“This kind of work – not just the Oily Cart’s work, but this kind of work – is so important, the need for it is so great, and the supply is so sparse,” explains Tim Webb, Artistic Director of Oily Cart. For the past 34 years, Oily Cart have been creating multisensory, immersive and interactive theatre for the very young, and young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). For Tim, this form of theatre, addressed at these particular audiences, is too rare and too underappreciated: “the audiences with which we work are shamefully neglected by the mainstream press”. He is as much an advocate as an artist: “That’s what I think I do a lot of the time. I speak up for the company, I tell the story.”
So what is Oily Cart’s story? “The first thing to say about Chapter One,” begins Tim, “is that we worked by identifying an audience by chronological age.” Starting out in 1981, the company initially made shows for under-5s; a few years later they were approached by a special school to perform for their students. Working with this new audience was a challenge: “Some of them couldn’t see, some of them couldn’t hear, and you would need to explore a lot of different ways of communicating in order to get across to them, to break down the barriers between us.”
Oily Cart realized that if some of the senses are unavailable, “you have to try all the alternatives”. They began incorporating smell, taste and touch: if it’s a hot day in an Oily Cart production, you will feel the sun’s warmth; if a scene occurs in a forest, you will smell the scent of trees. The company also explored the kinesthetic sense: “the body’s sense of its own movement and… the perception of g-forces. It’s the sense that a baby is enjoying when she’s rocked… It’s the sense that adults enjoy when they go on fairground rides.” Tim first noticed it when using trampolines: “Students who we knew as people slumped in their wheelchairs looking at their knees day after day, week after week – when they got on the trampoline, they’d unfurl like a flower blooming.” Since then, Oily Cart have staged shows on trampolines, in hydroptherapy pools, and even in the air, with audiences flown upwards in specially created nests.
Over time, Tim has learnt what works through observing audiences often unable to articulate their response. “It’s not often that you can confuse someone’s expression of pleasure for pain, or vice versa. It does happen – sometimes people can’t smile – but then in our work, we are always working with a pair… There’s a primary audience – the young person – and a secondary audience, which is the teacher or whatever, and you watch both”. Parents and guardians often give insights into what has worked particularly well for their child: “They say, ‘Well, you know how she let you hold her hand? She never does that!… Or ‘Did you see how he gave you eye contact? Well, he never does that.’” For Tim, this is one of the best parts of the job, leaving a legacy that lasts beyond the theatre doors: “the perception of the child has shifted, they’re being seen in a new light”.
Oily Cart’s tale is part of a larger narrative about our changing attitude towards audiences with special needs. The company continues to lead the way in a movement that now sees more and more theatres trying to do their bit by offering ‘relaxed performances’ in an attempt to increase accessibility. Tim’s all for relaxed performances, “but if you think that’s covering it: it ain’t… They’re for people who can come to the theatre, or be got to the theatre – you’re already losing a lot of people who’ve got severe mobility and medical care problems…” Though more needs to be done to make truly accessible work, we’ve still come a long way. “It was only in 1970 that the kind of people that the Oily Cart work with became entitled to have an education at all. 1970! Before that, if you had a profound multiple learning disability, or if you were a low functioning autist, you’d be shut away in the back ward of a mental hospital.” Once you accept the principle that people with severe disabilities deserve an education, then the idea that they “have got some sort of entitlement to a cultural life follows, and it has followed.” The cuts to arts funding are threatening progress, however: “I think there’s a real danger it will all be undone”.
The latest chapter for Oily Cart is a Christmas production, their only show this year created for early years’ audiences without disabilities, but still using multisensory, interactive techniques. Land of Lights, at artsdepot, is for ages 3-5, and like all Oily Cart shows, the story begins before the audience even step inside the theatre: “It makes it more real than if you go in a room, and sit down and something happens, and then you go away, and it sort of remains in the room… These whirlpools of the imagination could be anywhere, so why’s it got to stop at half past 2? It just seems to be more of a journey into fantasy if you actually have a journey.
So, for Land of Lights, “in the foyer and in the approach to the auditorium, you see there are little houses. You can look inside them… but they are all deserted, and so the question would arise: where’s everybody gone?” Once inside the theatre, a hot air balloon floats above, bringing news of a catastrophe: one night, the stars fell from the sky, and that’s why the tiny villagers fled. “That’s the quest then, to find the stars,” Tim suggests – a hands-on adventure for young audiences.
Land of Lights will be that, and so much more. It’s very difficult to describe an Oily Cart production – they need to be experienced and felt. But Tim Webb has seen their effect on audiences time and time again: “there are moments… you can practically hear their brains glowing, you can see the synapses firing up. “ That’s the story of Oily Cart, “and of course,” Tim adds “it hasn’t ended.”
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