Miracle in Acquaiola: My Work With Autistic Young People in Italy, 2007

by Karen Saillant

In the summer of 2007, I was invited to create a first piece of theater with a group of 7 autistic young people in Comunità Terepeutica Riabilitativa, a home for Therapeautic Rehabilitation in Acquaiola, near the town of Città della Pieve, where I was preparing an operatic world premiere, based on Shakespeare. The 7 young people in Acquaiola, from ages 13-27, are considered the most severely challenged in all of Umbria. Only one of these young people can communicate through speech.

As I interviewed my actors for the first time, the kernel of a fairy tale came into my mind, simultaneously with a character that was based upon the present condition and ability of each actor. I observed the movements and behaviors that each one had. Their actions inspired me to create characters that would logically have these types of behaviors. For example, the youngest boy, small and thin, had the behavior of walking around the room quickly, with outstretched arm, touching objects and people and smelling them. He would be our fairy. Soon his character would evolve into our Piccolo Mago, Little Wizard. The movements and behaviors, as an actor, or character, gave meaning to what might have previously been considered meaningless activity. I believe that this affirmation of behavior enabled each actor to begin to accept his/her actions (and therefore himself/herself) as natural, perhaps even more than natural, special or desirable, as each actor began to sense in some small way that their movements were accepted and necessary.

The typical audition sequence, where the director looks for a person with a particular ability to play a particular role was reversed. What occurred in this situation was that the particular ability of the actor determined the nature of the role and it became the job of the director/playwright to create a play and roles in that play that would logically fit the behavior of the actor. Logic is important.  The audience must feel the logic in the presentation of the character. Their imagination/memory must find some link, some access in order to accept the interpretation of the character. Even if this link is stretched to its limit, if there is the slightest possibility of grabbing hold of the character and thereby reeling it into the plausible, the audience will do so. The further the audience must go to find this plausibility, the more satisfying the performance.

Additionally, a path, or link, was created between my imagination and that of the actor. The actors’ access to my belief in their ability was deepened through melding. This was a behavior that I had unknowingly practiced when I took care of my husband, who was in a coma in my home for 15 months. Almost immediately in Acquaiola I found myself going into this state with the actors. In this state, I was able to communicate, to transfer a possibility into the self image imagination of the actor. This created a link or path through which each actor, some more successfully than others, could see into the reality of my world-the present world and thereby not only sense my belief in him/her, but have a glance at my reality- one that can shift between many other possible realities.

The affirmation of the actors was strengthened by the love, talent and belief that my friend, David Zenini, the person who brought me to Acquaiola, the enlightened individual who so believed in the possibility of his young actors, poured into the days that he spent with them after my two afternoons there. In addition, David’s colleagues, he tells me, were inspired, by my force of belief, to believe that such miracles as we were proposing, were possible. They gave David the support and affirmation that he needed in order to make our vision possible.

It was not just the performance that impressed me so much, even though I was deeply moved by it and well aware of the evolution of the piece which had taken place during the month between the times that I saw the actors and the presentation for family and friends. What impressed me the most was the behavior of all of the actors AFTER the play. During the party and celebration that followed, the behavior of the actors was so much more normal. Each one was much more connected to present reality and therefore more connected to their family and friends and the behaviors that they exhibit.

Throughout the play one could feel the involvement of the audience in the realization of the actions of the actors. David, who was playing the servant of the only actor that could speak, would make statements that would cue the appearance of a particular object or person (always with the help of an assistant). On one occasion a large flag was to appear. David, as the servant, told the audience that the flag was coming. We could see it trying to arrive as it was visible high above the flat that had been placed in front of the stage, but we could see that it was not actually arriving. David kept telling us that the flag was coming and we in the audience sat there willing it to come, giving all of the force that we had to make its arrival possible. When the flag finally arrived along with the mildly confused faced of the bearer (and the assistant hidden well behind the flag), we all shouted and cheered and clapped. The face of the flag bearer changed to one of realization, of realization that an action requested had been fulfilled. Then satisfaction slowly filled his face and as it did, more cheers rang out from the audience. It was one of the most authentic and exciting theatrical moments I have ever experienced-a moment of complete unity between audience and actor when a goal, an impossible goal had been accomplished by the same type of will that enables a mother to lift an automobile off of her dying child.

I believe, in thinking about this amazing performance, that our flag miracle and so many other miracles occurred because the parents and friends of the actors were able to accept the new image of the actors that we had created. They were able to join with us on that path to communication. The self image of the actor was transformed and transferred and just as the mother of the young boy who had fallen from a window when he was two said, she never imagined that he would have been able to do such a thing. This boy is so gifted. He is the only one who can speak and it was thanks to his incredible imagination and creativity that the play was named and given its continuity as he spoke his lines.

In the house, prior to the performance he told me “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.” over and over. As I hugged him, I reassured him that he was totally right. He could and he did and it was such a victory for everyone involved. If his mother, who loved him so much could not imagine it, how would it have been possible for him to do this? Only with the deep imprinting and love and power of the imagination of others was this possible. We must continue to talk about this miracle and we must keep making miracles like this happen all over the world!