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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Recently, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele vetoed $65,000 for a Shakespeare program for juvenile offenders. (PHOTO: Mountain Cat Musings)

Funding for Shakespeare cut by an unlikely source

About six years ago I played the Prince of Aaragon in a spectacular production of the "Merchant of Venice" at Milwaukee Shakespeare.

Two nights before opening I was walking through the theater when I noticed that two seats had already been blocked off. I asked who those seats were being saved for.

Chris Abele and his wife, came the reply.

I found out quickly that Abele, one of the founders of Milwaukee Shakespeare, was the main funding source for the company and also was a major contributor and member of the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.

He was such a big deal in Milwaukee Shakespeare that when he withdrew his funding because of a bad stock market, the company folded the same day they were notified.

Now move forward a half dozen years, and the man who loved Shakespeare is now the County Executive and he has announced he will veto a little bitty program that tries using Shakespeare to help some juvenile offenders get on the right track.

Talk about irony. As the Bard either said or should have said: "Irony, thy name be a politician indebted to contrarians."

I talked to Abele this week and he admitted that there was some irony here.

"I guess you could look at it that way," he said. "But my support for Shakespeare was my money or the foundation's money. This is your money."

This wasn't really much of a program. It would pair a juvenile offender with an instructor from the UWM theater program, which has enjoyed a reputation as a world class school, and they'd work on Shakespeare.

Eventually they'd stage one of the plays. The idea, of course, is that if you show these kids something as moving and important as Shakespeare, it might help them move away from a life of crime.

And the whole thing was going to cost $65,000. The County Executive's office probably throws away $65,000 in wasted paper each year. This is what they call pocket change. Abele, though points out, "it's your pocket change."

There was an avalanche of high profile criticism, led by Sheriff David Clarke, who is probably going to run against Abele in a couple of years. He was aided by a roaring crescendo from conservative talk radio hosts who could barely contain their gleeful disgust over the idea. I had to wonder if any of these guys had ever even seen a Shakespearean play.

And I wonder what Clarke might say about his D.O.T.S. program that runs almost a million dollars a year and has almost no research or results to back it up. It's commonly referred to as the sheriff's boot camp.

I don't think Abele caved to critical chorus. One good way to look at this is it's proof that Abele is very, very serious about getting the county's financial house in order. When he pays attention to a $65,000 allocation for something that is dear to his heart, it shows that this is a man who is living up to his word.

It's not like this idea is some crazy untested notion. Programs that use theater and music and art to help kids deal with some emotional issues and behavior problems have been around for decades, with lots of evidence that they work.

Young kids who get involved in the criminal justice system aren't hardened crooks yet. There is still a chance to turn their lives around. And if anything has a chance to do it, we really ought to try.

The idea of this program might work here in Milwaukee. And it might not.

I'm pretty sure Abele would approve a trial run of this program if they came back next year with a well-thought-out, detailed plan. By the way, that's not something that actors are especially good at.

But when it costs $100,000 to keep one kid incarcerated in a state institution for one year, that $65,000 seems like a bargain if it will work. it's at least worth a try. Give it two years. If it doesn't work, "Off with its head."


hifilofi | Dec. 23, 2011 at 10:56 a.m. (report)

"This is what they call pocket change." My observation of Abele's veto of this and other County projects (Bay View public art grant) is that he is focusing on the core function of County Government. It's not so much the cost of funding the Shakespeare program, or even the perceived "return on investment" that brought Abele's veto, but a fundamental question of what County Government's function is. Does it make sense to have a level of government that runs the bus system, park system, sheriffs dept., prison system, and mental health? What ties these functions together? Is it more than coincidence that ALL of these systems are failing or on the decline? How does adding new programs and expanding responsibilities help sort out this mix? Abele gets it - if the County is going to maintain its core services that we've come to expect, it can't keep nibbling away at its problems, it needs bold changes. Adding new, little programs now will only add bureaucratic layers make it harder to improve the system down the road.

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