William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" opens with a brawl between the feuding Montagues and Capulets until the Prince of Verona steps in and threatens them with death if they don't stop fighting.
But what if Romeo's cousin Benvolio Montague had talked with Juliet's cousin Tybalt Capulet and agreed that they would try to convince their respective families to disarm, making themselves look like heroes in the process?
This is just one of the ways that Kansas State University theater professors have re-imagined the famous play and are using it to get teenage readers and audiences to talk about alternatives to violence.
"Romeo and Juliet is a perfect example of everything you would not want to do with people who are depressed and potentially suicidal and people who are really angry and potentially violent," said Sally Bailey, associate professor of drama and director of K-State's drama therapy program. "The way Shakespeare has structured the play, at every decision point instead of making a positive choice the characters are making a classically negative choice."
Although high school teachers are sometimes leery of teaching the play to students who might view the young characters as role models, Bailey and collaborator R. Michael Gros, assistant professor of theater at K-State, saw an opportunity.
"Understanding how violence works and how conflict resolution works, you can see 'Romeo and Juliet' as a primer to teach about what to do and what not to do," Bailey said. "It's often very hard to get teenagers to see that something that was written 400 years ago has any relevance to them. In this play the relevance is palpably felt by the students."
Bailey and Gros got a grant from K-State's Center for Engagement and Community Development to develop a curriculum that can help teachers introduce these themes to students.
Bailey and Gros took the curriculum to Topeka High School and to a K-State women's studies class. Now they are looking for as many as 10 Kansas teachers to pilot the program. With feedback from the early adopters, they hope to revise the curriculum and take it to broader audiences.
The project also involves faculty from K-State's School of Family Studies and Human Services, who helped with the curriculum from a psychological standpoint. They include: Tony Jurich, an expert on adolescents; Terrie McCants, a conflict specialist; and Sandra Stith, who specializes in family violence.
"Juliet turns 14 in this play, and Romeo is probably all of 16," Gros said. "It really is at the heart of adolescence. As we've been learning from our partners, the psychological wiring in teenagers is very, very different in how they respond to a sense of time, a sense of death, a sense of responsibility and permanence."
The curriculum includes a written portion and a video of a panel discussion with the experts. It also includes a DVD pairing original scenes with re-imagined versions. K-State students, faculty and alumni put on "Romeo and Juliet" -- set in the late Edwardian period -- as part of the theater department's spring series. The same actors performed modern versions of some scenes with re-imagined outcomes: Instead of killing Paris at Juliet's tomb, Romeo and his rival talk it out.
Gros said that the play presents an opportunity to talk not just about teen violence but also about family communication and violence. One scene involves Juliet's father threatening her with violence if she doesn't obey. In some productions, the father beats her.
At the same time, Gros said that the play offers hopeful messages. Although Romeo is dead set on wooing another girl at the beginning of the play, his cousin encourages him to keep looking. Gros said that the lesson there is to keep your eyes open and to be open to possibilities.
"Students can see themselves, but there's also a certain safety in that we are separated from these characters by 400 years," Gros said. "This is a variation of the 'I have a friend in trouble' speech. But the resonance is there, and they open up."
Shakespeare's sense of the human condition also makes "Romeo and Juliet" an ideal vehicle to talk about issues like violence, Bailey said.
"Teachers often think of it as just a tragedy," Bailey said. "They may not realize all of the psychological underpinnings, but it's so clinically accurate. Teachers know Shakespeare understands the human heart and soul, but they may not realize how incredibly crystal clearly he does."