Shakespeare and Special Needs Teenagers
As an ongoing series in The Marbury Project, we interview women working across the country in theater today.
A.B.L.E., a Chicago-based performing arts company creating performances with special needs youth, is currently in rehearsals for their tenth stage production, Twelfth Night as part of Shakespeare 400. Shawn C. Harris interviews founder and A.B.L.E. director Katie Yohe about her joys of working with these kids, how she got started, and how theaters can embrace those with developmental needs.
Shawn C. Harris: Tell our readers a little about yourself and what you do.
Katie Yohe: I am the founder and artistic director for Artists Breaking Limits & Expectations (ABLE). We provide performing arts opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome and other developmental special needs. Currently, we have an ensemble of 20 young adults with Down syndrome supported by a group teaching artists and volunteers. Together, we produce 2 stage productions a year and are also gearing up to start our 2nd feature film. Our first film, The Curse of the Tempest Jewel, was featured on “Your Chicago” on the CBS Evening News, in the Chicago Onscreen Showcase through the Chicago Park District’s Movies in the Parks Program, and received an Award of Merit from The Accolade Global Film Competition.
What inspired you to work with children with special needs?
During my time at Syracuse University, I participated in a fabulous program now known as All Star CAST. This initiative pairs undergraduate students with individuals from the surrounding community with developmental special needs. It was an instrumental part of my time at SU and something I loved and looked forward to every week. After several years trying “the actor’s life” in London and Chicago, the instability, the uncertainty, and stresses of competing in a very subjective business started to weigh on me. Some actors thrive on this – it keeps them on their toes – but for me, I felt unfulfilled. Using my time with Young Actors as a guide, a friend and I started a weekly drama troupe for 6 actors with Down syndrome at GiGi’s Playhouse Chicago in 2010, and through the years that program has grown in to ABLE. Teaching allows me to get what I consider the best parts of theatre – building relationships, playing and collaborating with a team – without the stressful bits.
What are some misconceptions and assumptions people have about children with special needs participating in theater?
When I tell people I do Shakespeare with a group of teenagers with cognitive disabilities, often I’m met with disbelief. Once someone outright asked, “don’t you think you’re setting them up to fail?” It’s heartbreaking, because I believe Shakespeare is perfect for this group. Tackling this work encourages actors to explore language and to develop their skills for articulation and vocal clarity.
Shakespeare helps them to get in touch with big emotions, and also lets them identify with clear, archetypal yet well-rounded characters. Beyond that, we do Shakespeare because I respect them. I respect that they are individuals. They have experiences. They have feelings. They have knowledge they can bring to these timeless stories. They deserve equal access to culture and the opportunity to prove what they are able to do.
Have you noticed a difference in how gender affects the expectations of children with special needs?
It seems to me that society tends to de-gender and de-sexualize individuals with special needs completely. They are treated like they’re children forever, and they’re definitely not. These kids dream of first kisses, too. At ABLE we work with ages 14-21 and they have all the same crazy hormones and urges that their typically-abled peers have. These are individuals who dream about their first kisses, who want to have romantic relationships, who want to get married, and all the other things we hope for in a relationship, but it seems to be taboo for them to talk about it. We have to acknowledge and respect them as having the full spectrum of human desires and emotions. Hopefully educating and accepting this can also help to protect them, since individuals with special needs are statistically more likely to be the victims of a sexual assault.
How does your work with ABLE empower girls with special needs to take leadership roles in future artistic endeavors?
Working on theater helps them to build confidence and skills that will help them onstage and in their day-to-day lives. We’re encouraging improved communication skills, creative problem solving, teamwork and cooperation. Our actors are all taught the value of working in an ensemble. We follow an ensemble code of conduct (Listen, Focus, Support Each Other, Do Our Best, and Have Fun!).
During Alena’s first production, she barely raised her head. I held her hand and shepherded her around the stage from place to place. Sometimes she said her line. Sometimes she didn’t. When she did, it was not much beyond a whisper. Fast-forward 3 years and this young girl’s self confidence has EXPLODED. She commands attention, she takes up space with her voice and her body, and she wants to share. She’s excited to see her friends at rehearsal and for her mom to see her perform. Alena is just one of the kids I work with. Each one of them has their own growth journey, and I can share a specific story about the moment each one of them came out of their shell and surprised me.
Do you notice and disparities in the gender of those who do the kind of work that you do with children with special needs? Why do you think that is?
Though we have some incredible men who volunteer with us, I definitely see more women in this field of work than men. I really don’t know why it is, but I seem to see more women than men in education on the whole. I wish it weren’t so because the young men in our group could definitely use adult male mentors to work with and relate to them.
Are there other companies that work with people with special needs?
There are more opportunities popping up all over! In the Chicago area, there are a few groups that work with different special needs. Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Red Kite Project focuses on individuals with autism. Special Gifts Theatre is based in Skokie but offers satellite programs all around the region for individuals with special needs. The Gift Theatre also makes an effort to cast individuals with varying special needs. Elsewhere, I’m a big fan of Co/Lab Theatre Group in NYC which was started by another group of Syracuse Alums who were similarly inspired by their work with All Star CAST. And of course, Deaf West Theatre recently finished their Broadway production of Spring Awakening with a deaf and hearing impaired cast.
What are some things that Chicago’s theatre community can do to make theatre more accessible to girls and women with special needs?
The Chicago Cultural Accessibilty Consortium is working to bring together all of Chicago’s cultural instututions and try to make them more accessible and approachable for visitors. And I know more and more shows are hosting relaxed performances to welcome individuals with sensory sensitivities or other special needs. But beyond that, I think we can see more individuals with special needs onstage.