Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart. Part Two: Creating Theatre Magic

Many people have asked me how on earth you create theatre for children with PMLD and ASD. A number have asked me why I would do it. So, for the record, here is a brief outline of what the week looked like and, a few personal reflections about the effect that the project had on our “audience”.

Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart
Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart, Participants from all over the world came to Ashford

After a day of getting to know each other through theatre games and exercises, we were put into groups of four. Each group was tasked with creating a 15-minute performance piece by the end of the week. Although the groups were randomly chosen, each one had someone with a teaching background, someone who could use sign language, at least one performer/theatre practitioner, and a musician or musical person. In our group, the latter task fell to me. Max thrust a guitar into my hands. “Keep it simple,” he said. “You don’t want to overcomplicate mental processes. Also, you want all of the performers to be able to do it.” Keeping it simple wasn’t a problem for me. I haven’t played guitar in at least 10 years and my fingers were soon rubbed raw on steel guitar strings.

One vital member of our group was an Oily Cart performer. Mark is an adult with special needs and the story is that he went to an Oily Cart performance as a child and never left. One of the first things you learn from Mark is that he has “The Voice”, an amazingly rich, bass voice. He loves to play with his voice, to show you how resonant it is and to use the vibrations to reach other people. “You ever hear a voice like this?” he says. “My voice makes you laugh.” And it does. The sound of Mark’s voice, and his joy in using it, made me laugh with pleasure. I loved watching him work his voice magic on the children, gently placing their hands or feet on his throat so they could feel his voice.

The format for the workshop took us into a residency in Wyvern School, a day school for children with Profound, Severe or Complex learning difficulties. My group was assigned to work with a class of children between the ages of four and eight with PMLD. Most were in wheelchairs, a number were visually impaired. One had a debilitating, terminal disease and was no longer even able to sit.

Our task was to develop a “show” for these twelve children based on the theme of “The Suitcase”.

Tim stressed that it be a piece with actions and sounds, but very few words. Max reminded us not to be tentative with the music, to make sure that we were making moments, not just a stream of chanting. Claire said to keep it simple, to look around and see what we could find, to remember theatricality. “Storyline” was important only to the degree that we felt it was. In other words, if we as actors needed story, that was our concern, but it wasn’t really important for our audience.

Over the course of the week, our group developed a performance about experiencing the senses. We spent one day focusing on smell (“Breathe. Smell”) one day on touch (“Touch. Feel”) and one day on sound (“Listen. Hear”). Mark’s resonant voice became the starting place for our piece. We began by humming and singing each child’s name to make them alert to our presence. We created songs to help transition from one section of the piece to the next. Music scored, and underscored, the entire piece.

Our materials were simple – herbs, small hand fans, cotton balls, little LED lights, fabrics. We quickly coalesced as an ensemble, moving and breathing together, making eye contact and staying attuned to the children’s responses to adjust our performance. We took time to incorporate silence and stillness, using a bell or deep sigh to signal a change. We created moments as we took each object out of a small suitcase with a theatrical flourish. Even our sounds were stored in the suitcase, and quickly returned lest they escape.

At the end of each day we watched videos of all of the groups, so that we could learn from everyone’s experiences. One group was working with an older class of children with PMLD and the other two groups were working with children with ASD. There were magical moments, characters, sounds, snatches of songs, rhythms and bits of story in each piece. They were created in response to the children’s needs and perceptions, and each was unique.

On the second to last morning, we were told that one of the children in our class wouldn’t be there in the afternoon so we decided to do our piece just for her. She was lying on a blanket on the floor, a terminal disease ravishing her system. She was non-communicative with very little eyesight.

As we sang, her eyes opened and she moved her head slightly in the direction of the closest singer. I played the guitar, all of my focus on her and the actors. We sang and made gentle offers of scents (Rosemary) and textures (air from the fan, soft cotton balls). Mark began a “sound poem”, speaking simple words in his wonderful voice. “Listen. Butterfly. Trees. The Forest.” He gave each word time to land. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the lead teacher filming. The girl’s hands were moving. One side of her mouth was half-curled into a smile. She was, for the first time in a very long time, reacting.

We instinctively knew when it was time to leave, and sang our way out of the room. The care givers and teachers were crying. It wasn’t long before we were too.

That afternoon, when we did our performance for the whole class, we heard one of the children wailing as we left the room. She didn’t want us to go. We felt awful. But Tim reminded us that one of the purposes of the work is to give children deep emotional experiences. Crying meant that she was having an emotional moment. That was a good thing. However, it wasn’t really the effect we wanted so we decided not to sing our way out of the room but to say our goodbyes with spoken words. In order to really make sure everyone was really happy, we decided to make treat bags that included elements from each sensory occasion – cotton balls for “touch”, rosemary and oranges for “smell”, hand made shakers for “listen”. It was the right way to end the piece.

Our final performance was filled with responses from the children: a non-verbal, visually impaired boy made a wonderful crowing face at his favourite parts; a young girl reached out for an actor’s hand, inviting her to play with a toy; a non-responsive boy followed us with his eyes; a girl reached up her hands, waving them in quiet recognition. One boy, in complete meltdown in the hall, became silent and quiet as I sang to him. He stopped hitting himself, recognizing his name as I sang.

Fleeting moments perhaps, but some of the strongest moments “audience appreciation” that I have ever experienced.

Leaving the school was very hard. It had been a week of colour, texture, music, aromas, laughter and tears. As we went to our bus we could hear teachers still singing our songs.

Dream: The Joy of Creating was aptly titled. I left with a renewed belief in the power and magic of making art.

Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart. PART ONE.

As an artist, working within a set of parameters is always an exciting artistic challenge. In this case the parameters included things like working with children in wheelchairs, children who were cognitively impaired, visually impaired or with auditory impairment, non-verbal children, and children who had hyper or hypo sensitivities. We had four days to create four 15-minute performance pieces for them, pieces that would engage them as well as to engage their neurotypical caregivers.

At the beginning of October, 2014, I went to Ashford in Kent, England to dream and create with Oily Cart Theatre http://www.oilycart.org.uk/ Oily Cart has been making unique theatrical experiences for children since 1981. Creating “all kinds of shows for all kinds of kids,” they are world leaders in devising theatre for children with Profound Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The Oily Cart creation team is made up of director Tim Webb, designer Claire de Loon, and composer Max Reinhardt. Together they devise interactive, multi-sensory kinesthetic adventures for children who are very young, and children who have special needs. They make theatre that is close-up and personal.

The week-long course was offered by the London-based Rose Bruford College http://theatrefutures.org.uk/theatre-for-young-audiences-centre/ The decision to offer the course in Ashford was part of a larger social responsibility. Ashford (population approximately 75,000) is in an impoverished pocket of England. It’s a town of restless teenagers, unemployment and streets that roll up at 8:30 in the evening. But there is an international train station in Ashford (you can get to Paris from there in under two hours), regular high-speed connections to London (you can be at Waterloo Station in 30 minutes) and there are people on the town council who believe in renewal through the arts. Hence a new partnership with one of the UK’s premiere dance companies, Jasmin Vardimon, and a fabulous studio space that is used by a variety of arts groups. Away from the intensity of London, Ashford was the perfect place to focus on our task of creating scratch performances for children with PMLD and ASD.

We were a diverse group of sixteen participants from the U.K., U.S., Belgium, and Canada. We were theatre practitioners, arts therapists, and teachers – people who work in schools, hospitals, clinics and theatres. We had all travelled long distances to work with Tim, Claire and Max.

I do not have a specific background in working with children with special needs, so I came to this as an artist, first and foremost. The genre of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) has certain parameters, but the sub genre of TYA for children with PMLD and ASD has its own ethos. Performances are created for small audiences, usually 2 – 8 children, supported by a large team of actors, musicians and caregivers.

As an artist, working within a set of parameters is always an exciting artistic challenge. In this case the parameters included things like working with children in wheelchairs, children who were cognitively impaired, visually impaired or with auditory impairment, non-verbal children, and children who had hyper or hypo sensitivities. We had four days to create four 15-minute performance pieces for them, pieces that would engage them as well as engage their neurotypical caregivers.

It was a joyful week, a week of great bonding, of honest creation. There were no egos, no competitiveness – we were all at the service of the work. It was a week in which I made new discoveries about theatre as an artform, and about myself as an artist. It was, indeed, a joy to create with them.