Last month, while in London, I had the privilege of visiting with Oily Cart Theatre, one of the few companies dedicated to creating productions for young audiences living with special needs. Specifically, Oily Cart focuses on children with autism spectrum condition (ASC) and/or profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). While developing Story Explorers, I knew it would be paramount to visit with and learn from an organization that is already doing the work - and Oily Cart has been creating this work for over 30 years.
My day started with Oily Cart's Artistic Director Tim Webb picking me up from my hotel and driving me out to South Ockenden where we would watch performances of Light Show, the company's latest offering. On the way (to and from), I was able to barrage Tim with question after question about what goes into the creative process for sensory-friendly work. He was very patient in answering all of my questions and adding insight that I would never have considered.
The performances of Light Show were captivating and eye-opening. The artistic concept of the piece was paper, so everything from the set to the seats to the costumes to the props were made to look like white sheets of paper. The three actors - Plane, Fan and Hat - were all objects that could be made from paper. The story of the show was a day at the beach, and was sectioned into different moments about the beach. Each moment centered around a brightly colored object. Orange heated pads were brought out to simulate the heat of the sun. Then came sun tan lotion in bright orange containers. There was also a segment with a large, elegant silver and blue raincloud, followed by a mischievous purple raincloud that sprayed water at the audience. The show featured original music accompanied by a double bass. Each song was thoughtfully composed, but remained lyrically simple enough for all of the children to follow.
It's difficult to capture in words what the experience of watching Light Show was like. And perhaps that's the point. The work that Oily Cart does is to create theatre that does not rely on verbal language or abstract concepts which must be followed in order to be enjoyed. While there is a structure to the show, the audience doesn't necessarily need to track a protagonist's emotional or social journey, nor is there a pressure for audiences to "understand the plot." Light Show put more emphasis on moment-by-moment experiences than on laying out a linear storyline. Each performer is trained to respond in the moment to a child's reactions. Tim described it as a "grand communication system," where the actors are hoping to connect with each audience member in a language that makes sense to them - be it lights & color, music & sound, the feeling of suntan lotion on the skin or drops of water on the face.
This doesn't cover half of what I learned from my visit with Oily Cart, and unfortunately, I didn't snap any photos during the show, because I wanted to take in the show live as much as possible. But suffice it to say, I came away from that visit feeling more equipped and prepared to venture into my first sensory-friendly work. I'm excited to think through ways to tell stories that my neurotypical brain doesn't often consider. I can't wait to explore and develop and learn more and be corrected. I am entirely indebted to Mr. Webb, their wonderful touring company, and all of Oily Cart for allowing me to be a fly-on-the-wall, and to witness one of their magical productions.