Oily Carted: An Interview with Tim Webb

Oily Cart Theatre is a ground-breaking company based out of the London. Their attention to sensory details, their strong visual aesthetic, and their dedication to engage youth on youth’s terms establish them as a premier TYA organization. What really sets them apart from other youth theatre groups is their target audience, however. Oily Cart works primarily with audiences that other theatre companies rarely encounter; the very young (youth ages 0-5), and cognitively, physically, and emotionally challenged youth. While many theatre practitioners, myself included, still struggle with understanding these special populations, Oily Cart, for the past 35 years, has jumped in feet first. They’ve embedded themselves in classrooms, tested out new performance techniques, and created artistic work specifically design to engage and delight unique populations. At the head of this dynamic theatre company sits Artistic Director and one of the company’s founders, Tim Webb. I had the amazing opportunity to video chat with Tim from his office in London.

Andy: So you’re the artistic director of Oily Cart Theatre and, throughout the years, I’ve gotten to meet a couple of different artistic directors. They all seem to have their own version of what an artistic director is and does. I’m curious how you see the work you are doing as Artistic Director.

Tim: The Oily Cart is a bit peculiar, even by the standards of English theatre, because the three people who started the company back in 1981, that’s Max Reinhardt, who’s the music director and Claire de Loon, who’s the head of design. We started the company and we are still there together working all these years later, although there’s a lot more people working there with us now. So what I do in the company, is sort of look towards the strategy of the company, what audiences we are going to deal with and how are we going to go about that. I think that’s really the Artistic Director’s part in this whole thing. Then there’s the political dimension. I’m the one who goes and talks to the arts council or other funders, I’m the one who thinks up pitches really and goes to other theatres and you know, would you be interested in booking us to do this. That’s really what I think of as the artistic director side of the job.

I also write, well actually, all the shows nowadays, and I direct them. That’s a sort of separate job. That’s not something that all artistic directors would do. Like if you’re the artistic director of the National Theatre, you wouldn’t by any means direct all of the shows. You might direct one or two a year. We are a smaller company so it’s more feasible, anyway. That’s why I’m in the business, to create work. But all artistic directors are going to be some sort of a mix of the elements, and some do a lot more on the floor creative stuff while others do hardly any, I guess. I’m moving that way, as I’m getting older. Like I’m thinking of becoming more like a producer and just creating all the stuff. But that’s like over the next five years or more. You know, try to give the young people a chance.

So how would you describe your aesthetic? I’ve been looking at your work and it’s different from work I’ve seen in the States certainly. I’m curious how you describe the work that you do.

Well, the first thing to say about the way we work is that it is really audience led, fundamentally. So what we’ve always done is we’ve identified an audience that we wanted to work with, for one reason or another, and then we found out what kind of theatre will be most effective for that kind of audience. So let me start it off back in the 1980s, we chose to work with “under-fives”.   Back then, in the UK, that was considered to be an impossible audience. That was the, “these children are too young and they can’t concentrate, you couldn’t do a show that lasted more than half and hour, it would just have to be about balloons and fluffy puppets” and nonsense like that sort. And we found that we could actually do interesting work and sustain an audience of 3-5 years for an hour if you kept looking at the languages of the theatre you were using. So if there was music, if there was interaction, if there was puppetry if there was mask work, if there was dance, if there was comedy, if there was slapstick, you just kept zeroing in on the topic you had, then you could hold these audiences, you know.

And the other important thing we found about them, was that they were interested in the world that you created onstage, they wanted to actually get up and interact with you. They wanted to be able to ask the characters questions and offer the characters advice and go on actual physical journeys. They had no respect for the proscenium arch…and actually, I suppose, neither did we anyway. So we were really taken with this idea that the audience doesn’t sit at one end of the room and watch and listen about what is going on at the other end of the room. We are all in this together. And nowadays, we think the more they audience can help us as co-creators of the show, any audience, then the better it gets. They often have better ideas than we do anyway, and it shows a degree of engagement. If they are talking with you and interacting with you then you can gauge how engaged they are.

With the 3-5 year old shows, we spend a lot of time, early on, thinking about the issues that emotionally engage children of that age. But thing is a 3 year old is very different from a 5 year old and is very different from adults. A 3 year old, for example, has a smaller vocabulary and tends to be frightened easily. So although it sounds like they are close together, to find an emotional hook that will draw the very young audience into a story without being too obsessive or being too babyish takes some doing. It’s considerations like that and the emotional hook, like why would the kids bother with these characters. I worry about that a lot. And then for each we run a sort of multisensory checklist. Is this scene interesting to look at? Is this scene interesting to feel? If you’re sitting on the floor are you sitting on something interesting texturally? Then, is it interesting to smell? What would happen if we put a bail of hay in there? Are we asking questions that you can really answer and not just in a rote way, but a helpful way. Can you ask questions in such a way that the five year olds won’t just shout the little ones down so that the little ones feel confident they have a voice? Sometimes you have to give them a voice or an action so they can take part and do something.

We had a show called The Jumping Beans and one of the issues in that was a bird, a little tiny bird puppet, that didn’t have a nest and the quest was for the kids to find things to make a nest. We were in a studio theatre and scattered all around the theatre were things that you could build nests out of reasonably. So a little three year old would trot of and find something a bird could put in its nest. That was something they could do easily, and they could get imaginative, too.   We really threw ourselves to the audience and trusted them to come up with the answers, and they did. The two people who were performing that show were actually very quick witted and observant so if a younger child said something, they’d pick up on it. The most brilliant thing anyone said in that show was about how to get the bird into the nest once it had been built. Most kids say “Fly” and we would say, “no, it’s just a baby chick and it doesn’t actually have any wings.” They might then say, “Jump” and they jump but it was no good.   One of the kids said, “Hurl it!” and they then discussed the implications of hurling and how it might not be a good idea. Then one kid said and we were in a classroom kind of situation, and there was a sink, and he said, “You take the bird and put it in the plastic washing-up bowl in the sink, then put the plug in the sink and then you turn the taps on. And the thing will float in the bowl and the water will spill out of the sink and the water will fill up the room and the little bird in the basin will rise up to the top of the tree and just step out!” And I thought, you can’t write that stuff! You bang your head on the wood for years and you never get that. It’s pure gold.

Have you used it yet? Have you used that in a piece yet?

No, no, no. That was that show. I’ve been tempted go back to that little bird, because they did identify very strongly with that, these two to four years olds. They identified with that bird’s plight. But you try not to revisit your past too much…or rip off the kids too much.

So you asked about the look of it, the aesthetic. Well a lot of it is really driven by considerations of what will really work. So for example, people who can’t see very well, they probably can see black on white clearer than anything else. So you’ll notice there is quite a bit of black and white stuff in our work. It’s also rooted in the fact that Claire de Loon likes black and white and likes stripes, which brings us to another thing. Or like in this current show, the Light Show, a lot of the people who will be participating in this show will have little or poor vision. So we think if you’ve got a white environment and at the center of that is a different color, like a pink fan in the first scene, and it appears against a white space, well you’ve a pretty good chance of seeing that and knowing that is the most important thing. And then it’s what associated with the look, the feel of the wind blown by the fan, and the smell blown by the fan, so this is really like hardcore Oily Cart. It’s about theatre as a series of sensory events. It’s a different form of theatre. It’s not dependent really on a sense of narrative or character.

One way to rationalize it is this. You don’t really know what anybody is thinking inside their head and you certainly find it much more difficult to work out what someone who’s got severe cognitive impairments or physical impairments, too. You don’t really know what’s happening in their heads and people will say, “he liked that because he gave you eye contact.” But, that’s really just your hypothesis of what is going on. You couldn’t prove it. So what we’ve resorted to really is, it tends to be myself, and Max Reinhardt and Claire de Loon and we have to think, does it feel good to us? Is it the smell of vanilla or is it the smell of basil? Do we really like it, and if we do, it stays in and if we don’t, well it ain’t going to be good enough for anybody else if it’s not making us feel great. In the end, we say it’s socially driven, but one of the ways to find out if it works is to test it on ourselves, and then on audiences and testing it and testing it, and when we tour it just observing the reaction each time.

With this process, how long do you normally give yourself, with the discovery process, with your group, as far as what works and what doesn’t? How long is the typical process?

Well the group gets together for about 5 weeks. It’s kinda complicated because, like this show that we are rehearsing now, the Light Show, we rehearse it for five weeks and then we stop and we don’t actually perform it after the previews until September and October. That gives us a chance to reflect on it. You give yourself the space to detach yourself from some of the things you got committed to in rehearsal. When we start rehearsal, we’ve already done a whole stack of stuff. Like we’ll have done at least another five weeks of work stretching back six months before. Claire de Loon will have done some designs, Max will have at least identified the kind of music he’ll be working on and I will actually go in with a script. I’ll always go in on day one with a script and then we just rip it up. It’s the base and you’ve got something to start from. It’s there to be dealt with and mined for what it’s worth and what’s waste is disposed of.

Could you talk a bit more about your work with youth on the autism spectrum and with cognitive or physical disabilities?

So in the late 1980s, a head teacher of a special education lead school, came to us and asked if we could do one of the under 5 shows for the kids in his school. And we said, “we do age appropriate stuff, so how old are the kids at your school?” And he said, “well they start at three and go up to 19” And that brought us up with a jolt, 19 years old? They’re not going to be like a five year old or under. And he said, “yeah, well this is a bit complicated. Why don’t you come and do a bit of research in our school and try to develop some work that would be appropriate.” So that was a great experience. It was like a week and we went into his school and we met all the people there, and not only were they from 3-19 but an enormously wide range of abilities. Some of the people in the school could read and write and were ambulant and could leave school and they would hold down a job and live in sheltered accommodation and live lifestyle that would be reasonable similar to yours and mine. But then were other guys in school that were wheel chair bound, no language, maybe a sensory impairment. They couldn’t see, they couldn’t hear and perhaps other cognitive impairments as well. So we thought, we have to make a kind of theatre that would work for this range of audience, and actually we thought this was really fascinating and this is a real theatrical challenge. You feel like you are on the frontier because you have the feeling you are not succeeding because only the adults associated with the kids can tell you well you are actually, you just can’t spot it.

So how do you gauge success with that population? How do you assess if what you are doing is working?

You often don’t really know the kids that well, so you have to find out from their parents, their friends, or their teachers how successful you were in engaging them. Somebody vocalizes and they say, “he made noises” or “he gave you eye contact” or “she let you hold her hand.” Well, so what? Well he never does that. It’s wonderfully really because, they really are looking like impossible audiences.

So who are your resources in the schools? How do you learn about these new communities of young people?

We talk a lot with teachers. We have advisory teachers who advise us on what’s happening with autism spectrum condition and the latest practice. We’ve got the head of a special school on the board, and she is particularly useful as a sounding board. There are two or three local schools for people with profound disabilities that we preview the things in. We start previews early in the process and show 15 minute things that may end up in a show. That is really invaluable. Then at the previews we invite feedback and we are open to it.

We also do a lot of teachings. This July, we have a summer school and there will be people coming from mostly the UK and there are already a couple of people from the States are signed up. We want to find out as much about them as they want to find out about us.

With the summer program, do you find that the people coming need a lot of background knowledge in disability or work with the very young or do you find they learn what they need along the way from their peers?

You know it’s kind of like when someone joins the company for the first time, I think. We obviously say this is why the company works the way it does, and the history and the previous shows we’ve done. I think people really learn a lot from watching the experienced company in action. It’s by absorption rather than by any kind of analysis. You learn quicker watching somebody who knows what they’re doing do it.

I think a lot of people who don’t work in special education, they…well you don’t often see guys who are kept away in a kind of a ghetto for one reason or another. It is difficult to take someone out if they’re on the autism spectrum and they make noises. People or parents are worried about taking them to the theatre or the cinema or shopping or something. It’s…society’s the one that should be feeling bad about it.

How do you assure those parents or caregivers that Oily Cart is a safe space to bring their kids? How do you create that safe space or advertise it to the public?

For one thing, we all’ve got these enhanced disclosures, so we’ve been checked to make sure we don’t have criminal records. Actually I think a lot of the stuff with the Oily Cart is that it’s based on a reputation. We’ve been working with people with severe learning disabilities since 1988, so we’ve been to an awful lot of special schools and worked with an awful lot of families. People talk about the Oily Cart and what the Oily Cart does and mostly the worries that there isn’t enough of it. They want 10 Oily Carts. It’s really word of mouth and more recently more general publicity. We teach a lot so people find out about our approach and tell us that this kind of multisensory interactive approach, this very close up work; this is what works.

It means we can adjust what we are doing and we think it’s very important that you find out about as much as you can about an audience and you are very good at perceiving at how they are there in the theatre and acting in the moment. We think about creating comfortable seating, the right textures, and the right smells you are going into. We do a lot of preparatory material that goes out and video clips on YouTube or the website. This is particularly important with the autism spectrum guys because if they don’t like going to new places and meeting new people, so the way we try and address that is by doing these things on the principle of social stories. Have you heard of social stories before?

No, I don’t think I have.

So like somebody on the autism spectrum might not have the same kind of intuition on social behavior like you or I might. For example, one of the great social stories is how to eat spaghetti in public. What you don’t do is take a big mouth of spaghetti and leave. So social stories sort of explains this in simple terms, so you can prepare for the experience.

We want kids to engage in complex social systems, and you can’t get more complicated that a piece of theatre. People are pretending to be things they are not in a place that doesn’t really exist. So we’ve been doing social stories about what is going to happen when you go to see a piece of theatre. It used to be picture books and now it’s video mostly. It sort of tells you the current the behavior that is possible. So if someone does something funny you can laugh and not be laughing at them. It’s not a frightening thing because you’ve got control over it. We are making a visit to the theatre a very predictable, certain thing. It’s a very safe space. Once you gain the confidence of young people, and I guess with all people, and that you know what you are doing and your intentions are good, then you can actually play with the form. And because people are confident, then they’ll play along with you. So that really is important and that’s how we create a safe space.

I mean we had this show called Something in the Air where we put people in safe seating and we winch them up into a flying rig and they are three meters off the ground. They can choose and that was in the social story, you know “you can go up in the air, but if you don’t want to, you can stay on the ground. But if you do want to go up in the air, you can go up a little or a lot.” And on this rig and these seats, they could swing and they could spin and they could bounce. The show was really about doing those three things, the three acts. Act One: Swinging.   You swung like a trapeze artist and there was a trapeze artist up there. It was like really good and so your chairs are swinging through 20-30 degrees, like not that much. She’d be swinging through 40-50 degrees but you identify with her movement and you felt that you were doing what she was doing. But unlike most trapeze artists, she was swinging and she would sing to you and could reach out and touch you. And the next act, it was the Bounce Act, and it was a bungee artist and she would come off the spring off this rig and would bounce many feet up in the air and these seats were bouncing just a couple of feet, but again you’ve got this complimentary movement thing. And then finally there was this thing called a Spanish web and you twist on a rope and someone is spinning you, and the seats were spinning. Some kids found that really exciting because there are some kids that love fair ground rides and maximum G playground experiences.   But others are like “Whoa, this is really frightening. I’m gonna go up in the air and fly! I don’t wanna go up in the air and fly. I’ll fly up and fly up through the window and fly out over the roof tops and I’ll fly out over the sea and I’ll never see my mommy again” So then you have to tell a lot more of the story and how these seats stay in one place even though they move. You really need to try as hard as you can to get inside an autistic mind and how might this seem to them, and will they figure it out or go down the wrong rabbit hole. But with sufficient preparation, in the end, you can get people to overcome the fears they have.

So Tim, how are you documenting all this? All this great knowledge and all these discoveries?

Telling you!

I mean, you’re coming up with all this amazing stuff and it’s growing over here and people are curious about how to work with the very young and the developmentally disabled. How do you get this stuff out of your head and into…something?

Have you seen the Oily Cart book? When the company was 30 years old, we made this book, which is called, well The Oily Cart Book. You can get it on the website or on Amazon. It’s full of insights, and we also video document quite carefully what we do. So we sell DVDs of shows, post a lot of stuff on the internet. Video is the best way because it’s not about words. Then the teaching, and that’s a good way of passing it on…probably the best way, actually. I mean it does seem quite difficult to pass on because we think, “Surely someone could see one of the Oily Cart shows and just kind of just figure it out. We are just doing what seems to be obviously necessary.” But maybe it’s taken us a while to really find out what is necessary so it isn’t obvious to someone who sees it for the first time.

Where do you see the company going next? What’s the next 5 years? 10 years? Is there an area you want to explore more?

Sometimes we do this thing called “character embedding” where instead of performance lasting a day, we embed people in the school for like a week or two weeks and the characters are living in the school. For the first couple days, we say to the actors, “don’t ask anybody anything, just be there. Don’t try and involve them because they’ll come to you then.” It’s a technique we use a lot. If you are assertive and give them eye contact and say “Now you’ve gotta do this because it’ll be really fun”, that’s the most ineffective way. The most effective way is to be doing something that, from afar, looks really interesting and fun. Then they might want to join it. They’re wary of very assertive approaches. So this embedding thing, that’s great. It needs fundraising beyond…it just costs more to do it.

We do these shows still for very young children that may or may not have disabilities. And then we have these shows for very specialized shows for these specialized audiences that involve very specialized techniques. I think it’s worked very well for us because what has actually happened we have developed a lot of specialized things of necessity to address audiences in special schools who might be blind, might be deaf, might have no movement, who don’t use verbal language. Then you find out, well actually these sort of techniques also work really well with mainstream audiences, a neuro-typical audience. An adults love it, too. You should come check it out.

I definitely will. Well, Tim thank you for your time and all your wonderful stories. Best of luck on The Light Show and the next season at Oily Cart. To the reader, take a look at Oily Cart’s website for more information, to find examples of the social stories, and video clips of the productions. http://www.oilycart.org.uk

TW cv pic

Oily Cart Artistic Director – Tim Webb MBE


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