This spring, Lincoln Center presented the Big Umbrella Festival, the world’s first month-long festival dedicated to performing arts programming for children on the autism spectrum and their families. The festival features a thoughtfully-curated selection of artistic experiences that include theatrical productions, concerts, film screenings, and workshops.
One of the festival’s most influential figures,Tim Webb, is the co-founder and artistic director of London-based theatre company, Oily Cart. Oily Cart’s mission, since the company’s founding in 1981, has been to create work both for the very young (under six years of age) and for children with complex learning difficulties, which include Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) and Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC).
Oily Cart have produced over eighty plays in their history and have impacted thousands of people across the world through international touring. One of the company’s most recent productions Light Show, which explores the beauty of day and night through shadow, paper, and live music, was a featured production at this year’s Big Umbrella Festival.
Recently, I had the opportunity to connect with Oily Cart Artistic Director Tim Webb to ask him some important questions about the Big Umbrella Festival, Oily Cart, and the challenges and rewards of creating work for children with complex learning difficulties.
How do you see the Big Umbrella Festival impacting the community?
TW: I believe this is an epoch-making event for community. The profile and endorsement that Lincoln Center brings to theatre music and other art forms for this community have placed work that has only developed over the past two decades firmly centre stage.
What has surprised you the most about the festival?
TW: So far I have been very busy with the performances of Light Show and with several professional development workshops. In the workshops it has amazed me to discover the wide range of artists already engaged with developing work for people on the spectrum. In our performances I have been delighted to see for myself that our show, created for UK audiences, works so very well when transferred across the Atlantic.
Work that is close-up, truly multi-sensory (not falling back on the theatre stand-bys of looking and listening), intensely interactive, and filled with fun and beauty will always engage its chosen audience.
Why do you feel it is important to curate a festival of the arts for children on the Autism Spectrum and their families?
TW: This is important particularly because there are still many young people on the spectrum and their families who have still to experience the wonderful ways in which theatre, music, art specifically created for them can enhance their lives and transform the world into a place where they can feel completely welcome and one in which their personalities can flower.
Do you have a personal favorite memory from a performance of Light Show that you would like to share?
TW: In performance, I recall a moment when the characters become a little carried away with their fanning and twirl one another around the stage. When they stopped fanning and stopped twirling to stand there rather breathless, one young member of the audience asked the artist sympathetically, ‘Are you guys, all right?’
Why is it important to educate artists on developing work for children on the Autism Spectrum and their families?
TW: The more that artists and educators can understand and empathize with young people on the spectrum and their families, the more they will be to with engage them. Oily Cart believe that the more we can prepare our audiences for our shows, (on-line, in print and in any which way before they meet the performers for the first time) the richer that encounter is going to be.
When describing the Oily Cart creative process, Webb says that the ensemble likes to challenge themselves to think about what fascinates an audience. “We tend to start with a concept or a method that we’ve touched on in a previous show, or come across somewhere else. It might be that we decide to concentrate on a particular sense in a new show. On other occasions we like to take a notion like string or paper and worry it to death. Can we do a show in which everything, every sound, every costume, puppet, prop, bit of set is about paper? Sometimes it’s about finding an emotional state or a character that an audience is going to find fascinating” (London Theatre Blog).
One of Tim Webb and Oily Cart’s greatest values is creating a theatrical experience that goes beyond the traditional play. “We take care that the theatre we create is not something happening at the other end of the room that you sit and look at. We like our theatre to happen below, above, either side and behind you. We like our performances to begin long before the audience reaches the venue and to continue long after they’ve gone home. It’s 360 degree theatre. We set out to create environments, ‘wonderlands’, which will engage the intended audience as completely as possible” (London Theatre Blog).
This year’s Big Umbrella Festival featured not only Light Show presented by Oily Cart, but also two other theatrical productions: Up and Away from Trusty Sidekick Theatre Company (US) and Oddysea from Sensorium Theatre (AUS). With the success of these productions and the Big Umbrella Festival itself, plus the already-increasing charge to create art for children with different abilities, this is just the beginning. In Janurary, Tim Webb, who has been leading this charge for almost forty years, has decided to step down as the artistic director of Oily Cart sometime in the next two years, in order to “pave way for the next generation of theatre makers”. His biggest piece of advice for artists creating work for this audience: be inventive, empathetic, and playful.
“Necessity has been the mother of our invention. The sort of work that we had to develop, if we were really going to communicate with people who have sensory, or intellectual impairments, i.e. multi-sensory, highly interactive theatre, has, over the years, made us rethink our whole approach to performance. Now we try to make all of our shows address all of the senses and to allow each performance to take its own course, encouraging the intervention of the audience. I’d contend that most theatre is about the spectator perceiving the performer. Our theatre has to be about the performer perceiving the spectator/participant, and indeed any companions (family members, teachers, carers) with the participant, and then modulating the performance to engage them more fully. We need to be as live, playful and in the moment as possible, which I’d say is what all theatre should be about” (London Theatre Blog).
Find out more about Oily Cart here:
Find out more about the Big Umbrella Festival:
“Interview with Tim Webb, Artistic Director of Oily Cart.” London Theatre Blog Archive, www.andreweglinton.com/ltbarchive/2010/06/17/interview-with-tim-webb-artistic-director-of-oily-cart/.
Hemley, Matthew, and Giverny Masso. “Oily Cart Founders Step down after 36 Years.” The Stage, 18 Jan. 2018, www.thestage.co.uk/news/2018/oily-cart-founders-step-down/.