Normally, a bunch of high school students standing across one another hurling insults back and forth wouldn’t inspire a teacher’s wanton praise.

But for producer Paul Heller (“David and Lisa,” “My Left Foot”) the experience was “magic.”

The barbs were plucked from Shakespeare plays — rhythmic iambic pentameter — and the teens were students at George Washington Preparatory High, taking part in a drama workshop led by Heller, co-chair of BAFTA/LA’s community outreach and education committee, which sponsors an entertainment mentoring program that serves Los Angeles’ inner-city youth.

“Consistency is the heart of it,” Heller says of the program, which matches mentors with students interested in the arts. “What happens so often in inner-city efforts is that people come in and spend a little time, but then they disappear. Here, the mentors were engaged, and once the kids felt that, they became excited.”

The program is, in large part, the brainchild of film and TV producer Katy Haber (“Blade Runner,” “The Sicilian”), founding board member of BAFTA/LA and Heller’s co-chair.

In summer 2005, Haber began organizing free BAFTA/LA screenings of first-run movies in Helen Keller Park, a patch of South Central near Washington Prep so known for its gang warfare that its nickname became “Helen Killer” Park.

It was a screening of Baz Luhrmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” at Washington Prep that inspired today’s ongoing Shakespeare’s Project.

“Iambic pentameter has the same rhythm as rap,” notes Haber, “and we thought, ‘Why don’t we do our own production of Romeo and Juliet?’?”

In May, with the participation of the Washington Prep drama department, the Shakespeare Project staged its student production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the amphitheater in Ladera Park.

“To the students, Shakespeare is a foreign language, and it took them a lot of work to realize they were expressing the same feelings the characters had,” says Heller of the rehearsal period. “Once they caught that, it was a revelation. Kids don’t like to express outward feelings. This gave them free rein to do it.”

London-born mentor Sherill Turner (“Love’s Labor Lost,” Shakespeare Santa Cruz) encouraged Washington Prep students to think of the Montagues and the Capulets as the Bloods and the Crips in order to get a better understanding of the play.

“That’s why this play gets done again and again,” Turner points out. “It’s this constant notion that children are dying because of their parents’ hatred. It’s always relevant. And they really tapped into that.”

A documentary showcasing BAFTA/LA’s mentoring program is in the works, and ground is set to break in February on a community center/screening room in Helen Keller Park.

Plans are also fast under way for a spring production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“The film and television business has so much to offer,” says Haber. “Why should we benefit without giving back? I strongly believe that us Brits should give back to the community.”

Britannia Awards 2011
Bard barbs inspire teens
David Yates | Helena Bonham Carter | Warren Beatty | Ben Stiller | John Lasseter