A.B.L.E. – Twelfth Night

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Several months ago I was invited to attend the May 28 performance of Twelfth Night by Artists Breaking Limits and Expectations (A.B.L.E.) in the Courtyard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and to write about it for
City Desk 400. The A.B.L.E. ensemble is comprised of twenty actors, ages 14-21, each with Down syndrome or other developmental challenges. I accepted the invitation with a combination of anticipation and anxiety. As the parent of a child with significant special needs, I welcome the opportunity to examine extracurricular programs that allow access to cultural and literary enrichment for students who are often denied those experiences in school. As a Shakespeare teacher and performer, I have worked with students for years and know something of the emotional intensity Shakespeare’s language provides. At the same time, I am perhaps overly cautious about enrichment programming that places students with special needs in situations that may be overwhelming or developmentally inappropriate for them.

Arriving at the crowded theater and taking my seat, I perused the program and saw that virtually all of the actors are veterans of the company, many of them performing in their seventh, eighth, even tenth production. So there must be something that keeps them coming back. My anxiety was further relieved when Katie Yohe, co-founder of A.B.L.E., came to the stage to introduce the show and explain a bit about the process through which it came to be. She described the A.B.L.E. philosophy that the actors should be able to “have fun” and concentrate on their relationship with their scene partners, rather than worry about memorization. Volunteer teaching artists and facilitators, holding scripts, would physically shadow the actors on stage, speaking the lines in two or three-word bursts, echoed by the actors.

The method worked. Somehow, standing behind the actors, the facilitators in black A.B.L.E. logo t-shirts were able to articulate the lines, project their reading for the audience, cue the actors, and yet not steal focus from the actors themselves. For their part, the actors infused their recitation of lines with flourish and intensity original to themselves, drawing the audience into a circle of understanding. Even ensemble members with less developed verbal abilities demonstrated passion for the intentions of their characters through vocal tone and gesture. Simple yet elegant costumes and accessories helped to identify the characters, as each was performed by different actors in different scenes, with each actor playing more than one character during the course of the performance. Occasional physical and verbal ad-libs on the part of the actors added to the levity in the production. Peter Van Kempen, one of the teaching artists, served as narrator to link together scenes. Van Kempen also provided music, along with his brother Paul and Kaylie Honkala.

This show was the third production of Twelfth Night I’ve seen as part of the Shakespeare 400 Chicago celebration, and each production has illuminated a different side of the work. In the rock and roll production by Britain’s Filter Theatre, the audience was treated as collaborators and the focus was on the zaniness of the characters and situations. In Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Short Shakespeare! Twelfth Night production, a streamlined text and clear direction invited young audience members into the story. In the A.B.L.E. show, the essential experience for me was in witnessing the process whereby Shakespeare’s language emboldens and invigorates young people who too often are denied the chance to do serious artistic and creative work in school. I wondered whether I would find Shakespeare in the show, or whether the pleasure would be in seeing the ensemble members perform. The answer was yes and yes. The level of challenge for the actors was both appropriate and rigorous, while the language of Shakespeare—the actual words and exchanges of dialogue, even in a script that was cut liberally—carried the day.

While we might expect that all students are routinely exposed to Shakespeare in school, that exposure is not always authentic. Working in schools throughout the Chicago area, I have seen a growing trend of replacing Shakespeare’s language, especially for students with special needs, in favor of more simplified versions called “No Fear Shakespeare” or other “adapted from Shakespeare” resources. As the Lexile scores (a simplistic mathematical formula for determining text difficulty) in the “No Fear” version appear to match what is considered appropriate for struggling students’ levels of comprehension (based on equally inappropriate tests), many teachers choose to march students through these lifeless scripts to avoid the difficulty, the confusion, and the ultimate illumination that is Shakespeare’s own language. If A.B.L.E.’s Twelfth Night demonstrated anything, it was that fidelity to Shakespeare’s language is essential. Cut the text, fill in the gaps with storytelling and gesture, but don’t take apart the powerful speeches and exchanges of dialogue that make Shakespeare magical. Hearing Viola/Cesario speak, with conviction and a smile, “Excellently done, if God did all,” provides much more pleasure than listening to a watered down version. And in this production, the echo effect of hearing two or three words spoken by the facilitator, then spoken again by the actor, allowed the words to submerge themselves in our minds:

Facilitator: O,
Actor: O,
Facilitator: then unfold,
Actor: then unfold,
Facilitator: the passion,
Actor: the passion,
Facilitator: of my love.
Actor: of my love.

Occasionally, an actor would anticipate the next words to come and would complete the line uninterrupted by the facilitator, which provided a thrilling reversal to the more common experience of hearing an actor lose a line.

Performing comedy is tricky under any circumstances, and even the most seasoned actors fear that audiences won’t respond. Considering the name of the A.B.L.E. organization, “Artists Breaking Limits and Expectations,” we might expand our notion of whose limits and whose expectations are being broken. Conventionally, we would think it is the artists’ limits and the audience’s expectations that are challenged through the work. But this group not only challenges expectations of what students with Down Syndrome can or cannot do, it also breaks the audience’s limits regarding how we perceive Shakespeare’s 400-year-old works. It calls into question who owns Shakespeare, who has the right to perform Shakespeare, and what makes Shakespeare appealing. I would suggest that the A.B.L.E. ensemble actors own Shakespeare on a personal level that I, having studied Shakespeare for over thirty years, cannot match. Actors in the company have developed a chemistry that transcends the play. They are serious, yet they display a sense of humor. They want their show to be a success, and they care about the story they tell.

It was nearly 50 years ago that Homer “Murph” Swander in California called on Shakespeare scholars and teachers to use performance as a way to immerse students in Shakespeare’s texts. “It’s a script, not a play!” Swander told his students, and he enlisted actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company to help spread his method. Getting students up on their feet and moving, speaking Shakespeare’s language, mining the text for clues to unlock intention and meaning—Swander’s teaching innovation has since become a well-known approach, carried forward by teachers around the world. Shakespeare’s language comes to life when activated on stage. I can’t help but think that Swander, now ninety-four, would have been moved if he had seen the A.B.L.E. Twelfth Night.

And who was this performance for? It was for the actors who would not have this opportunity without the grace of the A.B.L.E volunteers. It was for the families who got to experience their children performing Shakespeare on a professional stage. It was for the A.B.L.E. teaching artists and facilitators who believe in the power of theater to transform lives. Perhaps most of all, it was for the rest of us who were given the occasion to deepen our own humanity.

Katie Yohe and Lawrence Kern founded A.B.L.E. with the mission to provide “performing arts opportunities through which individuals with Down syndrome and other developmental special needs feel accepted and empowered to discover their own unique voices, and develop the confidence and skills to share who they are and what they are ABLE to do.” In order to establish that confidence and the feeling of acceptance and empowerment, an audience is required, and the audience must be moved by what transpires on stage. I believe, having seen the A.B.L.E. group work their magic with Twelfth Night, that every participant in the program knows what an impact they had on their audience, which is what every serious actor craves. The joy with which the entire ensemble sang the closing song, having cast a spell and taken us to Illyria with Viola and Sebastian, positively radiated from the stage. The standing ovation they received was as authentic as their performance.

This experience convinces me even more deeply that all youth must be granted access to extracurricular programs that allow them to stretch their limits. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that all students be afforded a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, with access to supports to help them succeed. Sometimes, evidently, the least restrictive environment for personal, academic, and artistic growth comes outside the confines of the school. We must pursue and support endeavors of this kind.

Bravo Colleen, Quincy, Marissa, Alena, Rachel, Jack, Benjamin, Samuel, Natalia, Fletcher, Andrew, Emily, Emily, Lucas, Mila, Claire, Sam, Sam, Hannah, Lucy, and all the A.B.L.E. teaching artists and facilitators. Bravo!


Timothy J. Duggan is an associate professor of Education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where he teaches English education and English courses, including Shakespeare, and coordinates a partnership between the University and Amundsen High School. He earned his EdD in curriculum and instruction from the University of South Dakota, his MA in English literature from the University of Nebraska and his BA in English literature from University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of three books, including Advanced Placement Classroom: Hamlet and Advanced Placement Classroom: Julius Caesar from Prufrock Press. Read more about Tim…