I Miss Japan

In Autumn 2016, Tim and Amanda Webb of Oily Cart had the exciting opportunity to travel to Japan, sharing their practice and collaborating with local artists, educators and practitioners to explore possibilities of making work for young audiences with complex disabilities. Here Tim writes about their fond memories of their trip…

‘Amanda Webb, designer for Oily Cart, UK young people’s theatre company, and myself, artistic director of the company recently returned from a visit to Japan. Amanda and I had long admired Japan from afar for its ancient traditions, extraordinary modern developments, and in particular for it wonderful variety of theatre. But the reality we experienced from the 5th to 20th October far outstripped expectation.

Our first stop was Tokyo where we led a seminar on the background and methods of the Oily Cart at the Shalom Minamikaze, a residential centre for adults with severe disabilities, and our base for the next three days. We worked with about 20 participants (there was some coming and going from day to day) made up of actors, teachers directors and social workers. Beginning with theatre games and the exploration of material and spaces to get the imagination flowing we devised a performance based on a number of multi sensory and very close-up encounters with our audience, the residents of the centre. Each day we would visit them in their living areas to try out the evolving material until by the afternoon the third day we had approximately 30 minutes of performance. On the final afternoon we gave two performances, playing to about 40 people altogether.


Amanda and I had a great time working with the workshop participants who we found to be very imaginative in originating material and very precise when it came to performing it. Several of the workshop participants told us that when they first heard about the Oily Cart and even when they watched YouTube videos of our shows they had a found it rather ‘strange’, but that now they had come to realise the value of our very personalised and interactive approach and could see how it could be put to use in their own work.

japan-5We moved on from Tokyo to Sendai, a city an hour and three-quarters north of Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet train) where once again we opened proceedings with as seminar on background of the Oily Cart followed by two and a half days of workshops. This time we were in residence in the Sun-pucho community centre where we worked with a group similar to the one in Tokyo; a mix of theatre people, community workers and teachers. Our target audience in Sendai consisted of 20 five years olds with a variety of learning and sensory disabilities. Our emphasis was on very close-up performance that would be ultra-responsive to the requirements of individual audience members. One of the wonderful things about these devised workshop performances is that you have the resource of a cast of 20-odd who can deliver a good deal of one-to-one work. That in turn ensures that the audience can make a substantial contribution to the show becoming, when all goes well, the co-creators of the piece.

japan-4Amanda I found the creative processes in both Sendai and Tokyo absolutely exhilarating and the highlights of the trip. But there also the chance to do some sightseeing especially Kyoto where we were overwhelmed by the beauty of the temples and the gardens and had the opportunity to experience a butoh performance in a tiny traditional house where the audience was restricted to a maximum of eight. (Very Oily Cart, at least when it comes to audience size.)

In Tokyo we managed to fit in two quite brilliant kabuki performances, one at the National Theatre, the other at the Kabukiza, a theatre with a fabulously traditional exterior.

Many thanks to Kaori Nakayama who made this trip possible.


Oily Cart are currently performing ‘In a Pickle’, a ‘total theatre experience for children age 3-5 and their families inspired by Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale’ this Christmas at Arts Depot, London, before touring the show throughout early 2017.

Thanks to Tim and Oily Cart for this fascinating insight







Dance and disability: A New Zealander’s experience in London


Jolt Dance

Lyn Cotton established Jolt in 2001 which is recognised as New Zealand’s leading educational dance disability company. Lyn teaches, directs and choreographs for Jolt and also advocates for accessibility within the arts for people with disabilities. Here she writes about her experiences of immersing herself in the UK dance and disability scene during her Winston Churchill fellowship

“London has always been a special place for me. Jolt Dance really began when I was living there in the late 1990s. I was working at a school for children and young people with severe learning difficulties and was invited to watch one of their dance classes. On the way into class one of the students, Ricky, collected a flower. I watched the teacher, Wolfgang Stange, create a dance with Ricky using this flower. Ricky had limited movement but the smallest movements became a dance as powerful as that of the most technically accomplished performer.

The dance really impacted on me because it never sought to impose a structure. Instead, it allowed Ricky to express his own creativity. He was not defined by his disability, and it was the integrity of his movement and his ability to be completely within the moment that was so moving. That memory is still very powerful for me and it is the yardstick by which I still continue to view the work we do in Jolt.

I worked with Wolfgang for three years and learnt everything I could. So, when I returned to New Zealand I quietly hoped to establish a class of my own. Jolt grew larger than I had ever imagined: fifteen years on, and with the support of a great group of people, we have nine classes and three performance companies. In the last four years, we have really tried to push our work further: creating a teacher training scheme for our dancers with disabilities, a performance company creating works for diverse audiences and community programmes for marginalised groups. All our work is based on the belief that everyone has a right to dance and to access the arts in ways that are truly meaningful. Disability is not a limitation, rather it is an opportunity for unique movement and connections between people.

Returning to London on the Winston Churchill Fellowship was an opportunity to put our work into an international context and to see what new ideas were emerging in the disability dance community. London was also an opportunity to ask questions. What models are there for disability dance training and performance? What is the Jolt model and how does it differ to groups in London?


Claire Cunningham, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight

It was truly wonderful to be back. London breathes artistic endeavour and there is long history of commitment and respect for the arts. There is also a newer but strong disability activism that was energising and inspiring. I was lucky enough to time my visit with the Unlimited Festival. Listening to the panellists and seeing performances (especially Claire Cunningham’s work “The way you look (at me) tonight”) challenged and opened up my thinking to ideas about accessibility and the diversity of experiences for people living with disabilities.

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Where to begin? Performance-making for neurodiverse audiences

 “Its as much to do with the personal, emotional and sensual as it is the pragmatic, logistical and concrete. Because that is the nature of devising; a concrete idea and a leap of faith; an understanding and a feeling; a tried and tested process and a departure into the unknown ; a specific activity in a particular place at a particular time and a moment in an ongoing creative practice, in which we say ‘for now, lets look at this, lets do this, lets see if we can make this”   David Harradine, Fevered Sleep (from the book ‘Invisible Things’, written, by lovely coincidence, during a residency at Cove Park)

There’s no greater feeling than being on the brink of a new project to wrap your arms, heart and mind around . I’m lucky enough to be right at that point having secured initial funding to start work on a new piece of performance for neurodiverse audiences. Filled to the brim with ideas and a strong will to break new ground, the timing of the opportunity to spend two weeks at Cove Park on the Jerwood-funded residency was ideal. With that of course, came that familiar nagging feeling – where on earth should we begin?

cove park mapCove Park ‘creates year-round residencies in all the art forms for national and international artists and collaborative groups. It is located on 50 acres of unspoilt hillside overlooking Loch Long on Scotland’s west coast.’ (pinched from their website)

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WAVE, by Gill Brigg

Guest blogger, Producer and UPN member –  Kitty Parker, writes about her involvement with the latest tour of ‘Wave’ (an adaption of the Tempest, for audiences labelled as having profound and multiple learning disabilities). This project was produced in collaboration with Tell Tale Hearts theatre company; written by Gill Brigg and directed by Natasha Holmes.


Wave, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, transports us to the sights, sounds, atmosphere and smells of the island where Miranda lives with her Dad. The two are happy here, even when the rain pelts down and the gales blow, but Miranda wants to leave now to be with her boyfriend. Dad doesn’t want her to go.

Miranda—spirited, loving, and wise beyond her years—is our contact character in the play, but it’s Dad’s story in many ways. We see his angry reaction when she tells him about her boyfriend, how moved he is by the book of memories she makes for him, and how sad he is when she leaves. It’s always too soon for a father to let his daughter go, but he helps her anyway.

The play is a wonderfully moving and life-affirming experience, which I shared with six young people with profound autism and six companions from their school. One young man was to be kept separate because of challenging behaviour, and another was thought unlikely to stay in the theatre for long. But both were engaged from the start and within minutes were taking part happily, exploring the island and the things they found there. Other students, who went into the theatre with precautionary fingers already jammed into ears, began to relax even though the music and soundtrack swelled to intense levels at times.

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In a previous blog post I discussed some of the limitations of the Relaxed Performance (RP). The main thread of my argument was that such performances tend to reflect a specifically neurotypical understanding of what a theatre experience should offer its audience, and therefore how it’s audience should respond. This, I suggested, can sometimes result in a rather narrow form of artistic engagement for audience members with more complex needs.

Far from being a critic of the cultural shift towards the RP model, I see it as an encouraging and significant step towards opening up the theatre world to people with diverse needs.  The growing popularity of this model has created an opportunity for the further development of different practices among theatre artists.

Theatre producer Kitty Parker argues for

“…A range of different approaches to theatre from which people can choose: open doors, through which they’re invited to enter. The more open doors there are, the more people want/are able to go through them. It’s actually the opposite of working towards a common denominator: an ‘integrated’ theatre which is theoretically accessible to all. That would result in work that is emasculated and deeply dull”.

What I’m advocating, then, is a plurality of well-pitched, different performance experiences, which take into account the various ways in which people can enjoy theatre. This is something that I believe the UK can pioneer. At the first annual Upfront Performance Network Forum, held in London on January the 18th, I was encouraged and invigorated by the number of artists with innovative ideas in this area. What’s exciting, are creative responses to these needs – rather than solutions to the problem of access. What I’d like to propose here then, is my own suggestion for one new fully accessible model: the ‘Enriched Performance’.

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Reflections on the International Autism Conference: Siberia


Guest blogger and Upfront network member, Melissa Daly of Birmingham Rep Theatre, reflects on her fascinating trip to Siberia; attending the International Autism Conference and getting a glimpse of special needs education in a very different culture.

(Photo of Melissa)



On the 31st October 2015, I set off on a journey to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Richard Hayhow (Open Theatre Company) had been invited to share his theatre practice at The International Conference Comprehensive Support for people with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder – which is now widely referred to as ‘Autistic Spectrum Condition’ in the UK) from the 5 -7 November 2015. I have been working closely with Richard for some time now and was delighted to go along and support him in this.

I work as an Education Officer for The Birmingham Repertory Theatre with a focus on working with young people with learning disabilities (ypwld). Most of my working week is spent delivering drama sessions in Mayfield Special School with young people aged from 3 -19 who have a range of learning disabilities. After six months in the school, I started to feel slightly out-of-my-depth and was concerned that many of the drama activities were not accessible for the young people I was working with. This sparked my journey to discover a new way of working which could engage these young people in a meaningful way.

For almost two decades, Richard Hayhow has been developing theatre with young people and children with learning disabilities, within the education sector and beyond. The practice, which we have labelled ‘mimetics’, focuses upon non-verbal, physical action and interaction as the heart of all human communication and the leveller across differences. Much of the work undertaken within current theatre practice is heavily verbal and often conceptual at its heart. By its very nature it tends to exclude young people with learning disabilities who rely on means of communication other than the verbal. This experimental mimetics approach, with its roots in psycho-physical ensemble actor-training, has been adapted to enable a genuinely collaborative approach to communicating and tomaking theatre with young people with learning disabilities.

Drama workshops - Krasnoyarsk

Melissa Daly and Richard Hayhow


One of the exciting challenges during our trip, was to see how non-verbal physical theatre practice works in a country where you don’t speak the language – so you have to be able to really communicate non-verbally. We were also curious to see whether there are cultural differences in non-verbal communication that would inhibit the communication or whether our non-verbal communication is a ‘universal language’. Having been trained by Richard in this practice, this trip to Siberia was a once in a lifetime opportunity to further develop my skills and to explore the education system in another country.

We had the pleasure of working with a number of young people throughout our stay in Krasnoyarsk as well as presenting at the conference. What struck me most about the education system in Siberia was the lack of special educational provision. As a result of this, parents had been inspired to play a central role in creating more suitable opportunities for their young people.

We visited an organisation called ‘Open Hearts’ to deliver a drama workshop and it was wonderful to see a group of parents working so closely together to engage ypwld. This project is fantastic but it was quite disconcerting that only a small number of schools and young people would benefit from it. I was also very surprised that this project seemed to be driven by the parents and not necessarily by the education authorities. This was also apparent after a visit to Raduga Rehabilitation Centre, Light of Hope and MumiDom Centre. A highlight of the week would have to be our trip to Social Homestead “Dobraya” where we were welcomed with fantastic hospitality and lots of snow! The facilities here were very impressive (they even had an outdoor theatre!!) and I could only imagine all of the wonderful vocational activities ypwld could take part in here. Once again, it appeared that this had been set up and run by a family of a young boy with autism who were aware of the lack of suitable provision for ypwld.

Drama workshops - Krasnoyarsk 4

Melissa Daly with workshop participants

After just a few days in Krasnoyarsk, I started to consider how different this was from our set up in the United Kingdom. We have a much more developed Special Education system but do we have the same level of parent engagement? I couldn’t help but wonder how we could enhance our provision in the UK by engaging with parents more and encouraging them to take a more active role in the work we do with their young people. The conference itself was very informative and it was encouraging to hear that the Russian Education Minister is in the process of creating a special education system which will enhance the learning and development of ypwld in Russia. A highlight would have to be Richard successfully encouraging 500 delegates to take part in a mirroring exercise as we presented our work on stage at the conference. It was a wonderful moment!

On our final day in Krasnoyarsk, we delivered a teacher training session for around 40 adults and a small group of ypwld. Their enthusiasm and openness to the work was overwhelming and the atmosphere in the room was electric. It would have been great to have had more time to have conversations with the parents who were creating all of these opportunities and making a real difference to the lives of these young people. I left Siberia feeling inspired and amazed at how we had managed to share our theatre practice with so many people despite the fact we could not hold a conversation with most of them due to language barriers. In fact, we found there to be no real challenge in just communicating non-verbally during our time there. It felt like we were all sharing a universal language that we just knew inherently and it created a real sense of ensemble and an understanding between all of us. If we are to continue to create meaningful opportunities for ypwld then we must continue to look outside of the work we are doing individually and begin to share our practice as widely as possible. Krasnoyarsk is also a beautiful place and we met some truly wonderful people who I do hope to meet again one day.

Article and photos provided by Melissa Daly. With thanks to Richard Hayhow of Open Theatre, and Birmingham Rep.

Drama workshops - Krasnoyarsk 2

Melissa and Richard with workshop participants, Siberia