes Shakespeare's language is tough. Standing behind each of the actors on stage during rehearsal is an adult, many of them caseworkers with Hillside, quietly helping with lines. It's an important lesson, Plansky says: Someone always has your back.

Plansky says he didn't know exactly how "Macbeth" would connect with the teens' issues and things that are important to them. But, he says: "The kids came up with it themselves. They said, together, this is a story about choice, consequence, and conscience."

Plansky is animated when he speaks, and decked out in a black robe, he has the somewhat-eccentric but calm manner of someone who teaches tough theater to first-time, teenage actors. He speaks a lot about the exercises and ideas to push the actors to open up and speak out, as he did when he had boys in the audience snapping and talking while Arikia, Eva, and Anastasia were on stage.

"When the words, the body, and feeling come together," Plansky says, "those words can move somebody, and move people in the world. Because: 'I have something to say.'"

The Shakespeare from the Streets performance of 10 scenes from "Macbeth" will take place Friday, March 23, at Wilson Foundation Academy, 200 Genesee Street. The performance is at 6:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.