The power of performance

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A theatre created specifically for children with ASD and PMLD

SEN Magazine: What are the origins of Oily Cart, and how did you come to start producing work for young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) and autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)?

Tim Webb: Oily Cart began work in 1981 when Claire de Loon, our designer, Max Reinhardt, our musical director, and myself met up while we were all working at Battersea Arts Centre. Our initial aim was to create good theatre for children under five years old. This was at a time when theatre people commonly believed that this was a silly thing to do (such young children cannot concentrate, they are forever going to the loo, and so on, they thought). However, we persevered with some success and, in fact, we continue to create shows specifically for the very young today, even for children between six months and two years old.

In 1988 the head of a special school in west London asked if we would perform one of our under-fives shows for the young people in his school. He believed that his pupils would appreciate the highly visual, fast-moving nature of our shows, the comedy and the live music. He told us that our audience was between four and nineteen years old and we wondered how our under-fives shows could be age-appropriate for any eighteen or nineteen year old. So, we asked if we could work with his young people and staff to make a show that was truly suitable for them.

Over the next few weeks we did our research and developed a show for the whole school. The staff had told us that the young people would benefit from a performance much longer than our 45 to 60 minute average, and this show, Box of Socks, took place over a whole school day. We had also discovered what an enormous range of abilities and personalities there are in a special school.

From this beginning, we went on to produce a range of work for young people in special schools, including performances that lasted for two days and included both modules pitched at the whole school and others aimed at specific age or ability levels. During this phase, we became aware that the ability level modules aimed at young people nowadays referred to as having PMLD were particularly appreciated, not only because we adopted a multi-sensory and highly interactive approach to working with this group, but also because there was surprisingly little alternative provision for them.

In 1996 we made our first programme of performances specifically for young people with PMLD. Since then we have created a wide range of work for this group, which has taken us onto trampolines, into hydro-pools, and involved the use of various forms of suspended seating, all intended to connect with the audience via the kinaesthetic sense.

In recent years, in both special schools and public venues, we have found that more and more young people defined as being on the autism spectrum are taking part in our performances. Early on in this process, we were concerned that theatre made with PMLD audiences in mind might not be appropriate for young people with an ASD. However, it became clear that because our performances were so interactive, so dependent on one-to-one work, in which the individual performer could continuously adapt their performance to the requirements of each participant, that we could also connect with many young people on the autistic spectrum. What’s more, it was apparent that here was another audience for whom there was little alternative provision.

SEN Magazine: What do you think this type of production offers audiences that they can’t find in mainstream theatre?

Tim Webb: A very large proportion of mainstream theatre assumes that the audience will sit quietly at one end of the room and watch and listen while the performers move about and talk on the stage at the other end. It seems clear to me that this sort of theatre is not the most suitable for people with sensory impairments, who may not be able to see or to hear what’s going on on stage. It may also not be the best for people who have limited attention spans, or who become anxious when encountering new situations or public spaces.

We often hear from the families or the  teachers of young people with an ASD about how difficult it can be to go with them even on a shopping trip or a visit to the cinema or theatre; they can find that social attitudes are a barrier to many activities in public.

What Oily Cart offer are performances which can be adapted to suit the individual needs of each participant, whatever their physical, sensory, intellectual or behavioural requirements. We hope that any young person will find a welcome in our kind of theatre, because it is both endlessly adaptable, and it aims to communicate through each of the senses, including the kinaesthetic sense.

We also try to make our audiences welcome by giving them the opportunity for lots of preparation before they ever encounter the live performers. We use photo-illustrated books (Social Stories), video on DVD or our web-site, plus CDs of the music to introduce the characters, setting, story, themes, and possible preparatory methods. This all helps to familiarize the young people, their families and teachers with the show, well in advance of the actual performance. This, in turn, helps to allay anxieties and ensure that our audiences can get the most from the live experience. The ancillary material also suggests follow-up activities, so the experience of performances can be relived, and the curiosity and excitement generated can be built on, long after the company have moved on to the next venue.

SEN Magazine: How do you approach creating shows specifically for young people with PMLD or ASD?

Tim Webb: Much of what we do is inspired by the good practice we see as we tour around special schools. Very many of the concepts behind our shows, the intensive interaction, the multi-sensory approach, the use of hydro-pools or trampolines and the stimulation of the kinaesthetic sense, have originated in this way.

Then we try to scrutinise the working of each and every performance we do as unflinchingly as possible. We ensure that all people involved in a performance, from cast to participants and from teachers to families, can feed-back and inform our future efforts.

Bearing all this in mind, Claire, Max and myself begin to kick around concepts for a new show. Eventually, I will produce a scenario that the whole team then works on and transforms during our six week rehearsal period. During the rehearsals we spend plenty of time trying out ideas and previewing material in one or other of the special schools local to our London base. The reactions of the young people and the staff in these schools will have a significant impact on the final structure of the show.

SEN Magazine: Do you involve special needs professionals or educationalists in the planning process?

Tim Webb: Very much so. As I said before, we preview all new material in local special schools and have built up close relationships with the staff in several schools. The head of Michael Tippett School in Lambeth, Jan Stogden, is a member of the Board of Directors of Oily Cart and provides much valued input into the development of the company’s strategy.

We often employ trainers to work with the company in the rehearsal process, such as Phoebe Caldwell, who has given vital insight into the processes of intensive interaction, and Eddie Anderson, who worked with us extensively when we were creating hydro-pool and trampoline-based work.

SEN Magazine: Tell us a about Something in the Air and how audience members experienced the show.

Tim Webb: These performances, commissioned by, and created specifically for, the 2009 Manchester International Festival, were so well supported by the festival that we could bring several Oily Cart dreams to life. Firstly, we were able to “embed” two Oily Cart characters in each of three Manchester Special Schools, to prepare the young people and staff for the experience of the show, over a period of more than two weeks. Secondly, we were able to back up this process with a dedicated web-site on which the characters, staff and young people were able to post photos and video detailing, and deepening their involvement in, the preparatory process. Thirdly, when the participants arrived at Contact Theatre in Manchester, they took part in a unique theatrical experience: they were safely & comfortably seated in our specially designed chairs and hoisted into the air, there to swing, bounce and twist with the aerialists of the company to the accompaniment of beautiful live music and singing and a rich succession of visual, kinaesthetic and textural events.

The reactions to these performances were overwhelmingly positive from the young people themselves, staff, parents, arts professionals and journalists alike.

SEN Magazine: What do you think audiences take away from an event like this, beyond the immediate sensory experiences?

Tim Webb: Apart from the obvious delight and the memories that all involved take with them, the power of  performance can, in my experience, elicit some very unexpected reactions from the young people involved. As performers, it is only when a parent or teacher says things like “Did you see how she gave you eye contact? She never does that normally”, or “Did you see how he reached out to you? I’ve not see him do that before” that we realise just how much difference a performance has made. Sometimes the young people are revealing aspects of their personality rarely, if ever, seen before. I like to believe that such reactions cast a new light on the young participants and help to dispel any notions that their personalities can be summed up simply by this or that syndrome, behaviour or condition.

SEN Magazine: Do you have any advice for teachers and SENCOs about how they can engage children with learning difficulties and disabilities through drama and sensory stimulation?

Tim Webb: I’d prefer to stand this question on its head and ask what more advice teachers and SENCOS can give Oily Cart on what to do and how to do it.

However, at the foundation of our performances there is a sort of relaxed playfulness that performers can bring to relationships with people with learning disabilities. Yes, the research, the preparation, the multi-layered approach and the attention to detail are all important to an Oily Cart show, but the playful responsiveness of the performer to the participant is the most important thing. And it is often easier to achieve this in the role of performer than it might be when having to play the part of teacher or therapist.

Further information
For further information about Oily Cart and forthcoming projects visit: www.oilycart.org.uk

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