In this interview Diana Damian talks to Tim Webb, Artistic Director of Oily Cart, about his company and its work for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

You have extensive experience creating theatre for very young children, and children with profound and multiple learning disabilities. What is your theatre making process? What do you start with, and how does it develop?

We tend to start with a concept or a method that we’ve touched on in a previous show, or come across somewhere else. It might be that we decide to concentrate on a particular sense in a new show. For example, we’re considering a show about scent/odour for a new installation piece and we’re hoping to collaborate on this with the research department of a major scent manufacturer. Our recent piece, Something in the Air, sprang from an exploration of the kinaesthetic sense. We knew that young people with complex disabilities respond well to movement in a performance and so made a piece which was fundamentally about swinging, bouncing and spinning and in which the audience were suspended in moving chairs amongst the aerial performers. On other occasions we like to take a notion like string or paper and worry it to death. Can we do a show in which everything, every sound, every costume, puppet, prop, bit of set is about paper? Sometimes it’s about finding an emotional state or a character that an audience is going to find fascinating. Then I consult with my colleagues, write a script, take it into the rehearsal room and generally watch it get taken apart. We also take care that the theatre we create is not something happening at the other end of the room that you sit and look at. We like our theatre to happen below, above, either side and behind you. We like our performances to begin long before the audience reaches the venue and to continue long after they’ve gone home. It’s 360 degree theatre.

Could you talk briefly about where the idea of Something In the Air came from?

We’ve long been aware that giving a variety of movement in a performance is important, especially for young people with complex disabilities. If you can’t see or hear or either, then the other senses, of smell, of touch, the kinaesthetic sense become that much more significant. If you’re a wheelchair user or other wise limited in movement by braces, splints and the like, again you will relish a greater range of movement, and many young people on the autism spectrum seem to get a great deal of pleasure from quite extreme movement. For years we’ve had various sorts of movable seating: rocking chairs, swing seats and the like in our shows. With the same goal in mind, we’ve done shows on trampolines and in hydrotherapy pools. I wanted to introduce a wider range of movement – with seating that would swing, bounce & spin. We began to realise that we would need a very big rig for that. From that it was a relatively short step to conclude that if we had a big rig it would be possible, and great to have aerialists up there flying with the seats, and approaching the audience from on top, underneath, at their sides, upside down and the right way up.

You collaborated with Ockham’s Razor in the devising of the show. How did the collaboration come about?

Both our companies were performing at the 2007 Manchester International Festival. We loved the Ockham’s Razor show and afterwards I went along to see if they would be interested in offering technical advice on the rig for Something in the Air. After I’d pitched my pitch they said, “Yes. we’ll do that.” It turned out they meant they wanted to perform the show, as well as devise and bring the whole thing to life. It was beyond my craziest dream. Air would have been impossible without them – oh, and also the rigger Joe White. They are all brilliant.

You also collaborate with educators and special needs professionals in your process. What form does that collaboration take in the rehearsal room?

We have educators and special needs professionals on our board and they advise on our programming. We also have very close relationships with two or three Specials School where the staff advise us and we preview parts or all of a work-in-progress. We are fortunate to be based in a South London Primary School, where there is a nursery and also a Language Unit where young people are assessed with regard to autism. We work very closely with the school and preview a great deal of our work there. During rehearsals we frequently invite teachers and the like in to advise on subjects like the use of Makaton signing, the use of hoists, or hand and foot massage.

What role do characters play in your performances, and what do you draw inspiration from? Do you use the same actors for all performances, or do you recast every time?

The characters are often defined by their silhouettes, their texture, their sound, their smell (an essential oil on a wristband can define one character from another) or a prop, which they refer to a lot (an object of reference) and which comes to define them. We don’t recast every time – there’s a wealth of experience in the team which we try hard to hold onto – but in a new piece for young people with PMLD/ASD, 50% of the cast might be new, and they pick up a good deal of what you need to know from watching the old hands in action. I think in most theatre the audience watch the characters and that’s it. In our work, whether for young people with ASD/PMLD, or babies and toddlers, it’s at least as much about the actors watching the young people, and also the adults who generally accompany the young people, to see how their performances are being received, and then nuancing what they are doing to better fit the requirements of the participant.

How do you approach the creation of your environments? Where does the material come from, the textures, smells and sounds?

We set out to create environments, ‘wonderlands’, which will engage the intended audience as completely as possible. Recently we’ve been inspired by an industrial scent laboratory (see first question), part of a wonderful garden festival at Chaumont in France; but also by an eccentric display of alternative housing at Chevotogne in Belgium; and by listening to lots of musicians. Our designer, Claire de Loon, is always on the look-out for and is an expert in sourcing the material that is just right. ‘The devil is in the detail’ is a favourite quote of hers.

You provide a lot of information to your audience before the live event itself. Could you talk a little about that, and how it affects the live event?

This varies from show to show, but basically it involves the concept of ‘The Social Story’ in our work for people with complex disabilities. Many young people with learning disabilities, and particularly those on the autism spectrum, find difficulty in encountering new social situations or meeting new people. Social Stories, widely used in Special Schools, are illustrated books which explain the patterns of society and how you might relate to them. For example, there is a Social Story about eating in public, and another about visiting a grandparent. Of course a theatre performance is a very complex social event, and our Social Stories – in the form of large-format, photo-illustrated books, or a video on DVD, or posted on our website – introduce the characters, set and story that the participants will encounter during the show. We have also used large-format illustrated books containing the story of the show in advance for mainstream nurseries. Young children often like their favourite stories told over and over again, whereas we prefer new work. By sending out the story of the show in advance we can help our young audiences see our show as the dramatisation of an old favourite. When we can afford it, this sort of process goes ‘live’ as we embed characters from a show in a school or nursery for days or even weeks before the actual performance.

What is the role that play takes in your events, and how do you use it to maintain your audience’s interest during the event?

Play is vital to the Oily Cart. Our characters interact with – or play with – the audience continually in our shows. We want the audience to feel that they are inside the game, and that they can affect the course of the game. We also use play areas, set up away from the main performance space, where arriving families or school/nursery groups can settle down, relax and play in a setting which complements the world of the show before they encounter the characters and become part of a more formal play.

What role do you believe theatre takes for your audience?

It depends on which of our several audiences we’re talking about. For example, with young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities who might have sensory impairments, unable to see or hear; or cognitive impairments, unlikely to understand concepts like cause and effect; or memory problems such that they do not remember at the end of a show what happened at the beginning (making conventional narrative inappropriate); we try to offer a great range of options and different ways into the piece. We try to be very flexible to any one participant’s requirements and offer more of what they are responding to and withdrawing those stimuli to which they are responding negatively or not at all.

Our performances are trying to open doors, to find a way of connecting with people for whom connection is difficult. We’re encouraging them to turn outwards, away from the inner worlds where it’s sometimes more comfortable to remain. We want them to communicate with us and we want to communicate with them. Sometimes with the intense focus of a performance our participants react in ways which surprise, even astonish, their families, their teachers, the people who live and work with them everyday. I love those moments, when our participants are suddenly seen in a new light, free of the ‘behaviours’ and the ‘syndromes’ with which they are often labelled. Often the things that bring about this perception, for example the feel of a scented sponge on the back of the neck or gentle rocking on a trampoline is something that is easy to reproduce at home or in school. It can be repeated long after the Oily Cart has moved on to the next venue.

What relationship do you feel you have developed with your audience?

We have worked with some venues, especially some Special Schools a great deal over the years (we’ve been going for nearly 30 years) and we often find that the longer and deeper the relationship the more effective the work becomes. Of course the schools, particularly Special Schools have developed a great deal over this period and now we find ourselves working much more with young people with very complex disabilities. Many young people with lesser levels of impairment are now integrated into mainstream schools. More recently the education of very young children has become a priority, for example with the development of the Sure Start programme and Children’s Centre and this has reinforced our own interest in work for the under three’s – and as young as 6 months.

How do you feel the work that you do has changed your approach to and conception of live events as a company?

Necessity has been the mother of our invention. The sort of work that we had to develop, if we were really going to communicate with people who have sensory, or intellectual impairments, i.e. multi-sensory, highly interactive theatre, has, over the years, made us rethink our whole approach to performance. Now we try to make all of our shows address all of the senses and to allow each performance to take its own course, encouraging the intervention of the audience. I’d contend that most theatre is about the spectator perceiving the performer. Our theatre has to be about the performer perceiving the spectator/participant, and indeed any companions (family members, teachers, carers) with the participant, and then modulating the performance to engage them more fully. We need to be as live, playful and in the moment as possible, which I’d say is what all theatre should be about.

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Oily Cart is creating two new productions in 2010. Drum, by Tim Webb is an enchanting interactive, multi-sensory show for babies and toddlers aged 6 months to 2 years old. Performances at The Tramshed, London on Saturday 10th April, as part of the Greenwich Children’s Theatre Festival Tel 020 8858 7755, at the SPARK Festival Leicester from 2nd-4th June, Tel 0116 252 2455 and at Kings Place, London on Sunday 25th July, Tel 020 7520 1490.

A second production will be created for young people of primary school age, who have a Profound and Multiple Learning Disability or an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Both productions will tour to nurseries, Children’s Centres and Special Schools in autumn 2010 and spring 2011. To book, contact

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