6 minute read

Hop on the Cart: Making Theatre the Oily Cart Way

by W. Riley Braem
It’s almost like an approach to life. Nowadays we feel like we have no time to stop and stare. Busy, bombardment of the senses really, and I think we should take the time to be still, quiet, and listen. - Tim Webb, Founder/Artistic Director, Oily Cart

When you think about creating programs for children with autism, you likely have a set idea of what will be needed: a regimented routine that remains constant, a commitment to providing clear and concise instructions, and an environment that is devoid of too much sensory input. The last thing you probably would consider is a program of multi-sensory interactive theatre. Sending young people who have sensory sensitivities into an environment that is meant to be interactive and to tap their senses on multiple levels seems like it would be a horrible idea. But it might be just what the doctor ordered, as British theatre maker Tim Webb and his Oily Cart theatre have discovered.

Participants in SETC’s 14th annual Teachers Institute on Wednesday at the 2019 SETC Convention had the opportunity to learn in a daylong seminar about Webb’s unique approach to creating theatre for young people with complex disabilities or Autism Spectrum

Disorder (ASD) – known as Autism Spectrum Condition in the U.K. On Saturday, additional convention attendees got a chance to learn the techniques when Webb presented an abbreviated version of his presentation in a masterclass.

Webb has been working with and creating theatre for young people for almost 40 years. In 1981, Webb and fellow artists Claire de Loon (head of design) and Max Reinhardt (music director) founded Oily Cart, a company in the United Kingdom that makes, “all sorts of shows for all sorts of kids.” The work that Webb and the rest of the Oily Cart crew have done has made them highly sought-after theatre artists. More and more theatre companies are exploring work that is designed for people with ASD or other complex disabilities. When theatre companies research multi-sensory interactive theatre, one company – Oily Cart – seems to come up most often. As a result, Webb and the rest of his team have worked around the world, sharing their unique style of theatre-making with artists who are eager to create work for young people that, in many ways, do not feel welcome in a traditional theatre setting.

Webb has worked with theatre companies in a number of countries, including Russia, Belgium and Japan. In the United States, he has worked with Trusty Sidekick and the Lincoln Center in New York in addition to the Chicago Children’s Theatre. Oily Cart has also worked in conjunction with TYA/UK and Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance to offer week-long workshop intensives called “Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart,” where theatre artists from around the world travel to England to learn the Oily Cart way of making theatre.

The Philosophy and Tools of Oily Cart

Webb’s Teachers Institute and masterclass presentations at the SETC Convention in Knoxville were abbreviated versions of the week-long residency offered in the United Kingdom, but still packed with information and hands-on learning. His goal for the Teachers Institute, he said, was to open participants’ eyes to the possibilities Oily Cart’s techniques offer for use in their own theatres.

“I want people to believe that they can do this kind of thing themselves,” he said in an interview. “Primarily, I’m interested in people doing more work for people on the autism spectrum, people with complex disabilities. I want them to feel that they could deal with it. But then, secondly, I think I’d like people to think that these, let’s call them multi-sensory techniques, you can use them in other forms of theatre or in other forms of teaching.”

Artists started the daylong Teachers Institute by learning about the history of Oily Cart and its philosophy for creating theatre. Webb shared several examples of the Cart’s work, including videos of their productions of Blue: An Installation, Pool Piece (which takes place in a hydrotherapy pool), Something in the Air (aerial theatre) and The Bounce (theatre on two trampolines). Webb discussed ideas such as using Social Stories™ to help prepare young people to make their trip to the theatre. Social Stories™ are narratives, often with pictures, that describe social interactions and expectations that are specific to the situation those with ASD will be experiencing. He also explained participant agency, which emphasizes that audience members can interact as little or as much as they wish during the theatrical experience. Social Stories™ and participant agency are key elements in creating theatre for youth with ASD, he says.

To create theatre the Oily Cart way, theatres first need to understand Oily Cart’s guiding principles:

• Always start with the audience. Make everything age- and interest-appropriate.

• Understand multi-sensory theatre. Children need to use all their senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and kinesthetic sense.

• Work should be up-close and interactive.

• Explore different ways to communicate (singing, music, talking, other nonverbal communication).

• Think of ways of touching without physically touching – for example, using a hand fan to simulate wind or misting scented water into the air.

• Keep it simple.

Tim Webb leads a masterclass at the 2019 SETC Convention.
Caitie McMekin

Hands-on Learning

After a morning filled with theory, the Teachers Institute participants were eager to get on their feet and practice some of the techniques that Webb had shared. To get them thinking in a sensory way, he had participants pair up and go on a sensory exploration of the space. Each person took a turn as the navigator (the person leading their partner through the area) and the explorer (the person who had their eyes closed). Participants were able to experience the anxiety of the unknown, which is something important to consider when creating theatre for youth with complex disabilities or ASD.

Table of Sensory Items

One of the critical elements of multi-sensory interactive theatre is the use of sensory items. As part of his presentation, Webb provided a table filled with sensory items for participants to use in an exercise. Items included: Spray bottles; Essential oils; Bamboo sticks; Bubbles; Wind chimes; Flashlights; Small magician lights; Finger cymbals; Water; Various pieces of cloth material; Fresh-cut herbs; Bells; Fans (both paper and electric); Sea sponges; Baby shampoo; Twine; Bowls of various sizes; Brushes (various size makeup); Emergency foil blankets.

Participants were split into groups of five or six and asked to devise a short three- to five-minute piece of theatre. Each group grabbed items from the table, spread out in the room and began to create their own experiences using Oily Cart’s guiding principles and essential elements. Seeing participants’ energy as they rehearsed was infectious. The energy continued to the sharing portion of the day, as each group presented its devised piece to the others. Teachers felt rejuvenated and energized to take the things that they had learned back to their schools and communities.

Essential Elements

Webb also shared Oily Cart’s Eight Essential Elements:

1. Multi-sensory.

Involve all of the senses. Multi-sensory theatre requires artists to create a 360-degree theatrical experience. Companies also must know what they want participants to get out of the theatrical experience.

2. Interactive.

Theatres must stimulate, observe and respond to the reactions of individual audience members, working one-on-one for sufficient time.

3. Preparation.

Thought must be given to every aspect of the production.Many times multi-sensory interactive theatre events start before audience members arrive at the theatre and continue after they have left. Ways that you can achieve this are by creating Social Stories™ that assist young people prior to the event, creating Air Locks, or entrance activities/environments that introduce the audience to elements of the environment before they enter

4. Role of adults and families.

Everyone in the space is significant. How are parents, family and teachers involved?What is the value of the experience for them?

5. Role of the performer.

Not a teacher. Not a therapist. We don’t have to make anybody better – we just need to let them feel that the world is a better place.

6. Structure in performance: Part 1.

Combine close-ups (work that is done close to or one-on-one with participants)and long-shots (work that is done from a distance). Pauses, silences and stillness will allow processing time. Give space for the audience to intervene. This is slow theatre in a frantic world.

7. Structure in performance: Part 2.

Some moments are planned, while others are allowed to develop organically. The structure of the show should be a combination of arranged moments (like the opening and closing of the show) that are played to the whole audience, one-on-one work with individual audience members, and processing time, commonly referred to as wait time in education, to allow participants to soak in and process the experience.

8. Adventures in time and space.

Consider where a show should take place, how long it should it last, and why you are doing it.