Theatre Futures Menu

Oily Cart

13th April 2011

This event was held in front of an audience of under graduate students from Rose Bruford College’s School of Performance and students from the MA in Theatre for Young Audiences. It was part of the TYA strand of the annual symposium. The session took the form of an open presentation by Oily Cart’s Artistic Director, writer and founder member Tim Webb and the company’s General Manager Roger Lang, illustrated with footage from a DVD made to commemorate the company’s 25th anniversary. Questions were welcomed by the panel throughout the two-hour event. A copy of the anniversary DVD can be viewed by appointment at the TYA Centre or can be purchased from the company’s online shop.

Account

What follows is an account of the session including video clips and a sample of questions and answers. I have chosen to give an account of some of the panel’s responses, in other cases I offer edited verbatim quotes or filmed clips. This choice was governed by what I felt were the more important questions for research project or where it seemed necessary to offer the nuance that only the filmed clips can allow.

The session began with an extract from the DVD. Here are extracts from the narration of that DVD that serve as a potted history of the company:

Oily Cart began in 1981 when Max Reinhart and Tim Web began work on a show for the under 5s. Most theatre people considered this an ‘impossible audience’. We persevered and began to develop a form of theatre for the very young that was intensely visual, featured live music and involved much interaction with the children. We were always looking for ways to blur the distinction between actor and audience and bring the children physically into the world of the play.

In 1984 thanks to a grant from the Greater London Council we expanded from a double act made up of a couple of white blokes, into a company that personified on stage the culturally diverse audiences with whom we work. All of our work since that point has not only tried to celebrate the numerous cultural strands woven together in society, but has also presented that mix on stage.

In 1988 we were asked to work in a school for young people with severe learning disabilities. We soon came to understand that we had chosen yet another ‘impossible audience’ for whom conventional forms of theatre were quite inappropriate. It became clear that we would need to take much more time than we were used to, if we were to communicate effectively with this audience. The performances we developed were often as much about touching and smelling as they were about looking and listening. Recently we have concentrated on work with audiences who have complex disabilities or are on the autistic spectrum.

With Jumping Beans and our two subsequent productions we have made theatre for babies as young as 6 months. Initially our aim was to set up a situation in which the parents might play more freely with their children. But then we experienced the wonderful focus that even the youngest child can bring to a theatre event made especially for them; we were hooked. Once again we had discovered that by taking on the challenge of an ‘impossible audience’ we had been led to reexamine our ideas about theatre. We had been compelled to find a new synthesis that truly communicated with these very young people. And that also brought us a new delight in our work.

 

Tim then discusses the company’s ethos and broadly outlines their working methodologies:

Tim then invites questions from the audience:

How do you prepare a piece of theatre for children with complex learning difficulties?

In the following clip Tim answers the question by talking about how the company began working within special schools:

Tim then discusses how the behavior of their disabled audiences can often be atypical. The theatre event itself can often help them and their carers to extend their understanding of their own possibilities.

Roger and Tim then talk about the lack of provision for audiences with complex learning disabilities. They cannot meet the demand and refuse to compromise quality by running two companies at a time.

The next questioner asks:

What would you say is the main aim of productions you make for these audiences. Is it a form of education, or relaxation, or pleasure?

In the following clip Tim discusses the educational value of their work whilst identifying it clearly as theatre, which ‘does everything that theatre ought to do’:

A questioner asks about the insurance required for doing this sort of interactive work. Roger explains it just requires careful risk assessment and the normal public liability insurance.

Can you give some examples of interactive activities you engage in during your work?

In this clip Tim describes the ‘embedding’ technique, which was devised for work with children on the autistic spectrum. An actor is placed in the school in character, to prepare the pupils for watching the show. The example relates to their production Blue.

Watch a YouTube clip of Blue:


 

Tim then explains that the embedding process is usually done for one or two weeks, with one week seeming to be enough. The actor’s he uses for this and much of their work need to be good improvisers and like ‘dangerous performance’.

How do you select the actors you work with?

TW: Some of what we are interested in are just very technical: can you sing? Can you improvise harmony? Can you play a musical instrument? Are you a good mover? After that they need to be very flexible: be very observant and respond to the needs of the audience. We’ll set improvisations in which we are looking for how people can simply convey information clearly. Getting the facts across in a way that is theatrically interesting. Griff (Fender), who we have worked with a lot; his background is not in theatre at all, it’s in rock n’ roll. If you’re from that sort of life you are forever cutting shapes on stage. You can take a still photograph of him at any point in a performance, and he’s looking good.

What we’re talking about is kids who are interested in the silhouette of things, because you don’t know if they can see the detail. Is the sound, the timbre of the voice interesting? Two of the people we work with a lot, Jack and Mark, have got bass voices. And you can see that people are genuinely interested in them, not necessary because of what they are saying, but because of their voices. It’s a vibration thing. We look for people who are interested in improvising, living dangerously and have got a basket of skills and who can see the point of doing theatre that has got great outcomes.

RL: One of our actors, Mark Foster, has got severe learning disabilities. There’s this incredible empathy between him and a lot of the audience.

TW: Mark went to a special school in Lewisham throughout his school career. He does not read or write, but he has a great empathy and a political commitment to working with special schools. He talks about working with ‘his people’. And it makes us, the ‘neuro-typicals’[1], think again about what we’re doing. It stops you getting into that mind set of, after a hard day in a special school, getting in the van and thinking ‘thank God that’s over’ and you’re on to the next gig. Mark is a reminder that we are all still in that world.

Tim then introduces the next extract from the DVD.

TW: This idea of the performer watching and listening to the audience and responding to what they are coming back with is very important. The under 5’s or people with learning disabilities are very ignorant of the concept of a fourth wall in theatre. We are always trying to find ways of drawing people through this notional fourth wall. Or letting them invade it. Or letting them influence the course of the action. A pretty good example of this can be seen in our show Jumping Beans, which is a show for 2 to 4 year olds, with or without some sort of learning disability.

Tim then shows a clip from the show from the anniversary DVD. This clip is not available in the public domain.

In the following clip Tim discusses his observations about Jumping Beans and the audience who watched it. He also talks about how the actor’s manage the interactive elements of the show:

What’s the minimum age of your audience?

TW: The youngest we claim to be working with are 6 months old. The demographic of the audience is really significant. If all the children are between 18 and 21 months old, you are going to have a really different sort of show from if they are all 6 – 9 months old. All these distinctions are pretty arbitrary. There is not much of a difference between playing for an audience of 6 month olds and one made up of 24 month olds. You can sort of just about make it work. When they start getting older, we would start to worry about the amount of verbal language that is being used. If you were doing a show for 3 year olds you would have a lot of verbal language. If you are doing a how for 6 month olds, however, you would have virtually none.

 

Do you prefer to work with younger actors and do the children respond better to younger performers?

TW: We have always tried to have a company that is culturally mixed and mixed in age. It is good to have a mix. If you are in nurseries and often special schools too, they tend to be very female environments and one of the things Oily Cart does is to introduce a male role model into the mix.

 

How do ensure that the people who work for you share the same ethos as you?

TW: We interview and audition people and you find out a bit about them. Some people, who really share the ethos may stay with the company for a number of shows. You find out through experience weather we are on the same wavelength or not.

RL: There are some who work regularly with us, but there are always some new ones. And some who have only just graduated from drama school.

TW: One of the actors in the clip had not even graduated from Hull when we worked with her. But that is quite rare. We probably tend to work with people who have had a bit more experience.

 

How do you deal with situations where children do not respond well to the interactive elements of the performance?

TW: I don’t there is ever an Oily Cart show where there is not some other adult presence: parents, special school teachers or nursery workers.

RL: Sometimes in our shows audience members do have difficulties. In Something in the Air, for example, which is a show we did with Ockham’s Razor for children with severe learning disabilities, there was an anti-chamber where children could retire to, if they felt it was too much. And that is an example of when the presence of carers and parents is very important; they could sit with them for a bit and then come back in when they were ready.

I remember watching a pool show[2] once. One of the kids did not want to enter the pool, but she watched the whole thing from the edge of the pool. The actors were working that distance, but she had made the decision that the water was not for her that time.

TW: The actor’s often talk about this sort of thing and I am always careful to say that it is not personal. If you are working with someone on the autistic spectrum, for example, they can be in a state of high anxiety and so the fact that they are meeting someone new can be a factor. The fact that we have changed their swimming pool into something out of the Arabian Nights can be a factor. They are not necessarily reacting to you.

The world, if you are very young or have severe learning disabilities, is potentially a very alarming place. We are not trying to provide an anodyne, lovely experience,  that anyone would like, with little fluffy bunnies and xylophone music. It’s challenging what we’re doing and people do sometimes get upset. We put safety valves into that; they can retreat into places or if it gets too loud we can make it quieter or it can get slower.

RL: In Something in the Air, the audience are in special chair-like harnesses, which can take them up in the air, to be amongst the aerialist performers. And the audience makes that decision. They sit with their carers and they can decide if they want to go up or down.

TW: A lot of our shows are about choices: you don’t have to do this, but it will be interesting if you try it.

 

What do you do if your audience gets aggressive or react negatively to a performance?

TW: The more you do this kind of thing the more you can anticipate what might happen to the audience and maybe do something different. One of the advantages the Oily Cart performer or anyone working in this sector has got, is that you are not going into the situation as one of the usual authority figures. I’m not a teacher, I’m not telling you what to do. I am not a doctor or your mum and dad.

Performers are just there to engage with the kids and to have some sort of really interesting time together. We’re not making demands on the kids that a lot of the adults they normally meet will make. It’s a big advantage. We’re just kind of saying ‘we think you’re great. We think we can have a wonderful time together. We love you. We care for you’, and if you come from that background even kids that can be quite aggressive, don’t because what can there be to be aggressive about.

Tim then shows a clip from Baby Balloon, a show for children under 2. Watch a YouTube clip here:

Tim then talks about Baby Balloon. How it was conceived and how he has been influenced by the intense focus displayed in its audience:

How do you devise and develop music for a show like Baby Balloon?

TW: All the music that you have been hearing is composed and often played by the co-fonder of the company Max Reinhardt[3]. In that case Baby Balloon I thought the music was very interesting. We invariably use a live player because that way you can respond to the audience so much better than if you are on track. For that show we managed to get this Dutch cello player Ernst, who is very distinguished jazz cello player. He had two days rehearsal. Max played laptops and harmonica and was doing things with balloons, like wetting them and squeaking them. There was a lot of improvisation going on there.

 

Do you find that the babies respond well to the music?

TW: Well that is very interesting. I showed this clip to a group of nursery workers in Chichester and one of them said: ‘How can you do that to babies; that music is terrible’, because it is not what you might expect. But that’s what is so interesting, you can actually show work that in design terms and performance terms and musical terms is challenging for adults, but for the babies, they have not got a conventional idea of what is a children’s show. They are not expecting xylophone music and fluffy bunnies necessarily and so you give them Ernst a high-end jazz musician and they are fine.

RL: But that is what is interesting about the company. Max, Tim and Clare De Loon who have all been working together for thirty years, design make and write the shows together. So while Tim might be off writing the show, Clare is beginning to consider the design. And Max is thinking of the music. The thinking might take nine months but the show comes together during rehearsals. Each show evolves and each show pushes the company forward.

 

How long do you stay with the same show for?

TW: Something in the Air has been around for four years, and that’s a long time for us. Mostly a show will only be around for six months or so. We tend to do two new shows a year and each lasts about half a year. We sometimes sell the shows on but that is it for us.

RL: Chicago Children’s Theatre bought one of our shows, the set and the music, but cast American actors. Tim and Max went out for a bit to knock it into shape, but that was all we had to do with it. It is quite a good touring model, it doesn’t cost us anything, but we make a bob or two.

The pattern is three productions a year. Two will be new and one will be a ‘bring back’ that we have done before.

TW: We spend about five weeks rehearsing a show, but it will have been made for at least a seven or eight week period.

 

Tim and Roger then talk about the nature of the rehearsal and development process. Watch a film clip here:

This question relates to all the work we have seen: what is your main aim as a company and does it change with each show?

TW: In a way we are always trying to do the same thing. And that is to engage the audience. To do something that will actually connect with the people that we think or know are going to be in that audience. Will they actually be interested in this? Will it make them laugh? Will it make them think? Will it raise issues in their minds? Will they relate to it? I watch the show and I am thinking: ‘Are you interested in this bit? Are you really engaged now?’, and then maybe we need to look again at that bit and cut or change it or put something else in. It is communication that we are really interested in. Are we communicating?

A full version of this interview is available to view at the TYA Centre by appointment only.


  1. ‘Neuro-typical’ is a term coined by Temperence Grandin, a high-functioning autistic academic who has written extensively on the nature of autism. It refers to those outside the autistic spectrum
  2. During their work in special schools the company observed children having hydro-therapy in specially designed pools. The children seemed to be freer and more comfortable, moving in ways that they could not otherwise move. They then began to make work to be performed in these pools.
  3. As well as being a founder member of the company, Max is a well known world-music DJ, a regular host of Radio 3’s Late Junction and along with Rita Ray, has put together innovative club nights such as The Shrine. Clips of his music for Oily Cart can be heard by visiting their website

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