Part 1 of a 2-part series

Pushing boundaries, challenging norms, inspiring change: it’s what many theatre companies strive for. Oily Cart, based in London, is no exception and yet the source of its innovation is exceptional: the theatre company is specifically designed to cater for its unique audience of children and young people with multiple and complex learning disabilities.

Founded in 1981, Oily Cart challenges the ‘norms’ of theatre by bringing its kaleidoscopic, dynamic and highly interactive productions to venues across the UK and internationally, including schools for special education needs. Multisensory and multidimensional, Oily Cart invites over 7000 children and young people each year to touch, smell and feel through the use of aromatherapy, music, puppetry, trampolines and spontaneous interaction with its actors.

In conversation with PETRIe Features Associate, Elizabeth Neep, musical director and founding member Max Reinhardt, performer and stage manager Griff Fender, and performer Ellie Griffiths, tell of the invaluable and groundbreaking work of Oily Cart and the magical impact special theatre can create.

The children’s reactions become part of the performance and often magic you cannot predict happens.

Elizabeth Neep: What is your favourite thing about working at Oily Cart?

Max Reinhardt: Seeing a show through, from an idea to a living multisensory entity with an audience.

Griff Fender: For me, it is the entire creative process - providing theatre for children of six months to six years, of all abilities.

Ellie Griffiths: I love that each performance of each show is completely unique. The children's reactions become part of the performance and often magic you cannot predict happens! This allows you to be spontaneous as a performer and challenges you to improvise and always be very present and open. It means you never get bored, even if you've been touring the same show for ages. I love the music and how freely we play with styles and musical genres. I love the simplicity, poetry and respect of silence. I also love the intimacy of the work and the intense connections you form with some children.

EN: What has been your favourite production to date and why?

MR: Something in the Air. It was a simple but genius idea by artistic director Tim Webb: make an aerial show in which the audience (young autistic people and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties) rise up into the air along with the aerialists.

GF: I'll have to give you two. Blue is my favourite special needs show [an intimate production featuring original live Blues music and innovative lighting] and Ring-a-Ding-Ding, my favourite neurotypical show [a multi-sensory experience for children aged three-to-six].

EG: My favourite production was also Something in the Air. It was spectacular and like an amazing symphony - I loved the concept. My favourite to perform was Tube though, as we got so much time to make connections with the children, and the freedom to adapt the performance to their reactions. [Tube sees the actors utilise a plethora of tubes of all colours, textures, smells and sounds whilst its audience of three-to-11 year olds bounce and sway in moveable ‘leaf’ chairs].

Generally we see an amazing amount of what looks to us like ‘awakening’, where audience members who are apparently disconnected or uncontactable flower in reaction to the shows.

EN: Can you share any stories or situations that highlight the impact your work has?

MR: Generally we see an amazing amount of what looks to us like 'awakening', where audience members who are apparently disconnected or uncontactable flower in reaction to the shows - sharing moments with performers, smiling, laughing, opening up.

GF: In special needs shows, we often have to gauge our impact on the children by the carer's reactions. The biggest boost is when the carer tells you they have never seen such a reaction from that child in response to something you have done.

There are lots of examples where carers or parents burst into tears during a show because their child has reacted in ways they’ve never seen and have shown potential they weren’t yet aware of.

EG: There are lots of examples where carers or parents burst into tears during a show because their child has reacted in ways they've never seen and have shown potential they weren't yet aware of. I have great memories of a performance of Bounce (on a trampoline) where a child was expected to lie under a screen with balls being rolled over it. Instead they stood up, and put their head under my chin and on my chest as I sang and giggled with glee at the vibration and sang along. We slowly bounced in rhythm, the lights were very beautiful and the child was so relaxed and happy – despite apparently usually being very stressed and anxious, never staying still. The carer had tears all down her face - as did I!

EN: What are the biggest challenges you face in working at Oily Cart?

MR: Every time you work on the creation of a new show, it’s a challenge. Will it work? Will the audiences enjoy it and engage with it? Be stimulated by it? That is the biggest challenge. 

GF: To keep making quality inclusive theatre for all sorts of children in all the age groups and abilities.

EG: We make decisions quickly about the best way to approach or interact with a child. Sometimes you make the wrong call and they become distressed. It's horrible to feel like you made their experience a negative one. As a company I suppose there is a constant challenge to find funding as the work has to be so highly subsidised. [Oily Cart is funded by individuals, trusts and businesses including the National Lottery and Arts Council England].

I hope the future will bring more shows to more children - I’ve seen theatre light them up.

EN: What does 2015 look like for Oily Cart? What are your hopes for the future?

MR: We have two brand new productions, one revival – bring it on! 

GF: We will be putting on at least three productions this year; two special needs shows and one neurotypical. I hope the future will bring more shows to more children - I've seen theatre light them up.

EG: We are devising a new show for special needs children, and touring a show from last year. There will also be an early years show around Christmas. My hopes are that this amazing area of work continues to be explored in such depth and with such high creativity.

If you would like to support the work of Oily Cart, you can donate securely online at: www.oilycart.org.uk/impact/

Words: Elizabeth Neep

Image Source: The Guardian