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.