Amazing headdresses, bubbles and a sheep are just some the weird and wonderful things you can find in any Oily Cart performance, but you may not have been lucky enough to have heard of them before. Tim Webb, Director of Oily Cart theatre company, speaks to AYT about its humble beginnings, the ethos and creative process behind the 30 year old adventure, and how he isn’t just some hippie doing children’s theatre for a laugh.

Would you be able to explain Oily Cart’s work to A Younger Theatre readers who haven’t experienced it before?

We’re a theatre company that does work with younger audiences. We produce performances each year for children under three and also young people with severe learning difficulties.

We use different forms of theatre to work with these two kinds of audiences. They are multisensory, using smell, touch, seeing and hearing.  I like to involve audiences in moving them around, physically and viscerally.

Over the years you’ve done work with a plethora of different client groups. Do you tailor your process specifically each time?

In the 1980s there were no shows for the under fives and it was very badly provided for, there was virtually no-one apart from party entertainers.  We began working with young children, using very visual and multisensory productions. The head teacher from a school for young people with severe learning disabilities heard about our work and asked if we could give them a performance. We realised that they needed a different type of experience and that is when we developed and brought to life Box of Socks, a loose piece of theatre adaptable to all ability levels that you would find at a severe learning disability school. Aliens arrived in the school playground and they have no idea about how to do anything, this opened up great interactions with students teaching us what things were and how things worked on Planet Earth.

We have also worked with young people on the autistic spectrum, and young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, on trampolines for the performance of Something in the Air. We found them locked into themselves, but when they were on the trampolines they were able to bounce, twist and sway, which was really delightful. With the autistic spectrum, you will often find an underdeveloped kinaesthetic awareness, so in this performance they were able to gain a sense of their body moving.

We’ve also used hydrotherapy pools in Pool Piece with wheelchair users, bringing bubbles, wafting perfume across and also using amazing headdresses.

We began to work with spaces that would delight and not fright. It required a lot of preparation beforehand; we would give them a photo story book, so they would know how they are expected to react. Something In The Air (with Ockham’s Razor) enabled beautiful things to happen, they would hang in the air. The key thing with autism is about preparation. Now we do a lot of preparation via YouTube, showing them who we are, what are like, getting them psychologically ready for a very different world.

The best kind of characters are embedded two weeks before a performance, the best version is to actually have the character living in the show, it is the most exciting thing for students to find someone living in the playground.  What makes it even better is if the character wants nothing to do with the students and then builds up a gradual conversation with the students.

Is your creative process different for each production?

As most of the Oily Cart shows are funded by Arts Council England as well as trusts and foundations, we are required to have a three year plan and it’s my job is to come up with it. We want to serve all our audiences, by developing new work. It’s very interesting to find new ways of communicating with our audiences.

We are a team of three: Claire, Max and me. The ideas have to be agreed on by the rest of the company. We discuss the creative details of the work, and scenarios are cross checked with Max, who writes the music.

I also think that the casting is very important and it is dependent on the show. During the rehearsals, performers will rip the script to bits, put it back together, play and improvise, which is what we want. There are also specialist areas which are explored in rehearsals, such as voice and movement, head massage and aromatherapy. We rehearse until we have a product that is ready to preview, and even then when we perform we are alert to any changes that may need to happen.

What lay behind your decision to collaborate with the Royal Shakespeare Company? How did it all come about?

The Royal Shakespeare Company invited us (we had also worked with its Head of Events way back). This is only the second adaptation that Oily Cart have ever done; the other one was adapted from Conferences to Bird which is a third century poem.

We were initially asked if we could adapt Shakespeare for babies and we also considered making it for children with multiple learning difficulties. But in the end we settled on making a performance for 2-4 year olds. The RSC offered us its resources and was really helpful.

At first we drew our inspiration from plays that involved a ship wreck, like Twelfth Night. In the end we chose A Winter’s Tale, because it demands to be staged, it has a heroine who comes to life and essentially it’s a mad tragedy.

We begin In A Pickle gently, with a sheep shearing scene which is directed from the point of view of the sheep, as we felt that it was neglected. The performance involves the voyage across the sea and the queen coming back to life when the babe is in her arms. We gradually use Shakespeare’s lyrics more and more as the action unfolds – it is only 45-50 minutes long.

If you have any advice for young people seeking to enter applied and community theatre, what would it be?

I’d say that it is important to have a basket of skills, so that you can make your own work. The advice I would give is to identify your own audience, and then make a performance for them; it is very satisfying. Think about who you would like to work with – it could be any group of people.

Or, to become part of Oily Cart, you will need a range of skills. We look for people who can perform, be inventive, play an instrument, and interact with an audience who have different requirements. Take charge of your own destiny by doing something really useful – it is worth it.

You were awarded an MBE last year. How did that feel?

It was very surprising. It’s great to know that some people know what Oily Cart’s work means, and that I’m not just some old hippy doing it for a laugh. It validates our work… but of course it doesn’t require people to kiss me on the hand! I think people are realising that there is an arts community issue now, and that you don’t just have to be a teacher to work with young people. It’s not just me who has received it, other people are also getting recognised for their work too.

Keep your eyes peeled for more exciting projects from Oily Cart. In a Pickle is set to begin touring later in the year, the company is also taking Ring a Ding Ding to New York in October. Next year it will be developing a new transportive piece involving trampolines with Ockham’s Razor, alongside other projects involving different client groups. Watch the website for more information:

Image credit: Oily Cart