“Sometimes you get breakthroughs – epiphanies…parents looking at their own children with wonder because of the way they are responding to something that we have created all together. That’s fantastic! How could you not want to be involved in that?” Tim Webb
Upfront (UP – Ellie Griffiths) caught up with Tim Webb (TW) – Artistic Director and founder of Oily Cart Theatre Company in a break between performances of their new piece ‘Light Show’ which is currently touring special schools and venues throughout the country. Oily Cart has been making multi sensory, immersive performances for young people with complex needs for the last 34 years. They are the flagship company for this work. Here Tim talks about what motivates him, inherent challenges, and his creative influences.
UP – Thank you for agreeing to this interview Tim. As the UK’s leading specialist in the field, it’s a great way to kick off this series of artist interviews. Firstly, I would be interested to hear you talk about how your work has developed artistically through the lifetime of Oily Cart, and how this audience has played a key part in influencing that.
TW – The reason we got into working with people with learning disabilities was because the Head of a special school asked us to do a show for the young people in his school, because he knew we made good theatre for under 5s. We always tried to do age-appropriate theatre, so the first question we asked him in response was, “how old are the young people?” He said they were 3-19, so then we thought, how could our work for under 5s be alright for someone who is 18 or 19? We did a bit of research, the Head Teacher invited us into his school and we spent a few days finding out what the young people did, what the teachers did, what the parents did and we discovered three guiding principles which are dear to us to this day:
- One is that there is a range of abilities in each school that are almost as wide, as those in society as a whole. There were so many different types of people, and we needed to find a way of making a show that appealed to that range of audience.
- The second point is about duration – the teachers were keen to tell us that it wasn’t any use doing a standard 45 min- 1 hour long show, because the young people in that school would need longer to get used to us and we would need longer to get used to them, to form an effective relationship. So the first show we did, lasted the whole day and gave us a chance to meet the young people and interact with them in their own spaces. We have since done shows that last an hour, but we also do shows that last a week. We have a show planned for next year where we go into a school for a week but then a year later we go back to that school for a week and again the year after that. So this will be a three year cycle, a sort of long term performance, to see what effect this has on the show’s impact.
- The last thing was to make a piece, which used alternative sensory pathways and didn’t necessarily involve things like sitting and looking at a stage and listening to what would happen. This came directly from the staff, which were keen to emphasise that there are more senses that need to be involved in this kind of work than the usual five. In particular we were very interested in some of the kinesthetic work they were exploring in the school in those days. This involved swinging people in an old navy hammock, which the young people obviously adored. If you’re deaf/blind, most the sensory pathways explored in traditional theatre – seeing and hearing, are of very little value to you.
UP – Until that point had your work for early years been multi sensory?
TW – I think we probably had a bit of a predisposition. Taking it back a few more years, when we started in 1981, I remember we spent a lot of time doing performances in parks, and there were an awful lot of pitch invasions! We spent a whole summer trying to fence off the stage and find ways to somehow keep the audience out of the performance area, but then we thought, well why do we have to do that? If you are a curious involved child, don’t you want to get on the stage? And don’t you want to tell the actors what to do and help them do things? And maybe also feel the props and textures of the costumes? But certainly as soon as we encountered a special school audience, you quite simply couldn’t use conventional theatre methods, you just couldn’t get away with it. Necessity was the mother of invention.
UP – Was your background and training in conventional theatre? And has your involvement in this work shaped or changed those tastes? Or have you always been interested in experimental styles of performance?
TW – I was lucky to be brought up in Stoke on Trent, where the theatre, The Vic, was in the round. Now, theatre in the round, arena theatre, whatever, is quite accepted, but back then in the sixties it was very controversial. But it was my normality; I probably saw a hundred shows that were in the round. I think it was then I started thinking about the location of theatre. The Vic in Stoke was also a theatre that very, very rooted in the community, they would do Shakespeare, they would do panto, but they would also do verbatim pieces; choosing a subject matter for social and political reasons. These often, because of the issues in the show, drew in many people as an audience, that would not normally have attended the theatre. I think all that had a big influence on me, it just felt like that was a logical way of going about things, thinking, ‘what is this community that I’m living in interested in and excited about?’ Making theatre that is significant and would answer that need.
So one side of me is very rooted in the West Midlands, but the other side is very interested in visual art and music, particularly jazz. The way those media challenged convention had a big influence on me, especially jazz. When I was at university in the states I saw a lot of experimental jazz, it was improvisatory and free, challenging the framework of music. Again that seemed a normal or logical thing to me. At the time in the 60s, the work was getting freer and freer, same in the world of painting, it was a time of experimentation when people were doing improvisatory art and installations, the art of our time. I could never understand or relate to the more literal, representational art, or in music playing composed tunes and not challenging what was considered to be the orthodoxy. I think what’s good about making work for people with severe disabilities is that whatever your predilections, whatever your background, you have to start thinking in a free way. You have to start challenging the conventions, addressing what language these people are actually using, not just assuming that they speak the same language as you, that all you have to do is say it at them a bit louder! Or, (in the case of relaxed performances), a bit quieter. I think those strict undeniable forces make you examine theatre, make you examine your kind of theatre and make you come up with something new. Then you try out this new thing and observe the results, questioning whether your audiences are relating to this. Sometimes it is very difficult to tell because many people with severe learning difficulties have barriers which prevent them from communicating with other people in society. The other thing you do, is to be open to what the effect is on yourself? ‘Is it exciting me? Do I think its funny? Is it making the hairs on my neck stand up? And if not, why not?’ So although you are making it for a group of other people, in this case with disabilities, you also have to be making it for yourself. We’ve always tried to put ourselves in the shoes of the audience.