U.K.–based theater company Oily Cart specializes in creating innovative, engaging, and multisensory experiences for a variety of audiences, including young people on the autism spectrum. Next month, the company brings their production Light Show to Lincoln Center as part of the Big Umbrella Festival—an arts festival for children on the autism spectrum and their families. In conjunction with Big Umbrella and Autism Awareness Month, we invited Oily Cart's cofounder and artistic director Tim Webb to reflect on his more than 30 years in the business of challenging the accepted definitions of "theater" and "audience."
In 1981, when my colleagues and I established Oily Cart, there was a common belief that children under five were an impossible audience. We set out to challenge this, creating highly visual, interactive theater pieces tailored to the particular needs of the very young. Our pieces included live music and other specific stimuli that we knew could elicit engagement and response. Crafting the right theatrical conditions to entertain and communicate with specific audiences with individual requirements is the fundamental principle that has always guided our work.
Seven years later we were approached by a special school to perform one of our under-five shows for young people with severe learning difficulties, including those with multiple sensory, cognitive, and mobility issues. When we discovered that some of the students were 18 and 19, we asked if we might instead research and create a new, age-appropriate piece. This set us off on a quest for theater that would fully communicate with young people with high support needs—a search that continues to this day.
What we tapped into was a tremendous, unsatisfied thirst for cultural activity for young people with complex needs—a group that had been integrated into the education system since the mid-1970s but was still neglected by the arts. Special schools were keen to book our productions, and we, in turn, learned a great deal from working with them. For example, we learned to limit our audiences to six young people at a time so that the performances could be adapted to the requirements of each participant and the performers could work one-on-one for extended periods. We learned that our performances needed to be highly interactive, with performers responding to the reactions of the audience. We learned that the experiences needed to be close up and multisensory. In other words, rather than assuming all participants accessed the world just as we did, we needed to offer communication via all the senses—seeing and hearing, but also smell, touch, taste, temperature, and the kinaesthetic sense, or the feeling of the body moving through space. (Our initial introduction to the potential of the kinaesthetic sense was in a school that ran "hammocking" sessions in which students were swung in an old navy hammock every which way, from deeply relaxing to downright exuberant.)
We want to make each person in the audience feel that the world is a better, more interesting, more colorful space, even if just for a brief moment.
Again, inspired by the good practice we observed in schools, we created water-based shows in hydrotherapy pools, and, after seeing students with physical disabilities unfurl like blossoming flowers during time on trampolines, we developed a series of trampoline-based performances. As we toured the first of these trampoline pieces, many teachers asked if a particular group of students might use the equipment during the lunch hour. That was how we first encountered another new audience: young people on the autism spectrum. Observing this group led us to research and analyze the elements that would produce effective theater for them.
During the late '80s and into the '90s the U.K. education system drove toward the integration of the majority of young people with additional educational needs into mainstream schooling. Specialist Schools came to be restricted to two categories: students with profound and multiple learning disabilities, and young people on the autism spectrum.
We began to create two versions of each new show for these groups. For audiences on the autism spectrum we began to incorporate an idea from the United States—social stories—to prepare them for their theater experience. For a young person on the spectrum who might find life mysterious or nonintuitive, this was a way to make the theater experience more ordered and predictable—and less threatening—than everyday life.
While it is sometimes difficult to know if we have connected, each of our participants is accompanied by a teacher or a family member who tells us things like: "Did you hear her making those sounds? She rarely does that." "Did you see how he gave you eye contact? He hardly ever does that with strangers." Sometimes a companion will see the enormous impact of what we do—even a simple thing such as squeezing a sponge on the back of someone's neck or bouncing someone gently on a trampoline—and then be able to recreate the moment long after we have moved on.
These young audiences have so many practical things that have to be done to them and for them in their everyday lives. We have the great advantage of simply trying to connect, communicating our respect and care. We want to make each person in the audience feel that the world is a better, more interesting, more colorful space, even if just for a brief moment. The reactions can be astonishing and very moving. When a person categorized as having “this syndrome” or “that disability” is seen in a new light, we know that work we have initiated will be continued.
When Oily Cart first worked in the United States in 2007, it seemed to us that there was very little theater specifically created for neurodiverse individuals. It is wondrous to me that only a decade later we will participate in the Big Umbrella Festival, driven by the vision and energy of the Lincoln Center Education team and featuring companies from Australia and the U.S., as well as educators, artists, and most important, people on the spectrum and their families.
The profile and prominence the festival receives by being hosted and organized by Lincoln Center is hugely significant, too—it can promote research, understanding, and, ultimately, more and better work for autistic young people. In this way, Big Umbrella will propel creative work for the neurodiverse toward a brighter future.
Tim Webb is a cofounder of the Oily Cart, and over the past 35-plus years has written and directed over 80 shows for the company. Tim has worked as an actor, writer, and director at theaters large and small throughout the U.K. His scripts have been produced at the Leicester Haymarket, the Albany Empire, Contact Theatre, Manchester, and by Greenwich, Glasgow, and Leeds Theatre-in-Education companies. Tim has directed productions for, amongst others, the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, the London Bubble and Glasgow's Giant Productions, Canada's Carousel Players, and the Chicago Children's Theatre. He received his MBE in 2011 for services to drama for children with special needs.