Cerebral palsy doesn't stop these kids from doing 'Hamlet'

Samantha Pearlman (left) helps Amanda Long in a staging of "Hamlet" by HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy.
Samantha Pearlman (left) helps Amanda Long in a staging of "Hamlet" by HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 14, 2012

To be or not to be.

Shakespeare chose simple words for the most complicated of questions, words so powerful that they have resonated for four centuries.

When Heather Krause, a teaching artist with Walnut Street Theatre, saw how her students responded to those words, she had an outrageous idea: stage Hamlet with six high school-age actors with mental retardation and cerebral palsy, children so disabled that all are in wheelchairs and some cannot speak without the aid of machines.

And so it came to be last week that young actors from HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy rolled through the loading dock onto the main stage of Walnut Street Theatre and said those famous words each in his own way, killed each other tragically, and basked in the applause after "Good night, sweet prince."

It was a shorter, simpler Hamlet, and it was hard to tell whether the students understood the complicated plot or those famous one-syllable words. But it was clear that children for whom it is an achievement to raise a head on cue or say an intelligible word had found meaning in their moments under the lights. They had found ways to make their uncooperative bodies look regal, delicate, full of youthful vigor, alive and dead.

Krause, a longtime Shakespeare buff, finds working with these actors refreshing. So much about theater with "normal" actors is focused on creating something as perfect as possible. "We're so working to the product," she said. "With this, it's all about process and growth."

The theater's collaboration with HMS school began on a much smaller scale seven years ago. Now, Walnut staffers work with six groups of students, and all of the school's 55 students get some kind of theater exposure. Last week's performance marked the first time HMS students had performed on the Walnut's main stage. Walnut artists also have worked with preschoolers at KenCrest Services.

People's Light and Theater Company and Theatre Horizon have worked with children with autism. Other programs use acting techniques to teach children with disabilities, an approach the Kennedy Center has long encouraged. Officials at theater company officials said demand is increasing as school arts budgets have been cut.

School and theater leaders say that acting has some of the same benefits for disabled children as it does for their more normal peers. It's a shot at a different kind of success and a chance for children who may lack athletic prowess to experience teamwork. For children with autism, it may also help build self-control, empathy and a sense of connection. For students such as those at HMS, theater is a way to get balky bodies moving that doesn't feel so much like work. It's an opportunity to do pretend play, a crucial part of childhood that can get short shrift when disabilities get all the attention.

For these kids, it's an effort just to learn sequencing - that the play happens the same way every time and that their part comes after a someone else's. Some are still learning that their touch pads, which contain preprogrammed words and phrases, are their voices.

Rich Magnuson, an occupational therapist at HMS who works with the Walnut's teaching artists, said it's important for the kids at HMS to feel butterflies before a performance and go on anyway and to receive applause. He loved watching the students' faces recently as they watched themselves in a taped performance. "They were excited and they were happy and they were giggling," he said.

A small study of students at the Pathway School, which serves children with autism, found significant improvements in their ability to display appropriate emotions, offer help to others, control their tempers and acknowledge the perspectives of others after working with artists from People's Light.

Roger Ideishi, who teaches occupational therapy at University of the Sciences, conducted a similar pilot study of the Walnut's work with KenCrest and found the students' socialization skills improved.

Ideishi wants to reach children who may not fit into the typical "educational agenda." When they enjoy theater at whatever level is possible for them, "that's the seed for growth," he said. "That's the seed for learning."

Usually, the Walnut crew created plays for HMS that grew out of the students' experiences. Krause was eager to try a well-known play. She asked the students to say, "To be or not to be" as a warm-up and loved the response.

"I just couldn't get over it," she said. "They all were able to do it in their own way, and they just felt so accomplished in doing it."

These young actors will never rival Laurence Olivier, but that's not the point. "For them, I just think it's that they know that they can do it," she said. "They know that they can say those words, and that is a victory in a sense."

The play itself is complex. Young Hamlet has returned to Denmark from school in Germany for his father's funeral. He has reason to believe that his uncle Claudius, now the king and husband of his mother, Gertrude, has murdered his father. Things aren't going well with his girlfriend, Ophelia, either.

As in any play, the cast brought different skills to their parts. All the HMS students had young actors from Walnut to help them remember their parts and move around the stage. Greg Viola played Hamlet's friend, Laertes, with an extrovert's zest. The best speaker in the group, he rarely needed to have his lines repeated. Amanda Long, who played Gertrude, does not talk. She needed help to raise a hand and prompting to lift and lower her head, but she performed with focus and enthusiasm. Emily Whiteman could repeat a word or two but still managed to convey Ophelia's sad vulnerability. Heath Goldberg - Claudius - clearly enjoyed his sword fight and beamed at the applause when the play ended.

The 19-year-old student who played Hamlet had an especially important part in the production. (His legal guardian did not want his name disclosed because he is in a vulnerable family situation.) Magnuson interviewed him about Hamlet's predicament. Based on his responses, Krause crafted a version of the to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy that trades the grand existential question for a more concrete dilemma:

"I feel horrible. My dad is dead. Mom rushed into marriage with my uncle, and I don't know why. I have a lot of mixed emotions. If she knew my father was murdered, I would feel a lot differently about her. If she knew what Claudius was planning, why didn't she stop him? I would love to become king, but am I willing to kill someone to do it? That is the question!"

Everyone in the cast got to say the most famous line "To be, or not to be. That is the question."

With their performance, they had answered: to be.

Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

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