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Hunter Heartbeat workshops bring Shakespeare to those on the autism spectrum

| Thursday, September 27, 2018

All the world’s a stage and now Shakespeare at Notre Dame and the South Bend Civic Theater are partnering to make a stage for all the world. The two organizations are offering five Shakespeare performance workshops for people on the autism spectrum using the Hunter Heartbeat method.

The Hunter Heartbeat method is a technique for working with those on the spectrum in a performance setting. It was developed by Kelly Hunter, a London-based actress and the director of the traveling Flute Theater company. Hunter has taught her method at theaters throughout the world.

The method involves going through a specific Shakespeare show — in the case of the Notre Dame workshops, the show is “As You Like It” — through a series of drama games in which participants with autism are partnered with professional actors.

“Hunter Heartbeat uses the spine of the story, and on the spine, we hang a series of theater games that make it non-traditional,” South Bend Civic Theater executive director Aaron Nichols said.

The games are meant to incorporate social skills that people with autism tend to struggle with.

“It’s amazing because the games don’t seem like they’re focused on eye contact or showing emotion,” Robinson Learning Community Center Shakespeare outreach director and founder Christy Burgess said. “The kids feel like they’re just playing the games, but those objectives absolutely come out.”

The workshops will take place at the LOGAN Center, Hannah & Friends and the South Bend Civic Theater Warner Studio. 

Shakespeare at Notre Dame and the South Bend Civic Theater have been working together to develop this program for over a year. Scott Jackson, the executive director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, first saw the Hunter Heartbeat program in action at a conference in 2016 when it was used by former students of Kelly Hunter.

“I saw how brilliantly the different techniques were being adopted or co-opted for accessing autistic populations,” Jackson said. “The work really clicked with me. I came out ready to bring this to South Bend.”

So began the long process of preparing for these workshops.

“We brought Kelly over to South Bend in May of 2017 to present lectures at the LOGAN Center and lay the groundwork for what would be this production,” Jackson said. 

Hunter returned in January to train the actors of the Hunter Heartbeat workshops. Jackson serves as the director.

“From that, we started meeting every few weeks as a company and devising new games, figuring out how to tell ‘As You Like It’ through drama games,” Jackson said. “For instance, to show the scene where Orlando and Rosalind fall in love, they’ll walk around the circle and when they see their partner, they take a step back and make the ‘OK’ symbol in front of their eyes, basically saying ‘I love you’ like you’d see in a cartoon. The actors will model the games, and then the participants are guided in a circle to play.”

The participants and actors act out the basic plot points of the play in this way.

“We took a few more that we thought were particularly effective from Kelly’s repertoire, and the company and I devised other games as well,” Jackson said. 

The workshops are closely engineered to each participant’s needs.

“Everyone gets individual attention and individual welcomes, and it’s all to their own level of comfort,” Burgess, who will be an actor in the workshops, said.

This production of “As You Like It” is an international original for the Hunter Heartbeat method. 

“We are the first company to make a new work using this method,” Jackson said. “Other companies will use the plays that Kelly has already developed.”

The workshops are also aimed at local-first.

“This is the first formal partnership between the South Bend Civic Theater and Shakespeare at Notre Dame,” Nichols said. “I think it’s a natural fit that we partner on this. Shakespeare at Notre Dame is the organization that has created this work; they’re the producers of the show.”

As a follow-up to the drama workshops, there will be a sensory-friendly performance of “As You Like It” offered at the South Bend Civic Theater on Nov. 8, directed by the theater’s volunteer and guest services director, Grace Lazarz.

“We are inviting the participants of the workshops to be in the audience,” Lazarz said. “We’ll have an environment that’s more comfortable. The house lights will be on, the doors will be open and there’s an understanding in the audience that we’re all on the same page and that it’s okay that there might be talking or wandering around in the audience.”

In addition to Burgess, Lazarz and Nichols are also part of the cast for the Hunter Heartbeat workshops. The Hunter Heartbeat workshops and the sensory-friendly performance are both completely free of charge. The first workshop was Wednesday night.

“This is another exploration of how theater arts and specifically Shakespeare engage all population through the versatility of the works and the innovations still surrounding his plays in the 21st century,” Jackson said. “I feel like this is one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”

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