Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Kelly Hunter: Pericles

By | Published on Friday 28 October 2022

I have always wondered why you don’t see more productions of Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles’ being staged, so I was immediately interested when I saw that a version was coming to Riverside Studios. And I was even more drawn to it when I realised it was by Flute Theatre. 

Founded in 2014 by Artistic Director Kelly Hunter, Flute Theatre specialises in ground breaking Shakespeare productions for autistic individuals and their families, created using the Hunter Heartbeat method, which involves special sensory drama games.  

There will be two stagings of ‘Pericles’ at Riverside Studios, one for mainstream audiences and one for autistic individuals. I spoke to Kelly to find out more about them both. 

CM: It’s far from being the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s plays – so can you remind/tell readers what ‘Pericles’ is all about? 
KH: Actually – in the immediate period after Shakespeare died – ‘Pericles’ was one of his most regularly performed plays. 

The play is a journey across two generations of families who lose each other at sea during a wartime famine, become refugees and find each other again in a miraculous reunion scene at the end of the play. It begins in Syria, travels through Lebanon and Turkey, and ends in Greece.

This play could have been written today. It’s one of Shakespeare’s last plays – a mysterious romance that cuts to the heart of what it feels like to be alive. 

CM: What themes are explored through the play? 
KH: Fundamentally the play explores the suffering of the innocent at the hands of governing states. How can we know what is true? Who should we believe? We also follow the romance of falling in love and the impossible challenges of parenthood. 

CM: What made you want to stage it? Why do you think it’s not staged more? 
KH: I love five Shakespeare plays above and beyond the others: ‘Hamlet’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Cymbeline’, ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Pericles’. They all explore the impossibility and necessity of forgiving those close to us when they harm us. 

I have no idea why ‘Pericles’ is not staged more from an artistic point of view, but theatres are always worried about selling tickets and they often think that audiences won’t come to a play they have not heard of.

When I started to talk to theatres about staging ‘Pericles’ in 2019, I was told no one would come. That has not been true. 

CM: You’re doing two different types of performance of it, one of which is specifically for autistic people. Can you tell us about the performance for autistic people?
KH: This is the third production I have created for autistic individuals and their families using my Hunter Heartbeat sensory drama games that I have developed over the last 20 years with the autistic community across the world.

A maximum of twelve autistic individuals come to each performance and we adapt the production so they can participate in the story, experiencing and sharing how it feels to be alive and at the same time celebrating their identity. Many of the participants are non verbal; we use rhythm and movement to create a conversation of the body and soul without spoken word.

We also perform with refugee families. The dissociation of mind and body experienced by those who are autistic or suffering grief and trauma can be alleviated through direct participation in this production. 

CM: Can you tell us about the mainstream production – and how it is informed by the performance for autistic individuals?
KH: An audience creates a piece of theatre – without an audience there is no theatre. The more intensely an audience feels they need to see a play the more intensely the actors will give their hearts and souls. “Keeping the wound open” is my first instruction to my company of actors.

Our autistic audiences usually have NO other means of accessing artistic expression; their need is infinite. These performances with autistic individuals compress Shakespeare’s language and by doing so expand meaning and feeling. Shakespeare does this with his poetry and we push it further with the performances with non verbal autists. 

Recently we performed our mainstage ‘Pericles’ to Ukrainian refugee families in Bulgaria who do not speak English. We also had a Zoom set up where Ukrainian families still living in Ukraine could watch. We could hear the air raid sirens as we performed.

We performed in a room in the refugee centre and we had no costumes or props, we performed the story, knowing the audiences’ need to be transported into another world was immense.

There is no difference in our attitude to the two performances – we give everything every time. 

CM: Can you tell us about the development of your way of connecting with children with autism? What inspired you to want to create this kind of work? 
KH: I was very much out on a limb about twenty years ago – I was performing as an actor at the RSC and at odds with the culture there – so much so that I threw a chair at the artistic director in anger at a £10,000 animatronic sheep that I was rehearsing with.

So after that, I guess I knew I had to find my own way. I took myself off to a special school – Glebe School in Beckenham – and offered to do some drama sessions with the students saying I wanted to create ways of using Shakespeare with people who had no access to the arts.

The deputy head said “sure, you’re welcome, come and play with all the kids, but you won’t be able to go behind that door” – pointing to a door – “because those kids are autistic and they would never play with you”. So obviously I wanted to get behind that door. I did, and I stayed for three years with the twelve autistic teenagers there, who taught me how to play with them. 

We used heartbeat rhythms – based on the iambic pentameter – to create a womb-like space where everyone can feel safe. The heartbeat is the first sound you hear in the womb before you are born and arguably the most comforting sound there is.

The twelve students and I created sensory games of eye contact, spatial awareness and imaginative leaps, based on moments from Shakespeare’s plays that use eyes, mind, reason and love – four keywords in the plays – to embody and express how it feels to be alive.

These games are the bedrock of the work I’m still doing today with autistic individuals and refugees. 

CM: How did Flute Theatre get on during the lockdown? Were you able to continue creating and reaching autistic audiences? 
KH: Yes, very much so. We adapted our three productions – ‘Pericles’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Tempest’ – to be accessible for the autistic community throughout the lockdown, performing for one autistic individual at a time across the world in English, Spanish and Catalan.

We gave 976 individual performances between March 2020 and July 2021. We managed to stay in direct contact with our communities of autistic children and their families in London, Brighton, Barcelona and the US, and made new communities in India and Peru. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about your career? Did you always want to work in the arts? How did it all begin? 
KH: I’ve been performing since I was seventeen, I was in the original company of ‘Evita’ in the West End in 1979 and I have been performing and/or directing in theatre for the last 40 years. 

When I was nineteen I played the leading role in the National Theatre’s greatest flop – ‘Jean Seberg’.  I twisted my ankle on the second preview and performed in a wheelchair on the Olivier stage to an audience of Broadway producers, who sat aghast at the disaster unfolding in front of them. I learnt a lot about what is and what is not important during that time. 

During the 80s I stopped performing and worked at the Terrence Higgins Trust in its very early days during the AIDS pandemic. 

Then in 2014 I founded Flute Theatre to create productions of Shakespeare that can directly speak to audiences. This autumn we are doing just that – especially with our work performing with refugee families who have autistic children.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
KH: I’ve thought about this question for ten minutes and can’t find an honest answer, so I’ll leave that to anyone who has watched me or Flute perform.

I was recently part of the human chain around the Houses Of Parliament to protest the imprisonment of Julian Assange. I’m proud to have done that.

My career in the arts has been and continues to be a conduit to understanding the world in as true a way as possible and trying not to allow fear to rule my decisions.  

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
KH: None. I’ve learnt to do the next right thing. That’s enough, anything else is foolish. 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
KH: As soon as we finish this tour I want to put more time into joining the campaign to free Julian Assange and trying to spread awareness and action around the incomprehensible assault on all our freedoms that his imprisonment at Belmarsh Prison currently represents.

Shakespeare’s plays speak endlessly of being honest, so if I can’t be honest in my own life and take action with that honesty there’s no point in doing the plays. 

‘Pericles’ and ‘Pericles’ for autistic individuals are on at Riverside Studios from 8-13 Nov. For exact dates and times, and more info, see the venue website here. The shows continue on to Brighton, appearing at The Old Market on 16 Nov – click here for the performance for autistic individuals, and here for the mainstream show.

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