Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Dream of Creating All Sorts of Theatre for All Sorts of Kids

The main hallway of the school was completely clear, as we had noticed they almost always were. This new environment seemed bright and spacious to my tired eyes. Welcoming, even. I took a deep breath, physically stepped into character, and marched up to the door. She was waiting.

         “Ticket, Sara?” she said, before I could get out a word. I couldn’t help but smile as she ran back to her table to grab the green billet, marked with her own hopes and desires.  

         “Tickety-tack, time to go!” I said. I held up my own green ticket, repeated the word clearly, and made eye contact with the teachers. With a scraping of chairs, we lined up and set away on our journey to a different world: a sensory world. A world where a hallway was train tracks, and a cafeteria was a train station. It was a world where a suitcase held magical, yet simple, elements to be explored.

         And all the way there, she chanted along with me, giggled, and held my hand.

In October 2014, I had the opportunity to join 15 artists, educators, and activists from around the world to participate in Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart. Facilitated by Rose Bruford College and the Oily Cart team, the goal of the intensive was to collaboratively explore and create multi-sensory theatrical experiences for young people with complex disabilities. For six days, we played, discovered, adapted, collaborated, experimented, argued, laughed, made music, moved, and created theatre with the Oily Cart artistic team.

For over three decades, Oily Cart has been creating immersive, multi-sensory works for the very young and for students with complex disabilities. Their pieces focus on creating a richly artistic experience for the audience, while inviting them to help drive the story along. The primary company members are Tim Webb (Artistic Director), Max Reinhardt (Music Director), and Claire de Loon (Head of Design), and created their first theatrical experience in 1981. Since their inception, they have developed works in schools and in pools, with drums and with flying chairs. The motto of their company is “all sort of theatre for all sorts of kids,” and the purposeful magic they create surpasses any notion of age-appropriateness or ability.

Lyn Gardner, a writer for the Guardian, scribed in her introduction to the book Oily Cart: all sorts of theatre for all sorts of kids, “Through a 30 year body of work, Oily Cart has consistently asked questions about theatrical form, the way in which narrative is used and how the rules of spectatorial engagement are adapted and changed for the benefit of young audiences and their carers…Every new show is a question, not an answer.” In my short time learning from the Oily Cart team, questions were encouraged. How do we take our perspective as theatre artists and connect it with the perspectives of the young people with whom we are working? How do we engage our audience by taking an object or experience and making it magical? Simplicity is encouraged. Questions are needed. Play is a rule, and discovery begets engagement.

“Orange.” I signed and said the word as I knelt in front of him and held the clementine. Peeling it, I breathed in deeply and offered the pieces to him. He took the peel out of my hand and rolled it around in his fingers. He then turned to his bench-mate, and my artistic mentor for the day, Tim. Tim repeated the word, and the gesture of smelling; bringing an imaginary orange up to his nose and inhaling deeply. A small smile crept across the young man’s lips. The next moment, the peel was on Tim’s head, looking slightly like a jaunty little beret.  

As I watched, this peel migrated from Tim’s head, to under the lenses of his glasses, to his upper lip. They played together with this simple object, discovering what it could do and what it could be as I watched with sheer delight. A connection was being made: a connection with no words but with plenty of understanding and emotion.

Going into the Dream intensive, I was excited. Nerding out, even, at the possibilities for artistic learning. What I didn’t expect was the change in my own personal perspectives about theatre and about ability. The experiences that Oily Cart creates challenge the idea of what theatre can be. Music, movement, rhythm, taste, smell, and sound come together in a whirlwind of purposeful excitement. In the Oily Cart world, the air off a fan becomes a cooling ocean breeze. The feeling of water on our foreheads as it is squeezed from a sponge can be the soft droplets of a spring rain. Although rich in texture, there is an intense focus on simplicity and understanding of perspectives. Each moment is precious, each object is a gift, and each individual is part of the team.

As performers in our own theatrical creations, the Dream participants got to know the individual audience member on a level that may not have occurred in other situations. The focus on one-on-one interactions between the performers and the audience created personal connections and furthered understanding of perspectives. The young people we were creating for were not a wall of faces but people with personalities, needs, and preferences. They were more than their ability, more than their age, more than just a face in the crowd: they were co-devisors in our piece of art and part of our ensemble.

“Tickety-tack, time to go!” I looked back at our class in our final moments together. Some were still playing with the left-over feathers that had moments ago been flying through the air in a frenzy of fabric and wind. Although I probably wouldn’t always remember their faces, this image would be forever burned in my brain. We had created together and I would never be the same.

If what Lyn Gardner states is true, that each Oily Cart experience is a new question, then how do theatre makers continue that tradition of questioning? How do we challenge our perceptions of ability and spectatorship? How do we learn to make connections to our audience, to better understand the different perspectives of each individual? What can we learn from the art of Oily Cart about the creation of all sorts of theatre for all sorts of kids?


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