In a heartbeat

In a heartbeat: An actor uses Shakespeare to help kids with autism play. Photo: Robin Post plays a game developed by Kelly Hunter called “Cramps” with a child during a performance of The Tempest. The game illustrates the relationship between the wizard Prospero and his servant, Caliban. Photo: Courtesy of Department of Theatre, The Ohio State University


To prepare to teach her first-ever workshop on Shakespeare, Kelly Hunter did what all serious Shakespearean actors do: she immersed herself in the text. It was the early nineties and as part of a small tour she was doing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hunter had volunteered to lead a session on Measure for Measure at a men’s prison. In the introduction to her book Shakespeare’s Heartbeat: Drama Games for Children with Autism, Hunter recalls her process prepping for the class. She dissected speeches, created scripts, and arrived at the prison with her arms full of photocopies.

Only to discover that many of the men in her workshop struggled with reading.

Still, her many hours of preparation paid off; she knew the play inside and out. From memory, she taught the men some essential lines, guided them through an improv exercise, and ultimately, a passionate discussion based on the major themes of the play emerged. Hunter did not work with the group again, but the day’s unscripted success lingered in her mind.

Nearly ten years later, Hunter had established herself as an actor in the U.K., and it was while working with the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, that she once again felt the urge to share Shakespeare’s work with a broader and more diverse population.

“I really felt that the power of Shakespeare’s language was not reaching past a very privileged audience,” Hunter said. “I wanted to take Shakespeare beyond that privileged audience and test out whether the power of the language could affect people with no access to the arts. I started my very own small company, and I worked in a special school [the Glebe School] and in that special school was a group of children with autism. We were told that we weren’t allowed to work with them because they wouldn’t be able to play because they can’t play.”

She smiles.

“I immediately wanted to work with them.”

What is autism?

Dr. Leo Kanner first described autism in the early 1940s. Autism is a neural developmental disorder characterized by two primary clusters of symptoms: difficulty with social interaction and communication as well as the presence of restrictive and repetitive interests and behaviors. The symptoms tend to present early in life, before age three. Autism is a spectrum disorder, so different symptoms present in different people in different ways—while some cases of autism are severe, requiring a great deal of intervention, others are considerably less so. A person with autism might struggle with reciprocal friendship, language, processing emotion, sharing emotion, understanding emotions as they play out on the faces of others as well as sensory sensitivity and repetitive body or motor movement. Rigidity around routine is also common. The specific cause of autism is a mystery, but research points to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism occurs in one in about every forty-five children, and autism is five times more common in boys than girls. The CDC also reports that almost half (46 percent) of children identified as having autism display average to above-average intellectual ability.

What does a neurological disorder have to do with Shakespeare? Kelly Hunter has been working with young people on the autism spectrum for years, developing a series of drama games based on the poetry, feelings, and themes found throughout Shakespeare. Called the Hunter Heart-beat Method, the games are designed to be accessible, enjoyable, and inspiring to children on the spectrum. Four centuries after Shakespeare’s death, Hunter’s work presents new questions about the plays and the characters we’ve known so well for so long: does Shakespeare possess a power that hasn’t been fully tapped? We know that he can entertain, making us laugh and sob and sigh and rage. But can the simple rhythm of the language and the potent, uncut emotions coursing through his plays possibly serve as lifelines for those struggling to express themselves?

The Hunter Heartbeat Method

“I don’t know what it is about me,” Hunter said. “But I just don’t like to take no for an answer.”

Hunter’s eyes twinkle as she remembers her determination to play drama games with that first group of children with autism. She is not easily intimidated—fear, she says, is terrible for actors. She just kept asking.

“Finally, they let me try,” she said. “And the results very, very quickly were very good. The parents and the teachers were really amazed at how responsive the children were. And I stayed with my little company for the next three years, working once a week with those children. And really those children taught me how to teach them. I learned everything I know about autism from those kids. I hadn’t met anyone with autism before that. But everything I’d wanted to experiment with—the fundamental idea of the heartbeat and the mind’s eye, reaching through to people who couldn’t communicate easily—really started to work and flourish. And so from there it’s just become a part of my life.”

Fixed in Hunter’s memory is her first encounter with what is considered by some scholars to be one of the most important publications in the history of the English language: Shakespeare’s First Folio. Published after his death to preserve his work for future generations, the Folio contains thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays. Without it, much of his work might have been lost to history. Hunter recalls reading As You Like It, moved to laughter and tears as she went.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” she said. “I didn’t have great opportunities for education when I was younger. I already left school when I was fifteen. So this experience was when I really understood that those plays are one long poem, one long exploration of what it feels like to be alive. I could really understand it and be nourished by it, in all its mysteries. I don’t try and explain Shakespeare too much. There’s so much of it you can’t explain.”

After three years at Glebe, though, Hunter was burned out and overworked. The funding for the project had run out and even though parents, she said, were disappointed the drama games were no longer available for their children, Hunter did not sense any interest in the work out-side of the school. She thought she had reached the end of a fascinating detour when just a couple years later, she was back with the RSC getting ready for a production that didn’t particularly excite her.

“I just kind of went, ‘You know what, can I just not be in that show, but instead can I use my time playing these games?’” Hunter said. “The RSC education department had seen what we were doing at the school and were quite interested, but nothing had ever really come of it. And to my complete surprise they said yes.”

The backing of the RSC gave Hunter a jolt of energy and administrative support and what proved to be a valuable connection: a longstanding educational partnership with The Ohio State University in Columbus. That would shape Hunter’s work and endeavors in the coming years. By the start of the academic year in 2011, a scientific, longitudinal research study of Hunter’s work was beginning to take shape. On board were five members of the OSU theatre department, faculty and students. That group, led by faculty member Robin Post, was to orchestrate a series of workshops with local schools in the Columbus area, playing Hunter’s specially designed games with children on the autism spectrum. Additionally, a new Ph.D. student in psychology, Maggie Mehling, guided by her advisor Dr. Marc Tassé, would run the study to see if the work yielded significant changes in the participating children.

“I had never worked with anybody on the spectrum,” Post said. “I didn’t really know anything about it, so that piece of it was particularly new. … I remember this sense of just being thrown in to kind of the unknown. Both in terms of working with children on the spectrum and also the method that Kelly uses to do that. And then there’s really a full-on, immersive, performative experience that happens in the moment. If you don’t know the work you just kind of get thrown into it. It’s kind of the experience I would imagine that the children have—that I had—on that first day, in terms of, ‘Well we’re just going for it. I don’t really know what’s going on, but we’re going for it.’”

But that initial unease dissipated quickly.

“There’s something nerve-wracking about working with any new group, whether they’re children in high school, children in college, or children on the spectrum,” Post said. “And then there’s something more anxiety-producing perhaps about working with children that seem like they might need more from you, and that you have a certain level of responsibility to take care of them. … We focus on the things that we all have at our disposal. And we all have the ability to care for other human beings and to love little kids. It’s not that hard to tap into that.”

The group began with a feasibility study, just ten kids participating in one weekly session for fourteen weeks. The goal, Mehling said, was simply to assess the needs, details, logistics, and initial response to the work. Even in that short time, data showed improvement in the participants’ social skills—and the response from the students’ families was overwhelming.

“Parents were blown away,” Mehling said. “They could not believe how much their kids enjoyed it and how happy their kids were participating and the improvements they felt they saw. Teachers were blown away. Kids said they really liked it and they would do it again if they had the chance. And that’s not something you typically hear kids say after social skills intervention. ... So we started work right away on trying to do a longer-term study.”

The group launched a year-and-a-half long pilot project, regularly playing Hunter’s games with children with autism at three different Columbus schools. Mehling was managing the study and gathering data while the actors were reviewing and revising the work. Hunter would visit periodically, and gradually, through hours of practice and trial and error, older material was strengthened and new material was developed, growing a simple series of drama games into the Hunter Heartbeat Method. Hunter recalls that early on she watched the team work with a particularly challenging group of children. Six months later, when Hunter returned to check in on the work, that group of students had been transformed.

“They were so happy to be in the room,” Hunter said. “They greeted the actors as if they were long lost friends. They sat down in the circle. They didn’t need any prompting. They did ‘hellos.’ They smiled. They grinned—they did all this stuff. They played all these games—complicated games. It was amazing. It was actually amazing. The actors didn’t really know that that had happened, like having your own child who’s growing up. You’re with them all the time. They were like, ‘Yeah, it’s okay, this is all right,’ but I really saw this really quite miraculous transformation.”

What’s in a game?

The games that comprise the Hunter Heartbeat Method are grounded in simplicity, physicality, and most importantly—fun. Each Hunter Heart-beat session follows a similar format. The group sits together in a circle; everyone places a hand over their hearts and pats the rhythm of a heart-beat as they say, “hello.” To anyone who has ever studied Shakespeare, the easy thumping matches the da-dum iambic pentameter pattern that underpins the poetry of Shakespeare’s plays. Soothing and unifying, the circle is followed by the games. The actors leading the workshop first demonstrate and then the entire room plays and then groups may share what they played. Another heartbeat circle closes the session. No scripts are used.

Hunter’s games grow out of two plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. If played in the recommended order, the essential story, characters, and relationships of each play begin to surface. Games are drawn from some of the plays’ most expressive moments and beautiful ideas: Miranda teaching Caliban to speak; Prospero tormenting poor Caliban with awful cramps; Miranda and Ferdinand falling in love at first sight; Ariel gently leading Ferdinand around the story’s island home. The games are played without a lot of preamble—the actors and leaders of the workshop set the scene and then everyone gets down to the joyful business of simply playing. Each game, however, gently exercises some of the social and other skills that children with autism struggle with, such as making eye contact, spatial awareness, personal space and boundaries, reading faces, and expressing feeling. Hunter insists that each game reach a “point of ecstasy,” or POE. In her book, Hunter observes that Shakespeare’s work is packed with “moments of transcendence” which a POE ought to reflect. She describes a POE as the magical moment when “effort culminates in achievement and it’s clear that the game has been accomplished.” The games are easy to repeat and infused with an authenticity and spontaneity that should be familiar to actors.

Photo: Kelly Hunter and actor Debbie Korley demonstrate one of Hunter’s games during a workshop at The Ohio State University. Photo by Harper Lee.

“Here’s the thing,” Hunter said. “It’s not about being exaggerated. It’s about intensifying a truth. It’s this intensification of truth rather than anything false. You could feel that you’re sort of doing childlike play because everything feels a little bit more open and expansive. It’s not ham-my. It’s not exaggeration. It’s this intense truth.”

Genevieve Simon, an OSU alum now living and performing in New York, was a member of the first team that led workshops in the Columbus schools. Simon said that many of the children seemed to benefit from the work, but a few made a lasting impression. One middle schooler routinely arrived at the sessions already playing a character: Bruce Banner’s giant, angry, green alter ego, The Hulk.

“We were trying to get him to try to actually play the characters and not just play The Hulk as Prospero or The Hulk as Miranda,” Simon said. “It was really funny, but what became very clear was that it was a safety blanket for him…. We were basically trying to show him, there’s another way you can be in the world, besides being The Hulk. You can take that character off and play this other character and you’ll still be okay. For weeks he was just like, The Hulk, The Hulk, The Hulk. … I just remember there was a day where we were sitting there and I looked over and I just realized all of a sudden, ‘I haven’t seen The Hulk in weeks.’ I love that story because I think he was a very brave kid.”

Hard days happen too. One of the hardest for her personally, Hunter said, occurred just recently when she witnessed a child have an intense meltdown. For the work to be successful, she said, it is essential that adult leaders and actors in the room be attuned to a child’s needs. The children should feel supported in the work—not pushed to do too much too quickly.

Audrey Todd has found Hunter’s method and approach refreshing. Todd holds an M.F.A. in acting from Rutgers University and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Stony Brook. Her twelve-year-old son is autistic. Concerned about his possibly limited employment opportunities later in life, Todd started her own company in Columbus, a gluten-free bakery that also offers vocational and employment services to people with autism. After hearing about Hunter on the radio, she began to see workshops popping up around town. Todd was so interested she called Hunter and asked if she could teach the games herself.

“I have found it to be a very lonely experience and very alienating,” Todd said of the challenges of parenting an autistic child. “And this has felt less alienating. … It’s helped me because the modality of theatre helps you get to know people so much better. It has helped me get to know other parents in a way where we’re all kind of sitting on the floor and doing our best in a very informal way. It’s been very natural and organic. It’s felt like a community.”

Todd’s son is non-verbal; he types to communicate. After one of his first experiences with the Hunter Heartbeat Method, he asked his mother a question, a rare occurrence.

“A lot of problems with autism have to do with initiative and curiosity and expressing independent ideas,” Todd said. “He typed, ‘Question: why did you pick this?’ About the Shakespeare. I explained to him I have a background in acting. I really want to teach you about drama. I love the environment of drama classes. And I want to get you involved and exposed to it. And I want to teach you what I love. And he typed, ‘Very interesting. I love it.’”

“This activated my son’s curiosity,” Todd went on to say. “He had never expressed curiosity before. And then he typed, ‘Question: why did you pick this?’ What is this and why? What’s in your mind that made you pick this? It was like my God, this was really activating his mind. All of us really want to be in the company of others, but autism often ends up being about avoidance because they don’t feel like they can do it so they avoid situations and then it kind of feeds into itself and then the mind doesn’t develop further. And then the problem gets worse and worse.”

Mehling and Todd both point out that people with autism experience the same emotions as neurotypical people. It’s sharing those feelings and connecting to the inner life of another person that presents challenges.

“It is a neurological condition,” Todd said. “But I would view it as a disorder of expression. The way that I have viewed it at least with my own son is, the equipment is all there. He’s quite bright. And the longing is all there. And the observation is all there—like a writer—he’s ob-serving everything. But getting it out, actually expressing it, is where the disconnect is.”

“Individuals with autism experience a full spectrum of emotion just like everyone else,” Mehling said. “They just have a difficulty sharing that effectively with others, so it’s very sad I think because it’s isolating.”

The Hunter Heartbeat Method offers children with autism a taste of something special: a chance to thrive in a social setting.

“I think it gives participants success experience,” Mehling said. “They try something and they feel that they did good at it and they get positive feedback and everyone laughs and it’s fun, and they feel successful in a social context. And I don’t think that our kids with autism are having that many social successes. So I think it’s really valuable.”

Post feels the Hunter Heartbeat Method is effective training for young actors as well. The work sharpens the senses, focuses the mind, alleviates anxiety, and opens the body—core skills for the aspiring actor. Most importantly, the games are about living truthfully from moment to moment and experiencing each of those moments as something fresh, something new, something that has never happened before.

“There was something about the work that is very liberating in terms of play, and ironically a lot of acting technique lacks the freedom of play that this work generates,” Post said. “And that’s one of the things that I’m particularly drawn to about it. How the actor can let go of a lot of restrictions or things that are in the way of, you know, just playing.”

Last May, Hunter and OSU staged an elegant and stripped-down production of the series of games she developed from The Tempest. The actors (including McClatchy) were paired with a child with autism and all sat together in a circle around a pool of light while the audience observed from a single, concentric outer ring. Pairs would perform a specific a game that illustrated a key moment in the story, organically allowing The Tempest to unfold.

Kevin McClatchy, an OSU faculty member in theatre and involved with Hunter’s work for a long time, played Prospero, the grouchy, brilliant, and powerful wizard.

“Playing Prospero,” McClatchy said, “is such a great acting challenge and also a huge rush. It’s so much fun. And having children with you in a performance adds both to the fun and the challenge of it. Your focus has to be total in three different areas: the performance that you’re giving, the experience that the children are having and making sure their experience is full and joyful and productive and engaged, and the third focus is on the rest of your ensemble of actors and the other children. … You have to be fully committed and focused and in the moment and willing to adapt to anything that’s going to happen.”

An ongoing study

The Hunter Heartbeat Method continues to gain ground. Hunter has a new company, Flute Theatre, and her desk in London is stacked with contracts and budgets. According to Todd, more schools in Columbus are requesting workshops. A prominent Ohio State alum, actor Patricia Heaton, and her husband David Hunt have made a gift to support workshops and another production of The Tempest, similar to the one held in May. Post has taken the work to the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she is a new faculty member. At OSU, the next round of the research study is also underway.

Mehling pointed out that the study focuses solely on determining whether or not the Hunter Heartbeat Method passes muster as treatment. The work is good for kids—no matter the results of the study, she said. She described seeing, firsthand, the Hunter Heartbeat Method make a kid light up and engage. If the study shows, scientifically, that Hunter Heartbeat Method can actually treat autism, then that only adds to the value it has for children and families.

“We research a treatment to determine if we can show in a scientifically rigorous way that this treatment is having an impact on symptoms associated with autism,” Mehling said. “If you’re taking a medication for blood pressure, you want to know that studies have been done and that medication, above and beyond doing other things, is going to lower your blood pressure. Any treatment, whether it’s a pill or a group you at-tend, in order for insurance companies to cover it, in order for it to be viewed as a treatment for that disorder, we need to show that participating in that treatment reduces symptoms of that disorder. That’s what the research is trying to determine.”

According to Mehling, the initial studies have shown statistically significant improvement in facial emotional recognition and pragmatic language. Certain social skills showed improvement in just the first fourteen weeks and then maintained, while other facial emotion recognition skills continued to improve. But, Mehling said, comparison to a functional control group didn’t happen. Children should show improvement over time, she said, they are growing and learning and going to school. In this next round of study, Mehling plans to compare a group of kids receiving the Hunter Heartbeat Method to another group that is receiving a more traditional, established form of social skills intervention that is not drama-based. Mehling’s background in neuroscience guided her to add a brain-imaging component as well.

One of the core social deficits of autism, Mehling said, is difficulty recognizing emotions in faces. This deficit creates what she calls a “cascade effect” that negatively impacts social interactions for people with autism. The brain has entire regions meant for reading faces and processing emotions. The brains of people with autism show less activity in these specialized regions.

“If you and I are communicating and you can see me, you can see changes of expression in my face and you can read that. I don’t have to say, ‘I’m no longer interested in listening to what you’re saying,’” she said. “You can pick up on that and modify your behavior and it’s not effortful you just know. That information is processed automatically and that helps people be effective in their social interactions.”

Mehling described how the social skills of a child with autism are sometimes measured: A child would be shown a series of faces, each dis-playing a different emotion. The child would have to name the emotion they saw appearing on the face. Children would frequently get these answers right, Mehling said, but in a workaround way.

“They’d be like, ‘Well I can see that his eyebrows are pointing down and his mouth is pointing down so he must be angry,’” she said. “So they were like totally thinking it through… Well that doesn’t help you when you’re in a conversation because you’re trying to think about what the person is saying. You can’t allocate that much thinking to their face. It’s a problem that we see in the field. We measure these kids. They show improvement in skills, but then we put them out in the real world and they’re not doing any better. They’re not functioning any better.”

Lots of studies, she said, have looked at children with autism at one point in time. It is cutting edge research to do brain imaging, treat, and then attempt to show gains using imaging data. Her own hypothesis is that the more naturalistic, drama-based Hunter Heartbeat Method will have a greater impact on processing and recognizing facial emotions than traditional social skills intervention, but this research is a new frontier.

“There’s no precedent for this,” Mehling said. “We have hypotheses based on what we know and based on what we think. But this is really quite exploratory in nature, so we are really quite excited to see what we get.

“People are interested in drama-based intervention with kids with autism. And I think it’s going to be really interesting to see if it maybe impacts different skills than the social skills intervention or if it just impacts the same skills differently. We don’t know. There aren’t good comparison studies. Really any result will be interesting. Whether it shows it’s effective or it’s not—this is really novel work.”

Stepping into the unknown

“Acting is a means of communicating, a means of stopping time,” Hunter said. “Allowing oneself to share deeply, hopefully, what it feels like to be alive. And protect ourselves from how terrible the world is.”

For Hunter, the thrill and the purpose of the work lies in igniting the spirits of children and creating circles of connection, safety, creativity, and warmth. Her favorite of her games is near the end of The Tempest. One person plays Ariel and the other, Ferdinand. Ferdinand closes his eyes and Ariel dings a tiny chime. Ferdinand must take a single step in the direction of the sound. Many with autism also show symptoms of dyspraxia, a condition that disrupts motor skills, and for them this exercise can be particularly challenging. Watching a child close their eyes, listen, and then take just that one step is real theatre. Shakespeare, Hunter feels, can electrify a child’s experience of the world.

“When the children trust us enough to step into the circle, on their own, close their eyes, and take a step into what’s already unknown…” Hunter trails off. “Because I know that the children, certainly the ones with a lot of dyspraxia within their autism, find taking a step the equivalent to stepping into the dark. There have been moments when we’ve done The Tempest and when that happens, and you achieve a proper, tangible silence in the room, which you always want in theatre. People hold their breath not knowing what’s going to happen. And in fact, all that’s happening is a little bell and someone taking a step, and the world is kind of changing. Love that. Amazing. I think that with Shakespeare, you have the potential to change the world. Now that doesn’t mean change the big wide globe with twenty billion people in it, but change the world that you’re in.”

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