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Lockdown Theatre For Autistic Audiences

June 18, 2020

Kelly Hunter runs Flute Theatre, a company that creates game-based Shakespeare productions for autistic individuals and their families. Their work is made using Hunter’s self-developed “heartbeat method”, which uses the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language to create a soothing sense of calm. Iambic pentameter is “essentially the rhythm of the human heart”, she says. “Having autism can feel like an extended panic attack so we use the steady heartbeat of Shakespeare to alleviate the panic.”

When lockdown began in March, it led to a change in daily routine, which is “absolutely essential for those on the spectrum” says Hunter. “The levels of anxiety, self-harm and potential harm to others rose exponentially.”

In response to these challenges, her company has created a series of games for a new interactive online performance of Pericles. The actors have been Zooming families who work regularly with Flute Theatre, work-shopping scenes from Pericles and trying out new games. They also run daily “Heartbeat Hello” sessions on Instagram, when the actors repeat the autistic audience member’s name and softly beat their heart. Alongside this, Hunter and her actors have continued their long-standing work with children at Queensmill School in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, a special school that has remained open throughout lockdown.

It was at another special school in Kent that Hunter first began working with children on the spectrum. An established member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hunter had always gravitated towards Shakespeare but had never felt completely comfortable on stage: “I knew I wanted to work in a different way with Shakespeare, and I wanted to do it in a way that could have purpose in society.” In 2001, Hunter left the acting profession and, for three years, worked with children on the autistic spectrum, searching for ways to use Shakespeare to encourage communication and create a sense of safety and belonging.

There will be 12 games in Flute Theatre’s adaptation of Pericles, including a rocking game called Fishermen and an eye-contact game when Pericles falls in love. There will also be a game where Pericles’ wife, Thaisa, is brought to life by Cerimon the magician. Before lockdown, the actors would have rocked the children in their arms during this moment. With the new online format, the children will rub their hands together very tightly, “throw their fingertips at the screen and release magic”.

There have been a few challenges transferring such a sensitive experience online – particularly the lack of touch, which can be so critical in creating an atmosphere of trust. In order to create as safe and responsive an environment as possible, Flute Theatre will perform to one family at a time. The company will also talk to the families beforehand, learn about the particular needs of each participant, and adapt the show accordingly.

The online format also has its advantages. The company works regularly throughout Europe and has been able to widen their reach even further, performing to audiences in India, America and Japan. With the actors unable to physically facilitate the games, family members – including neurotypical siblings – have become much more actively involved in the process. Enabled to interact from the comfort of their home environment, lots of the participants are speaking with much more force, clarity and expression, says Hunter. “Somehow the safety of being at home has opened up something – language wise – inside.”

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