Oily Cart is a small touring theatre company that specialises in interactive shows for very young children in the mainstream and also creates shows for young people of school age with complex disabilities. Our style of performance relies on small audiences and we accompany shows with preparation and follow-up resources.
Our work for young people with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities or an Autistic Spectrum Disorder is of necessity multi-sensory. Our development of a multi-sensory theatre has spilled over into our mainstream work. It is totally appropriate for our baby shows for children aged between 6 months and 2 years. Our shows for 3 to 5 year olds have much more story and language in them but they are still completely multi-sensory. As designer, I work closely with the writer and director, Tim Webb, from the beginning and together we aim to address all the senses, including the kinaesthetic sense of movement.
Our latest show for 3 to 5 year olds is called Land of Lights. It is performed to an audience of 50 including adults. The set comprises a small installation in the foyer, a trail down the side of the auditorium, which leads into the performance space itself.
The set and costumes for this show are inspired by the Art Nouveau style. The colours are peacock feather shades of emerald green, purple and gold. The textiles that can be felt as well as seen, sparkle with sequins and tinsel. Many have been sourced from London’s rich Asian fabric shops. They add a dimension that is resonant to our culturally diverse audience.
Before the cast meet the children in the foyer, the ushers encourage the kids to put on little aprons that are printed all over with ivy leaves. This is because we are going to be indulging in some lovely messy play!
The cast including the musician are all dressed as 19th century explorers. They come out to meet the audience in the front of house and together they examine the small houses that they find there. Where have all the little people gone? Soon they all process through the gallery of mirrors and more tiny houses on route for the stage. The noise of conversation is loud and lively. By the time the audience are all seated, the children are well warmed up. The children sit on velvet cushions laid out around a horseshoe shape of very low tables. The actors enter through an archway upstage and perform inside the ring of tables. The musician sits downstage behind his cimbalom.
A tiny girl puppet enters in a hot air balloon. She introduces the story of the show. She is looking for the stars as they have fallen out of the sky and all the little people have gone in search of them.
There follows an odyssey where we meet extraordinary characters that present us with opportunities to help look for the stars. As the performance space is particularly small, the characters come to us in Land of Lights. In many Oily Cart shows, the audience will get up and go on at least one promenade to move the story along.
The children meet the Gardener who presents them each with herbs to smell and a glowing pot of seeds to explore and shake along to the music. The Cook has the zest of orange and nutmeg as well as bowls of jelly containing stars. The Bubble Man has a lavender-scented cleaning cloth to smell and oodles of bubbles to feel. It is the children who find the fallen stars, having a lot of laughs and fun in the process.
When the last star has been found and the balloon takes them all back up into the sky, tiny twinkling stars come on in the branches overhead and all the windows in the 60-odd houses light up. There are recordings inside many of the houses so that the children can hear the happy little people who have returned to their homes.
In short, the aesthetic of the show is a feast for the eyes and the ears. The children see a beautiful set, costumes and lighting. Throughout there are lovely songs and music. But more unusually, there are also gorgeous smells and what is more fun than sticking your hand in seeds, jelly and bubbles?
As the audience leaves the theatre, you can see the children happily running from house to house looking, listening and touching the glittering displays. Their imagination has been excited by the storytelling but the interaction with the characters and all the multi-sensory elements have brought the whole adventure to life.
CLAIRE DE LOON – Oily Cart Head of Design
Claire spent the first seven years of her working life as a freelance theatre designer, working mainly in rep. She met Tim Webb while working at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow. Her work for young people includes productions for the Unicorn Theatre, Greenwich Young People’s Theatre and Glasgow Citizen’s TIE.
Claire has combined her design work with a career spanning thirteen years in arts education. She was Kids Club Co-ordinator at Battersea Arts Centre, the director of the Tower Hamlets Youth Arts Project, ILEA Advisory Lecturer in Fashion & Design and Art & Design Team Leader for Hammersmith & Fulham Community Education.
Claire is a founder member of Oily Cart who have been creating innovative theatre for very young children and young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities since 1981. She has designed around 70 Oily shows, as well as education packs, books and posters. She describes her approach to designing for these audiences in the book: Oily Cart – All sorts of theatre for all sorts of kids. More information on her recent productions for the company can be found on the Oily website: www.oilycart.org.uk.