WHILE many of their classmates headed off after school to basketball practice or home to watch TV, one group of teenagers recently traveled through drizzly rain to the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston's Back Bay to talk about Shakespeare. Deep within the cluttered confines of this professional theater, the students sat around a long rectangular table, munching cookies and critiquing the current production of ``The Merry Wives of Windsor.''
``I thought [the action] was very heavily weighted stage left,'' said one girl, about one scene in the play. And ``in the first three or four scenes, the actors' rhythm was off.''
Such technical comments were the norm during this meeting of the Young Critics Institute, part of the Huntington's broad educational program. The students' insights stemmed from an intensive study of the play and first-hand contact with the director and production staff, as well as from lively debate among group members themselves.
The free, seven-week seminar encourages ``high-level thinking,'' says Pamela Hill, education director at the Huntington. ``It's more of an analytical humanities course. Writing is an integral part of it, but the critical thinking process is more important.''
For the last four years, the institute has been one of the most popular and widely acclaimed aspects of the Huntington's outreach to area school children. Students have to apply to be admitted and receive free tickets to the shows.
Under Ms. Hill's guidance, the young critics attend rehearsals, watch scenery being built, and have discussions about the play, led by a teacher from the local area. After opening night, each student writes a review of the performance.
Being a critic isn't easy, says Leah Oppenheim, a sophomore from Brookline High School. ``You can't just say it was bad or good - you have to say why.'' Though she enjoys watching plays, Leah is not bound for Broadway. ``I did this more because I'm interested in writing,'' she says. In addition, ``It's neat to talk to the people who work behind the scenes.''
For ``The Merry Wives of Windsor,'' the kids got to chat with the director, Edward Gilbert, the managing producer, the set designer, the sound man, the head carpenter, and a Shakespearean scholar who ``explained some of the jokes that we didn't get,'' says Jamie Martin, a Brookline freshman.
Jamie remembers one point Mr. Gilbert had made. ``He said that whenever he talks to a group of people about theater, he holds up the book and says, `What is this?' and most people say `It's a play.' But he says, `No! It's a book.''' The play, in other words, is ``really a collaborative effort,'' says Jamie.
Although he sees live theater only rarely in his free time, Jamie says he is more confident about his critiquing abilities. ``Now I feel I have the grounds to disagree with the critics in the newspaper, whereas before, I felt guilty for not agreeing with them, like, `Did I miss something?'''