"The eye of man hath not heard, the tongue of man hath not seen..."
Flute Theatre Workshop at Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Kansas City 5 -10 January, 2018
A workshop with the company of Flute Theatre, London; and the teaching artists of Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Kansas City; working with the Hunter Heartbeat Method and a community of young people on the autism spectrum.
“The best of Shakespeare is conversations we have with our soul “ - Kelly Hunter
When we play in the landscape of drama, we run through fields of the senses. Hearing, seeing, being in the room with one another in immediate and interactive ways. From that, we draw out an interior landscape of conception and emotion, creating a field in which the entire audience can play sympathetically – or even empathetically.
Landscapes are at the center of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Leaving Athens and the ‘strict Athenian law,’ the lovers first, and then the Rustics, fly to the dense, overgrown forest. Here, not only are laws lifted – so are paths, connections, vows…even the senses, love, and reason are overturned. Here there are things ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the tongue of man hath not seen,’ a landscape where the senses are inverted (perverted?), perfectly lucid and yet not to be believed. Impossible yet logical, magical and commonplace, it is of course the landscape of a dream.
For the days of workshops and performances with Flute Theatre Company, our landscape is a painted floor cloth: a round of leafy, marbled green and black splotches. We sit around it on day one, Kelly Hunter leading her company of six actors, joined by myself and six teaching artists form the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. We are all here to work with the company and explore the Hunter Heartbeat Method, a series of exercises designed around the work of Shakespeare, and using that unique poetry to inspire physical games and exercises for young people on the autism spectrum. Kelly Hunter has worked with young people in the autistic spectrum for over a decade. From her work, she has created Flute Theatre Company, and written Shakespeare's Heartbeat, which outline the company's work and the games and exercises of the Hunter Heartbeat Method.
The heartbeat is the core of this work, and we all start by establishing a rhythm by patting our chests, identifying the beat:
lub DUB…lub DUB..lub DUB.
An iamb- and a ‘hello.’ Reaching out from the heart, we smile at one another. For each of us around this circle it is the most natural thing in the world, to see and be seen; to smile and smile in return.
Next, we ‘throw faces’ – connecting the heart beats and hellos with voices and faces of joy, anger, surprise, fear. We are of course learning to mirror these faces, show what it is to connect a physical response to an emotional state, and to share it. The face becomes a window in to an emotional landscape. Seeing and sharing it, we see ourselves reflected duskily in that window.
The work is very physical. We progress through a series of ‘call and response’ games, each of which is rooted in a moment in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream:’ Bottom transforming into an ass, Puck enchanting Titania’s eyes, Titania waking and falling in love with Bottom, the summoning of the fairies, the beguiling of the lovers. Each of these moments is a plot point, but also, Kelly explains, a ‘Point of Ecstasy’- moments of transcendence and realization for the character; and they in turn become games for effort and achievement for the young participants. That idea of ‘ecstasy’, of being outside of oneself, unable to be a part of our internal sense-landscape, is key to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and, we discover, this work. We jump, play, run, make funny faces, mimic donkeys – all of it to learn games which are designed to challenge the senses : eye contact, spatial awareness, balance, aural recognition, cognition. We play at games where the characters leap out of their sense of self, and learn to teach games which directly challenge the dissociation of mind and body. As the characters wake up to new realizations (sometimes quite literally in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’), the challenges in the games are designed to wake up the child to their own sensory world.
As we progress, we integrate the games with the story of Shakespeare’s play. From the circle at the beginning, the heartbeat ‘Hello’s’ and thrown faces, Puck leaps into the air with the heartbeat/iamb:
Building the beats again and again until they burst into Puck’s first speech, jumping into the center of the circle. The ‘play’ has begun. Puck leads us all in throwing faces and animal noises:
Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound, A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire; And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn, Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.
It is dizzying and electric and fun, like the best of theatre. In the circle we are all rapt as the actors of Flute Theatre Company weave the games into the scenes and stories from Shakespeare’s play. We take turns coming into the play and the games, announcing drop-ins and playing the games with one another. Running through the entire of the cutting used by the company takes a little over an hour. We break for lunch, and then in the afternoon we work with our first cohort of autistic players.
The afternoon session starts, and we return to our circle, crouched around the painted forest on the floor. I meet the young man, perhaps 17 years old, seated beside me. He doesn’t make eye contact, and both the actress playing Lysander and I make him feel welcome as we can, making small talk. She asks-
“Have you ever seen Shakespeare before?”
He begins to sing a tune in forceful, brassy ‘bum-bum-bum’s.’I don’t quite recognize the tune, but try nod along, appreciating it. She asks about what he liked about Shakespeare and the answer is emphatic:
Conversation is never connected, but he is engaged in the excitement of the story and watching intently, learning and playing the games with both of us. Sometimes he laughs or shrieks wildly at a moment in the play or the games, or rolls full back on his back, grabbing his cross-legged ankles. Each member of our now much larger circle (13 young people have joined us) takes turns at learning and playing the games. Rule number one of playing is not to ask ‘do you want to play?,’ but to engage in play and say ‘come play with me.’ Some jump up, some whisper to their play partners before going in, struggling with games where they run to ‘find the eyes’ of the person they are enchanting; or catch the eyes ‘thrown’ at them by someone smitten. We play as a trio, Lysander, my new friend, and myself. It is clear in playing that he desperately wants autonomy, but also feels unsure, anxious, and confused. He continues to create rejoinders from non-sequiturs, referencing ‘Rocket J. Squirrel’ and ‘Bagheera’ from ‘The Jungle Book.’ At one point, Hermia cried out ‘I love thee!’, to which he responded:
I realize that these are not non-sequiturs: they are the landmarks within his landscape. They are the points of reference he uses to understand find his way through the landscape that is his interior life. He may want others to understand his landscape, or he may want to keep it private. The map is his, and he knows the terrain very well.
This is why Shakespeare is so powerful for this work: he creates landscapes of large scale humanity for each of us to inhabit. The interior landscapes of the characters are rich with emotions and confusions; picking through those landscapes is rich and rewarding because they are the journeys we all take. Looking around that circle, I could see that each person there had a rich landscape of fear, excitement, joy, and wonder; in entering the play, each picked his or her way through as best each can. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a journey through the terrain that is the sense, of learning to see while blinded by love; of striking at what you hear while your ears are being fooled. It is, as Kelly points out (using four words which are central to the play):
"Using the eyes and mind to find reason and love.”
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ with its sense of disorientation, of dream, of change, love and wonder, offers all of us terra incognita to cross. Entering the sense/nonsense world of a dream, we are all discovering those tools on the same footing, and able to reach and help one another on the journey.
At the center of this forest is Titania’s bower, with fairies in attendance. In Flute Theatre’s production, this place is created with an almost ritual calling forth of the fairies, with rhythmic drumming and repetitive chants of each fairy’s name. When summoned, each comes to the center of the circle and stands stiffly- then falls directly forward to be caught by Titania, and pushed backward and off balance to fall into Bottom’s arms, again and again. Each young person then is brought up to play the Tipping Game, rocked back and forth, disoriented and unbalanced. This is probably the most challenging game for the senses, and each student plays it, trusting and letting themselves fall into the confusion, surrounded by the womblike, nurturing wall of sound created by the company. The raucous nature of the world created, the sensory overload, creates a world where this impossible task seems easy; and taking on challenge has crossed the line from anxiety to excitement.
By contrast, the final games played are very quiet and small: Puck rings a tiny finger cymbal and leads the dreamers to the center of the circle. Each child closes his or her eyes and takes one step, silently, toward the spot where they hear the sound. I watched my young friend do this, this young man with intense energy and vivid imagination, working to calm all the distraction within himself to take one step at a time towards the chime. His palpable struggle was deeply moving, and his achievement very real.
To end, we return to the heartbeats and circle, this time, chanting a ‘Good-BYE,’ again looking at each face around the circle. I look up to see the stage manager’s face, and she is on the edge of tears. Suddenly, that simplest of mirroring reflects back on me, and through it I see my own interior landscape reflected. I continued to chant and heartbeat my good byes, working to not cry. As my new friend leaves, he hugs me as I tell him how amazing he was today. When he has left I remember the tune he sang out when asked about Shakespeare, and the trumpets he insisted on. I recognize it now:
It is the theme from ‘Masterpiece Theatre,’ his own personal landmark for Shakespeare.