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Autistic kids taking Shakespeare to heart

Production of Bard's 'Tempest' designed to help autistic audiences open up, connect

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Shakespeare's plays are written to the rhythm of the human heartbeat.

That simple fact about iambic pentameter led an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company back in 2002 to wonder if the Bard's works might not help children and young people with autism spectrum disorder connect with the world from which they are often so estranged.

Kelly Hunter, a veteran of 20-plus years with the renowned troupe, launched her own theater company and started a project at a school for children with special needs.

The response spurred by the Hunter Heartbeat Method is practically miraculous, said Kevin McClatchy.

The Clintonville resident, an assistant professor of acting and directing at Ohio State University who had a small role in the Denzel Washington film Unstoppable, was among six actors who performed a special version of The Tempest, first in London and again last week at the Wexner Center for the Arts, for small audiences of children and young adults with autism and their caregivers.

"It has just been completely transformative for me as an actor, as a parent and as a teacher," McClatchy said. "It has been and continues to be a great thrill."

The Hunter Heartbeat Method is being studied as a two-year research project at OSU, the actress wrote on her website. The Nisonger Center, which provides assistance to people with disabilities, also is involved in the research.

As part of the project, McClatchy and others from the OSU theater department have conducted workshops for Columbus City Schools special-needs students. At the most recent one, he said, the mother of a 14-year-old boy was astonished to see him interacting with the performers and playing games with them. She said she'd never seen that side of her nonverbal son.

"That's really as ringing an endorsement as you could possibly find," McClatchy said.

He spoke last week as he prepared to join Robin Post, director of the Shakespeare and Autism program; recent OSU undergraduate theater major Mahmoud Osman; and British actors Greg Hicks, Chris MacDonald and Eva Tausig in performing The Tempest at the Wexner Center.

The production, McClatchy said, is the fulfillment of a dream for Hunter to stage a work of Shakespeare specifically geared toward children with autism, one in which they would not simply be members of the audience but a part of the performance, interacting through the games she devised.

"It's kind of incredible actor training, really," McClatchy said. "We have to be not only completely in tune, in the moment with one another, all six of us ... and then the obvious unknown factor is what the children will bring. With every group of children, the energy is completely different, the needs are completely different. Some of these children to an amazing extent have no filter. You have no choice but to simply react in the moment with openness.

"If you can make that happen ... if you can translate that experience, you're in great shape as an actor."

Although the research project is in its early stages, McClatchy said there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence indicating children with autism who participate in Hunter Heartbeat Method performances show marked progress.

"It's like an unlocking, because so often autistic kids want to do something so badly but aren't able to," he said.

As gratifying as the interaction with the children and young people in the audiences has been, McClatchy said hearing from caregivers such as that 14-year-old boy's mother makes the experience all the more satisfying.

"The reaction from the teachers and parents of the children has been just overwhelming," he said.

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