Theatre Beyond Performance: 'The Tempest' with Flute Theatre Company

The Tempest: Flute Theatre Company @ Orange Tree Theatre 27 October 2016

It starts with a heartbeat. Sitting in a circle, on the floor of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, are seven teacher/artists, and Flute Theatre Artistic Director, Kelly Hunter. They are joined by a group of 8 young people, ages ranging from perhaps 11-22, and all the rest of us, audience, sitting in the seats of this small theatre in the round.

Kelly Hunter starts the play by welcoming all to the production and performance, clapping her hand to her heart resonantly, smiling warmly, and repeating:

'Hel-Lo. Hel-Lo. Hel-Lo. Hel-Lo. Hel-Lo. Hel-Lo...'

She guides the entire circle into the start of the afternoon performance, setting up a rhythm, and inviting the act of listening, and well as the act of sharing and responding, of communicating with not only words and body, but also with intention, emotion, and honesty. This is the stuff of theatre, of course. It is also an engaging and challenging experience for the young performers sitting on the mat in the Orange Tree Theatre: each of them has elected to participate in the performance this afternoon, and each is on the Autism spectrum.

Flute Theatre Company bills itself as ‘Shakespeare for Inclusive Audiences,’ and this afternoon presentation of ‘The Tempest’ is exactly that. The ‘production,’ which is part storytelling, part acting, part exercise, and part play, encourages inclusion not only of all who come to it, but also an inclusion of whatever each participant may bring. The circle allows for all to be seen, acknowledged, and welcomed to Prospero’s island- and all come with whatever they bear in their hearts and in their abilities. It is a potent and engaging way to consider ‘The Tempest,’ and poetry: we are all a part of the experience of becoming a part of what is to happen. What is to happen that afternoon is Shakespeare’s story of anger, bitterness, isolation, revenge, love, wonder, forgiveness, and joy.

There is great joy in the performance, and the Actors of the Flute Theatre warm up their co-performers passing around faces of ‘Joy’ and ‘Anger,’ with everyone modeling these responses in their faces and bodies. Quickly enough, this moves into modeling different characters from ‘The Tempest’ together: one actor leads everyone in pounding on the floor, angrily shouting as Caliban:

'This island’s MINE!'

Then another encourages everyone to jump up in joy and expectation, singing out Ariel’s:

'I GO -!'

Soon, without any sense of performance or ceremony, scenes from ‘The Tempest’ have begun between the teacher/artists of The Flute Theatre Company, and within the circle everyone is paying attention, and engaging with their imaginations, bodies, and emotions. Prospero teaches Miranda about the loss of his Milan and their abandonment; Caliban reproaches Prospero for stealing his home; Ariel arrives eager to serve the master he loves in exacting his revenge. Each time a character arrives, his or her desires and motivations are reinforced through physical and vocal engagement with the young co-performers: 'This island’s MINE!' or 'I GO -!.' One by one each co-performer is invited to engage and play, to find the authentic action connected to moments in the story and characters. In doing so, they enter the story, the poetry, and humanity of the characters – inviting the imaginations and humanity of the entire audience as well.

Kelly Hunter and members of Flute Theatre Co. talk about creating and playing 'The Tempest' with young people on the Autism spectrum

This is the ‘inclusion’ which Flute Theatre engages: it is not simply the inclusivity of voices not often heard onstage; it is the inclusivity of the entire audience. Watching- and being a part of- the act of a young person engaging with a physical relationship to huge emotion (Love, Anger, Joy, Loss), often exploring and expressing a state they cannot find the actions or words to express- includes all of us in the humanity of the moment. Including each moment of the story as play – where what happens in the immediate moment is indeed what happens in the story – includes all our reactions and imaginations in exploring and relating the story of ‘The Tempest.’ The moment of play becomes the Play, and since it is play, we are aware that any moment, at any time, anything may happen in a very, very different way. As the moment of amazement between Ferdinand and Miranda (“Oh! You WONDER!”) is played out with the young members of the company, it becomes our wonder, and our joy in the moment. Each moment is held dear, and the act of poetry is awakened.

Mixed within the story of ‘The Tempest’ are teaching moments for the young performers. A meeting between Caliban and Miranda becomes a chance to play a game about social distances ('Too close. No, no. Goodbye. Go, go.'). It was very moving, during the presentation which I saw, to see a young man take part in this game, his body language clearly stating that this very experience and moment was something he struggled to understand, his shame caving in his body and his shoulders collapsing. As he played at the scene, exploring the experience and understanding in a game which had no shame or embarrassment connected to it, his body changed and opened, his voice becoming free. To learn the concept through experimentation and active experience, without judgement, had a clear and powerful impact. Becoming a part of the young man’s realization and change was a deeply moving experience for everyone in the room.

Shakespeare is a particularly potent for this work. The excitement of Shakespeare’s characters is the size and directness of their humanity: When a character says 'I love you,' he means it completely; when she says 'I would eat his heart in the marketplace,' she means it fully and honestly. This unstinting humanity and honest emotion may not be what we express every day, but it is in accepting and understanding how large and full we can be which allows us to see it in one another, and to build empathy and kindness into our relations with our world. While watching the performers in The Flute Theatre Company’s ‘The Tempest’ grapple with connecting words to action, finding physical expression connected to their own energy and intention, I was aware of the size and scope of everyone’s size and presence, and honored to be a part of it. The work The Flute Theatre accomplishes allows young people to connect bodies to emotion, to words and movement, using the poetry within Shakespeare and the poetry within us all.

Towards the end of the afternoon, there is a scene/game played between Prospero and Caliban, as Prospero comes to terms with his treatment of his beast/servant. Holding hands and balancing in counterpoise, Prospero gives his weight to Caliban, and relies upon Caliban’s weight to support him, saying:

‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’

This is a final, beautiful inclusion achieved by Kelly Hunter’s treatment of ‘The Tempest,’ and the Flute Theatre Company’s creation: daring us to accept our fears and anger, just as the young performers do while balancing with their teaching artist guides. Dealing with outsized and inappropriate emotion and physicality is a challenge for any person living on the Autism spectrum, and Prospero’s admission grants each of us in the room the blessing to accept ourselves as we struggle with the fears we manage. Kelly Hunter has written a book on her work, ‘Shakespeare’s Heartbeat.’ I look forward to working with the book and including it within my own ideas of teaching when I return to the United States.

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