A pioneering theatre group is having remarkable results staging Shakespeare’s plays with children with autism

Flute Theatre is an ensemble of pioneering actors pushing the boundaries of Shakespeare performance for interactive audiences of children with autism. The company was founded and is led by British actor and director Kelly Hunter. 

Hunter has spent the last 15 years devising the ‘Hunter Heartbeat Method’, a series of distinctive, sensory games for children and young people with autism. The games are derived from what the actor refers to as Shakespeare’s ‘obsession’ with four words which appear more than any other in his 36 plays: eyes, mind, reason and love (for example: ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind’ Helena, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Hamlet’s coining of the phrase ‘The Mind’s Eye’). Autistic children struggle with expressing the feelings of their mind’s eye, they can’t easily inflect their voices or physically show how they feel. Austism doesn’t stop them from thinking, it hinders the emotional communication of real life. Hunter’s games use rhythmic language and physical gesture to release communicative blocks by embedding eye contact, speech and language, inflection, spatial awareness, facial expressions and imaginative play, the games help children experience the joy of being understood. 

Many children with autism live in near-constant anxiety, not knowing what to expect from the next moment. For most of us, our heartbeat acts as a barometer of feelings of sorts, often changing before we’ve thought about how to react to something. The iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s verse mimics the rhythm of a heartbeat, so each session begins with a ‘heartbeat circle’. The children sit in a circle, alongside actors, and are taught to tap their chests rhythmically. Once a steady rhythm has been established, they learn to know what to expect from the next moment – another beat, whereby quelling their anxiety.

Then, a word – hello – is introduced, so as each child taps their chest they say ‘hello’ to another, and then that child repeats it to another, and so on. Once this habit is formed, facial expressions of emotion are introduced to the circle. A key struggle for people with autism is making and understanding emotion, and Shakespeare’s characters are inextricably linked to emotion (King Leah is depressed, Juliet is in love and so on). In the Flute performance of The Tempest, for example, Caliban is introduced as an angry character, so ‘hello’ is thrown around the room angrily, with a scowl. The cognitive change in children who play this game is profound: the performances have seen non-verbal children speak for the first time.

If you think of autism as an extended panic attack, then necessarily the heartbeat will struggle to plateau. “We’ve discovered that if we sit and make these steady heartbeats in a circle, and say hello, often the children are a steadier version of themselves. The calm which emerges in the children is palpable,” says Hunter.

She tells me the story of a child who participated in the games last year: “His mother said that he slept through the night for the first time. He was six years old. The families of children on the spectrum live in states of anxiety too, so to be able to offer some respite from that is amazing.” 

In each performance, up to 15 children or young people on the autism spectrum become participants, sitting with six actors on the stage while families and carers sit just behind. The actors invite the participants to help them unravel Shakespeare’s story through the games. While the games and narrative remain the same for each performance, the show is completely different each time depending on the nature of the young people who attend. Through this method, students encounter Shakespeare’s poetic exploration of how it feels to be alive, focusing on how people see, think and feel. 

As a theatre practice, the Hunter Heartbeat Method lives and breathes in a theatre setting, “It sits outside of education yet complements it at the same time. It doesn’t tick boxes in terms of passing exams, and specialist schools have enormous pressure to get their pupils through exams. The work we do is based on awakening the spirit and letting the children experience what it feels like to be alive through Shakespeare. We use the plays to encourage children to have an immersive experience in their lives,”
says Hunter. 

It’s clear the actor doesn’t want to ‘over-promote’ the method, in order to protect it and not risk it being diluted. That being said, it’s growing in its reach. When we speak, Hunter is in Sweden, making her third full-scale Shakespeare production – Pericles – for children with autism and their families (the first was The Tempest and the second was The Dream, both in the UK). “There is some dialogue, but you don’t have to have a huge amount of language to play the games. Mostly it’s a conversation between the body and the soul.”   

Learn more about Flute Theatre here