Tell me a little bit about your background before you began working with Oily Cart. Do you have a background in education?
I did some teaching at University and in secondary schools. I was interested in alternative education and interested in libertarian schooling. So I worked in a truancy unit in London and then I went to Canada and worked in a libertarian free school, as it was known at the time. Then I came back to London, and the whole of London had one Education Authority and they had this thing called Family Education, you know parent and child education unit, and I got employed as a lecturer in that. I was doing music and drama with parents and children in a Community Music and Art Center and I was writing music for theatre groups and amongst the people I met there were Tim [Webb] and Amanda [Claire de Loon]. So when we started I was both doing workshops for families and writing music for theatre groups and so it kind of seemed the natural thing to do for me to step out from the workshops and into the theatre bit. I was just catching up with myself, I was finding a way to both be in music and theatre. Actually there’s always been a kind of tension between music and theatre in my life because, you know, in Canada, I worked a lot with music with the kids at the school and I think that that’s when I really started to write music with kids in mind but I don’t really write music for children, I just write music.
As Oily Cart’s Musical Director, what is the rehearsal process a production? Are you present in rehearsals or do you compose music alone and bring it to the actors? Is the music improvised or always scripted?
Well, you realize, I’m sure, that we’ve been at it for, we’re approaching 35 years, and the way we do it has changed over the years and still changes from show to show. So I have been the composer alone in my garret, but these days quite a lot I work with a co-composer who is going to be the musician in the show.
The last show I played music in was Something in the Air, which was our biggest show, probably ever. The Cathedral of Oily Cart shows. We started that in 2009 and it did a couple of tours with me in it and then I rewrote the music for two saxophones and they did it. But originally it was a clarinetist and me. We wrote all the incidental music together on the floor as improvisations, with the acrobats, because it was all based on movement.
The show we’re doing now, called Light Show, is a show for kids with multiple profound learning disabilities and kids along the autism spectrum. I am working with Adam Storey, an Australian double bass player who is in this country on an Exceptional Talent Visa. I’ve co-composed the music with him. He’s a great player. How did we compose the music? Well, there was a scenario, and we took it and looked at it together and but while we were writing the music Tim entirely changed the scenario. It was one scenario at the beginning of the week and it became more of a script by the end of the week, which was the only week we had to write the music. I said, “We need six themes that we can use that can also become Name Songs.” That’s one of the things that we do in these sort of shows. We sing kids the songs or the themes that they’ve heard in the rest of the show. They come back and they become a song just about you. It’s interesting because neurotypical people don’t necessarily like the attention because one assumes they’ve all had their names said to them in a loving way, in a gentle way, in an affectionate way, as well as “Oy, Ashley, will you do such and such!?” Whereas if you’re a kid with profound special needs, there’s more, “We’re going to lift you up, we’re going to move you,” and so on. Your name becomes much more of a utilitarian thing, not spoken in an affectionate way, and these kids like being sung to. They’ve gotten to know you a bit through the show and they can see themselves either through a mirror or on a video screen.
So we need these six contrasting themes because there is going to be six kids at the end of the show who will have their names sung to them. I’m not quite sure how these bits will fit together because Tim is changing that but when we turn up for rehearsals, we’ll play these themes with any lyrics we might find we think are useful. But there aren’t a lot of lyrics in these shows: we really simplify vocabulary and on the rehearsal floor things change again. For example, we did a song about a cloud and how it might rain because we followed the script. And what happened is that it became a comedy bit, really. So you come out and sing something simple: “When you see a cloud? Is it going to rain?” and a performer has a cloud on his head and a water spray bottle. “Is it going to rain?” the singer asks and the cloud says, “No!” Then he repeats it: “Is it going to rain?” “No!” And finally: “Is it going to rain?” “…YES!” and everyone gets sprayed! Now we’re getting wet! So how did we get to that? Well when we came to rehearsals we had written the verse and chorus, and the chorus is very fast and the verse is very slow. But we didn’t know we would be playing with suspense during that slow bit culminating in lots of spraying umbrellas and performers and audience with water and then celebrating being wet during the fast bit, but we did and it is working very brilliantly.
I shouldn’t really tell you that that the magic has just worked but in my experience that’s what happens. You come in and you kind of intimately know what you’ve got in terms of chords and melody lines and you try it out on the floor with director and performers and you think, “how are we going to make that work as theatre?” And then suddenly it does….sometimes it takes a while and sometimes it’s an instant transmutation ….as you know I’m sure. And it all kind of comes together. The written music either gets changed in some way, or sometimes you devise new stuff on the floor. There are different ways of doing it and I’m sure I haven’t done them all.
Have you ever had an experience that just didn’t go the way you planned? A ‘Never Again’ moment?
There are shows I prefer and even the shows I didn’t like much for one reason or another, they had their musical moments. Sometimes I’m happier than Tim or Amanda with the results and sometimes I’m the less happy one, it depends on how it all turns out. I think the answer to your question is I wouldn’t have gotten into this, and I wouldn’t have stayed in it, if I weren’t wired for optimism.
Oily Cart creates theatre experiences for young people in non- traditional spaces, like swimming pools or on trampolines. What are the benefits of creating non-traditional theatre for both the creative team and the audiences for whom you create?
Audiences first. We always said we wanted to make theatre where it had never been before. When we started people said you couldn’t really work with under-5’s but we chose to work with them. Eventually, we were invited to perform at these special schools and discovered the stuff we had created wasn’t right. It was too much narrative or not age appropriate. We began to look at ways to take shows that would have impact on kids and thought, “Well, maybe we need to be around all day…or all day for two days…” Some kids are on time lines that aren’t the same as neurotypical people: they can be slower or faster. That’s how it started.
In the time since we started, I think the first one was 1989, schools have changed, and medical science towards infant care has changed. We’re doing theatre we like, and music we like, but we are also working it in a way to reach these kids. Some of the different sorts of techniques therapy used are of interest to us. We’ve always been interested in challenging audiences, like with audiences who challenge us. That’s how we got into the area of kids with profound complex disabilities, autistic audiences and then baby shows, too.
Why is that of interest to us? Well, it definitely frees you up over the years. It has definitely freed me up as a musician. It freed us up as a company in the way you tell stories and what constitutes a story, what constitutes a narrative. A narrative can be simply light and then dark. And similarly music can just be a found sound, a texture, a drone. It takes a long time to get that simple. But then you’re also interested in chance, interested in improvisation, interested in having a structure, which is very much prepared. And that goes for everything, from the performed narrative to the music to the design. But I would say musically, I’ve been freed from permanently using song structures or any thoughts of a house style or template. I can change my musical menu each time I do a show and that’s what interests me: contributing to the work and reaching the audience preferably in a way we haven’t tried musically before.
Do you have an all-encompassing piece of advice to pass along to theatre makers interested in creating work for or with non-traditional young audiences?
- One thing is if you’re making theatre, just stick with it. That’s a really important thing to do, you know, not to get either distracted or put off. Stay optimistic. Stay in it. Because one of the things that gets you where you want to go is sticking with it. “Perseverance furthers.” And it’s true.
- I think it’s true of audiences, as of true of musical stylings that you have to live with it, in some way, to understand it. For some people, that means studying intensely. And I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t do that. For other people, it just means hanging around music, hanging around babies, or hanging around in schools. Maybe in some cases it’s going to mean working with babies or kids with profound multiple learning disabilities. Maybe that’s the only way in. I think you have to be involved with your audiences. You already know a whole bunch of people in your life, and you know what a theatre is, or what a crowd looks like; but that is different than being in a room with just babies or a room where most of the people you’re trying to address have got profound multiple learning disabilities. That’s a whole new thing. And it’s a bit like music in the sense that you are brought up with what you hear on radio, and if you want to seek out new music, you have to probably stop spending all your listening time with the familiar and totally immerse yourself in the unfamiliar until it becomes familiar. I think it’s the same across the board.