At the Intersection of Theatre and Disability: SF Shakes Talks with Lauren Kivowitz about Shakespeare’s Heartbeat

Lauren Kivowitz teaches Shakespeare’s Heartbeat for SF Shakes.

Place your right hand over your heart. Now gently thump your chest with the palm of your hand in sync to the rhythm of your ticker: da-DUM, da-DUM. Now say the word “hello” in time to the gentle beating with the stress on the second syllable, just like the da-DUM of your heart– hel-LO, da-DUM, hel-LO, da-DUM, hel-LO. Now smile and pass this feeling on. This ritual is called the Heartbeat Hello or the Heartbeat Circle and it’s how every session of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat begins. Shakespeare’s Heartbeat is an innovative program that uses Shakespeare’s language to engage students on the autism spectrum. It was originated by Kelly Hunter, a British actor who developed the Hunter Heartbeat Method in her work with children during her time with the Royal Shakespeare Company and later in her own company, Touchstone Theatre Company. Its name implies the synchronicity between the beat of the human heart and Shakespeare’s favorite meter, iambic pentameter– a string of five iambs or metrical units consisting of two syllables, one unstressed followed by one stressed as in: But SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?

Lauren Kivowitz is the founder of Inclusive Arts, a consultancy that advocates for equity, inclusion, and neurodiversity through arts education. As a teaching artist for SF Shakes, Lauren has recently completed one term of teaching Shakespeare’s Heartbeat at Francisco Middle School, an exciting new endeavor for SF Shakes. Recently, we caught up with Lauren to talk about the kind of work she does in San Francisco to advance access and inclusion in the arts.

SF Shakes: Please tell us about the work you did to win a Learning Achievement Award from ArtCare: The Friends of the SF Arts Commission.

Kivowitz: I won it for a partnership project between ACT (for whom I am a teaching artist) and AccessSFUSD: The Arc. Essentially, my class brings together students from Access—which is a program for transition-age young adults with disabilities—and adults from The Arc and IN:SF, both organizations for adults with disabilities. My students represent a wide range of ages, communication styles, and levels of mobility. For the first half of the year we work on improv, skill building, and exploring what it means to be an actor. In the second half, we devise a play based on a theme that is important to the group. Previous themes have been power and boundaries; this year’s theme is community. I come from a devising background, so after we talk a lot about our ideas and generate tons of different scenes through improv, I synthesize them all to produce a script that we’ll be performing on May 18 at the Access Spring Art Show.

SF Shakes: How did you get started with Shakespeare’s Heartbeat?

Kivowitz: I have a master’s degree in Applied Theater from CUNY School of Professional Studies in New York. Applied Theater involves using participatory theater techniques for education, social justice, and community building; and I’ve always been interested in neurodiversity, so I focused in my studies on doing theater work specifically with neurodiverse populations and then decided to make this my niche. When I moved back to San Francisco from New York, I approached SF Shakes—this must have been around 2017—with the idea of doing work at the intersection of theatre and disability and that I was interested in exploring what an inclusive performance might look like. The conversation ended there. This happened a lot back then. I would get a lot of yes, this is very exciting and we want this, but for some reason or another, people weren’t willing to take the plunge. I ascribed it to people not knowing what they don’t know. What I offered sounded very different from what people are used to working with, and not everyone had the necessary comfort level or background to accept it. Eventually, Phil Lowery (Director of Education for SF Shakes) put me in touch with Joseph Schmitz from Eureka Street Learning. It was Joe who taught me the techniques for Shakespeare’s Heartbeat; he’s the expert, but now I’m starting to come into my own. Phil, Joe, and I met. We talked; and as luck would have it, there was a willing venue to start a Shakespeare’s Heartbeat program at Francisco Middle School. And that’s the origin story for Shakespeare’s Heartbeat at SF Shakes.

SF Shakes: Can you talk a little about the program itself? What are some of the principles underlying it and the practices that define it?

The whole idea is that it’s a very sensory experience and very structured and routine. It stems from the primal sensory experience which is the heartbeat—iambic pentameter, right? It connects you immediately with the rhythm of Shakespeare. This is Kelly Hunter’s sensory approach to Shakespeare. A key area of focus for Hunter are words that recur over and over again in Shakespeare’s work: eyes, mind, reason, and love. Activities are based on the senses associated with these words, with exercises inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest primarily. A lot of what these games do is practice skills that might present challenges for people on the autism spectrum. You don’t have to be able to understand Shakespeare or be able to read his plays to tap into the power and the fun of these exercises. For example, anyone can play someone who is surprised to see a donkey in front of them, or play somebody who is having fun casting spells on people. But generally, what I find is that the Heartbeat Method offers new means of participation, and our students are really amazing at tapping into their imaginations and playing the games in a truly celebratory way.

Success and engagement look different on everyone.

And I think it changes every single day for any given person.

SF Shakes: How do you measure success?

I don’t, is the short answer. I say this to every person I work with, and I’ll say it a thousand times and a thousand more: success and engagement look different on everyone. And I think it changes every single day for any given person. Let’s take the Heartbeat Hello as an example. Some students will never vocalize “hello,” and there are others who have aides physically help them create the heartbeat motion; so, maybe success is that one day they create the heartbeat by themselves and have a moment in which they are clearly engaged, and maybe the next week they won’t do that. The repetition built into the curriculum helps us track changes. Even so, day-to-day success is hard to track because classes can be all over the place, depending on what the students bring into the room with them. But in the long run, I feel very confident saying that we’ve seen a huge uptick in engagement in our students, and that means something different for all of them.

It’s a myth that autistic people

don’t have imaginations!

SF Shakes: Would you agree that there is a complicated relationship between art education and art therapy? I ask this because from a certain angle, the work of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat could be seen as therapeutic.

I love therapy, but in this educational context it can be problematic to call what we do therapy, not just because of qualifications, but also specifically with regards to this population. I have found that many of the therapies often associated with folks with disabilities tend to focus on the need for change and are a bit more clinical and deficit-focused. These types of therapy are not as into celebrating the strengths of an individual, but focus more on how to “normalize” behavior so that the neurotypical world is comfortable with it. I really want to just enter the room and have the kids go wild with their imaginations–it’s a myth that Autistic people don’t have imaginations! You come as what you are and I’m going to celebrate everything you bring. And if there’s a behavior that is really distracting then we might see how we can use this behavior to inform our lessons in some way. The goal isn’t to “fix” anybody, or even to interrogate why anyone might be acting a certain way, though that’s certainly not to say that a type of therapeutic growth doesn’t happen in these classes. My goal is to give my students an outlet to celebrate their strengths and interests while participating in some really fun imaginative play. I like to challenge myself and other teaching artists to consider the question of how much you are comfortable saying yes to in the room, whether that’s ideas or behaviors or whatever. After years of experience doing this type of work, I have found that I am comfortable saying yes to a lot in my classes, which contributes to my own growth as well.

SF Shakes: How would you like to see the Heartbeat program grow?

Kivowitz: More schools! Summer camps! It would be great to get more mainstream exposure, perhaps introduce this to Shakespeare in the Park audiences. It’d be great to have the opportunity to do a little preshow activity, maybe where we do the Heartbeat Hello or something on that level, something that would expose the public to this program. I’m also interested in seeing how we can incorporate some of the elements of Shakespeare’s Heartbeat into creating relaxed performances that would be sensory-friendly for audience members with disabilities. I realize this can feel like a challenging feat, but imagine the whole audience of Shakespeare in the Park starting the show with a Heartbeat Hello. I think that would be amazing. It would be so cool. Let’s do it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s