“The Tempest”: a production for children on the autistic spectrum

Earlier today, I spent a fascinating afternoon at the Bloomsbury Studio London, watching a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But this production, devised and directed by Kelly Hunter (whom I saw only last year playing Mrs Alving in a quite superb production of Ibsen’s Ghosts), was not an ordinary production: it was aimed specifically for children and for young adults on the autistic spectrum.

Bloomsbury Studio is a small, in-the-round theatre. For this event, parents and carers sat on chairs arranged in an outer circle, while, in an inner circle, surrounding a space representing Prospero’s island, sat six actors, each looking after a small group of children. They went through the story, selecting specific scenes and specific lines, inviting and encouraging the children to join them in action and in mime, in sounds and movements.

Now, anyone who has experience with children on the autistic spectrum will know how difficult this is – how difficult it is, in many cases, to get some children on the autistic spectrum even to acknowledge the presence of others. And to begin with, many of the children seemed reluctant. But, to my immense surprise, they started joining in – some with evident gusto. It was a sight I thought I’d never see – a group of children (and, in one case, a young adult) on the autistic spectrum taking delight in a group event.

And at no point was there anything resembling coercion. No child was ever urged to do anything they did not wish to: nothing was ever forced. The entire cast was sympathetic and supportive, and stayed on afterwards to speak to the children, parents, and carers. As an observer sitting on the sidelines, it was a quite wonderful experience.

This event was a co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Ohio State University. I do not know when and where they will be doing this again, but if any reader is a parent or carer of an autistic child, or know someone who is, I do urge you to keep an eye on their website.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. I can’t help but tie this to our earlier discussion of changing Shakespeare to suit an audience. I have two young nieces; one of them, Mira, recently read a children’s book in which the plays are treated in summary — as in the famous Charles and Mary Lamb edition, but this was a more current version. They had a young friend with them at my Mum’s Sunday dinner. Somehow the topic of Shakespeare came up and this other young girl said she did not like Shakespeare. She could not say why, and I fear she may have simply been repeating something her parents told her. Mira said Shakespeare was great and she had read six of his stories.

    We can argue the dangers of bowdlerization all we want, but for young children access to the stories is a starting place, as Charles and Mary Lamb knew. The language will come later, but it helps if they see Shakespeare as nothing they should fear.

    I really like the idea behind this play you went to. I take it they kept the bard’s language, and expanded their stage business, perhaps added a few ad-libs, in order to reach out to the children, so that they gain a direct contact with the bard. Not a bad idea.

    Finally, I have to add that this also hints toward our past discussions of sentimentality. What we might think was pandering or bathetic sentimentality if done with an adult audience becomes, in this case, more a matter sentimental pathos. Quite frankly when our concerns for care and humanity increase (on the left of the political spectrum this is decidedly so, but it occurs on the right as well) we do tend to pull upon that sentiment that animated early romanticism. What had been, and may still seem to the cynics, a kind of bathetic sentimentality, becomes instead a pathetic (i.e. emotional) sentimentality (or sentimental pathos) that is a necessity of our humanity. It is so easy to miss that when our concerns become overly intellectualized — which is as much as saying when they become less open to even the most complex and profound of emotions.

    I suppose the concern of dummying down Shakespeare may still sit on the margin of this topic, and I am not certain that it need be Shakespeare we turn to for such an endeavor. I have not read the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare. I really should. I wonder if they were able to attain a small measure of linking to the language and subtlety of the bard. And with your presentation for autistic children, what parts of the original language were retained become part of the experience as well — even if they are not to be unlocked until later.

    Reply

    • Hello Mark, and sorry for this late reply.

      This particular production is aimed specifically for children on the autistic spectrum, not for onlookers such as myself. They selectes some scenes and some lines from those scenes, without much concern for narrative line, and encouraged the children to accompany the actors in the performing area to mime these scenes with them. There wasn’t really much room for language – anarea that many autistic children find difficult. What surprised me, as I said, was how responsive these chldren were, or became, without any pressure put on them at any time.

      As for the Lambs’ Tales From Shakespeare, the language used by the Lambs has now become outdated and difficult, but there is no shortage of modern retellings of these stories – many of them reareally very good. I am all for this sort of thing as stepping stones to the real thing. But as stepping stones – not as replacements.

      As Dai pointed out, Shakespeare plays can hold the stage magnificently even in translation, so it makes little sense to say that the language is an integral and necessary part of these works. There have been many translations (e.g. Pasternak’s into Russian) that are considered works of art in their own right. My point remains that no matter how wonderful the translation, unless one experiences Shakespeare’s language, it is not the work Shakespeare had created – just as Sophocles in modern English, no matter how good, cannot be the experience Sophocles had created. To get to know Shakespeare, one has to engage with Shakespeare’s English – just as to get to know Sophocles, one has to engage with Sophocles’ Greek. In translation, we have, at best, an approximation.

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Sounds wonderful and the Tempest is such a magical play.

    Reply

  3. I would have loved to see this. But, I am on the other side of the ocean :/

    Reply

    • I believe they do some productions on your side of the Atlantic as well, but one can only hope that, given the success of this venture, other groups will be putting on similar events. It wwas such a pleasure seeing children who normally don’t connect so well with the outside world actually responding to – and enjoying – a group event.

      Reply

  4. this is wonderful!

    Reply

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