About six months ago, Borrelli and some of the actors in the ASC started to bounce around an idea to do outreach programs in the community, to help high school students better understand the works of the greatest playwright of all-time, William Shakespeare.
"Shakespeare wasn't meant to be read off a page," Borrelli said. "It's meant to be read out loud and performed. It's tough enough growing up and going to high school. We thought we wanted to present something to kids that they can relate to, rather than despising it."
The ASC then formed a teaching group called Shakespeare WINS (Will in Neighborhood Schools)!, which was designed to make Shakespeare's works more fun for the students and enable them to understand what the actors do.
"We bring what we do exactly into the classroom," Borrelli said. "It's very interactive and much better than just letting them read the text themselves."
Borrelli said that Shakespeare WINS! has appeared in classrooms in Hoboken, Jersey City and recently, they made a two-day workshop appearance to ninth graders at Weehawken High School.
The group will perform "Romeo & Juliet" at the DeBaun Auditorium next month (as well as a performance of "The Three Musketeers"). Shakespeare WINS! brought the classic tale of the two forlorn teenage lovers to the students.
Borrelli and Liza Skinner, who will portray Juliet in the upcoming production, created the program on their own. They then made some calls to local schools to see if they were interested in having them come to their respective classrooms.
"I think we're able to dispel the fear of Shakespeare," Skinner said. "People think that we're speaking to rambunctious kids who are not smart enough to understand Shakespeare or are afraid of the words. But they were wonderful to work with. We were breaking down the walls of time and language and it was wonderful to see them get it."
The actors, all of whom are professionals, go to the classrooms for two consecutive days to help the students learn more about the production and more about Shakespeare. They then have invited the students to a special matinee performance of the production, scheduled for Friday, March 14, at 10:30 a.m., performed exclusively for the students they taught.
Shakespeare WINS! then returns to the same classrooms soon after they see the production, to go over what they saw.
"We go back and do the follow up to reinforce what they learned," Borrelli said. "Perhaps they can give some feedback and tell us what they got out of it."
In the past month, Shakespeare WINS! has visited Weehawken High, Hoboken High, the Horizon Teen Center in Jersey City, the Hoboken Charter School and Demarest Middle School. The tour has been funded by Hudson United Bank.
"The kids have really been enthusiastic," Borrelli said. "Without their energy, we don't have a program. The kids are into it, asking questions. We've had a really good response. Some of the schools can't wait to have us come back."
All of the actors in the group are pursuing a professional acting career and take their craft very seriously.
"If we can turn one kid onto Shakespeare, then we've done our job," said actor Jordan Meadows, who will play D'Artagnan in "The Three Musketeers." "It's really been great working with the kids, like a dream. I never had a chance to get truly exposed to Shakespeare until college. I read 'Hamlet' in high school and we read it like a piece of literature instead of it being a play. The kids were really interested and into it."
The actors did some scenes with the students and actually taught them to hurl insults at each other, albeit Elizabethan style.
"That was really interesting, insulting each other in Shakespearian style," Weehawken High School teacher Joanne Nilo said. "The kids loved it and had a lot of fun."
Nilo said most of the students were aware of the premise of "Romeo & Juliet" from seeing the recent movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
"They knew the story," Nilo said. "They just had to get through the language. The age is almost perfect, because Romeo and Juliet were right around their age. It's not like the ending came as a surprise to them."
At first, the students were a little skeptical about learning Shakespeare.
"I really didn't know much," said Oscar Lee of Weehawken. "I knew about 'Romeo & Juliet,' but I never read anything before. But this acting group made it interesting and easier to understand. I look forward to reading more of his work. It was a fun experience and I learned a lot. I think everyone had a good time."
"I felt that I was not going to understand the language," said Fabiola Valle. "But when they acted it out and explained what was going on, I definitely could relate to it. I thought Shakespeare is exquisite. The way he portrays tragedy and drama is very interesting. I look forward to seeing the show performed. Seeing them perform in the classroom makes you want to see more."
Skinner was impressed with the way the kids responded.
"It was really wonderful to see the kids get into it so much," Skinner said. "It was really rewarding."
The Actors Shakespeare Company's productions of "Romeo & Juliet" and "The Three Musketeers" will be performed at the DeBaun Auditorium on the campus of Stevens from March 7 through 16. The group will perform Romeo & Juliet March 7 at 8 p.m., Sat. March 8, at 8 p.m., and March 16 at 3 p.m. The Three Musketeers will be performed Sat. March 8 at 2 p.m., Sunday March 9 at 3 p.m. and Saturday March 15 at 2 and 8 p.m. For further information, contact the theater at (201) 216-8960.