Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The designing and making process at Oily Cart

Making props in the Oily workshop with their production team has been especially fun for me. great to be handling power tools and building stuff but also cool to be working on tiny props that are quite detailed but sturdy as they will either be inches away from the kids' noses at the edge of the playboard and/or literally handled by them. Interesting - as with Sensorium's sensory work - to be ever mindful of safety and durability. Also, the reality of of making props in multiples so that all the kids get to physically handle them (the last picture above shows in the foreground the miniature biscuit packets (about 10cm) painstakingly made of foam and shrunk-down photocopied wrappers which became the bane of the props departments' lives since we had to make hundreds of them for the kids to find on the "provisions" hunt over the shows season!). Interesting to note that even a company as well resourced as Oily is heavily reliant in students & volunteers (theatre & design) to produce the sheer volume of props needed. Amanda says this has always been the case for them.(A bit of a relief when I think back to how exhausting it was for me to make almost all the puppets, props and set for The Jub Jub Tree on my own!). Going to have to seriously think about how we could make some kind of volunteerism work for us back home. It's become very apparent that a large part of Oily's success has been due to their commitment to keep the production values as high as possible. Amanda is a very exacting (and enormously talented) designer and the fluidity of ideas between her design ideas andthe directing,  and music of their shows seems to be the key to both the integrity of their Art and the broad appeal and popularity of their output. Talking through production budgets with Oily's lovely lovely full-time production manager, Jesus Gamon, I can see that it's not uncommon for set & costumes (including labour) to make up at least 75% of their budget!! (Hmm... now to convince the money folk back home...).
Francis - Wednesday November 30

Oily Cart impressions - pre-production to tech rehearsal

Very inspiring to be around a company like Oily Cart who have been producing theatre for early years and special needs audiences for over 20 years. Initially we were concerned that the current show they're working on - "Ring A Ding Ding" - wasn't specifically a 'special needs' (pmld - profound and multiple learning disabilities) show, but aimed instead at a general audience of 3-6yr olds (with special needs kids welcome), but observing their rehearsal process and taking in director Tim Webb's narrative & directorial choices and designer Claire de Loon's (aka Amanda Webb) aesthetic decisions has confirmed our suspicions that the overlap between creating work for these two types of audiences can be very strong. 

Just about any review you read about Oily's work talks about how "inventive" they are , and while it's an overused term, it's very very true about this company. 'Ring' takes its design starting point from puppets based on the kind of recycled tin toys made in South Africa that you find at the Oxfam shop,(Amanda collaborated with a South African maker), and so the recycled aesthetic extends to every element of the shows props and sets that we've been helping them make at their workshop headquarters in South London. Stars are made from bottle-tops and the milkman's miniature trolley is literally a plastic bottle-rack-basket on wheels, and when one of the actors transforms into the salty old sea-dog "The Captain", his beard is made from roughly strung together bright orange nylon ropes - like a bristly old broom stuck to his chin...

It's not so much that a completely cohesive design aesthetic is a new concept to me - it's more the notion that every design choice is informed by the same kind of "interactive" imaginary play that kids engage in their own make-believe game-playing with say, shampoo bottles in the bath at home. So, for instance when the audience arrive and are invited to don head pieces made out of pot-scourers or hand-made party hats to watch the show, the party hats are all made from old comic books (and even though they've been expertly made in the workshops to be durable enough to be handled, they look almost as if a kid just rolled up some paper the way you would at home). It's hard to describe it properly - but I guess it's more like having a whole childlike mindset behind whatever it is as a theatre-maker that you're creating.

In this show, the audience of kids sits in a circle  around a large donut-like stage with the 3 main performers in the middle handling puppets and props and placing them literally centimetres away from the kids' noses on the revolving "donut" playboard which swivels around throughout the show (the amazing musician George cycles around the outer perimeter of the audience on his wonderful recycled metal gamelan-style musical instrument bicycle playing the beautiful bell-inspired score by long time Oily collaborating composer Max Reinhart). A hills-hoist-like whirly-gig tree stands in the middle of the stage ring onto which different objects are hooked on and off, and which also swivels around. Thus, a plastic lid with eyes and clothes-peg "beak" flies around on it like a bird. It's not as if I haven't seen skilled puppeteers manipulate found objects to life before, but somehow this performance-mode is less like a "clever" puppeteer turning a mop-bucket into a turtle, and more like my own kids mucking about with household items when they're pretending at home.
Tim told me that actually they mostly don't use puppets in a traditional way - especially in pmld show - (in that way that professional puppeteers give all their focus to the puppet and let the puppet "look at' the audience), because - as we both agreed - most pmld kids respond much more directly to the actor's faces. (Infact, faces are one of the best tools for communication with these audiences).
True inetractivity for the audience is the hallmark of this kind of work - and this company in particular. So for instance, when the main character Alice has to go on a sea voyage to find her lost dog, the actors leave the central donut-stage space and take the kids out of their seats to find "provisions" elsewhere in the theatre for the characters to take on their voyage - or later, when the puppet-ship gets lost in the fog (smoke machines that envelop the whole audience) the Captain gets the audience to help him unfurl a very long rope of bells that the kids pass along the whole circle perimeter of the stage for everyone to join the characters in ringing together to get the ship back to safety through the fog. it's the way the audience is included in the action of the story as active participants rather than just passive recipients that is key. VERY inspiring in terms of future Sensorium shows...

Roger, Oily's general manager, remarked to me that he's never heard Tim say "This shows about X" - so, for instance, with this show, Tim's starting point was simply thinking about how kids experience everything from a physical point of view that's close to the ground - which informed  the subsequent development of this show... Extremely interesting to us as devisors (and particularly to me with my writer's hat on) to think about considering children's physical experiences of their world as a starting point for story-making. Tim later told me that the starting point for their highly successful pmld jazz/blues-infused show 'Blue' actually came from him contemplating the fuzzy blue static screen of an untuned TV set.
Mostly, what I'm getting from all of this is considering new ways of thinking...
Francis - Wednesday November 30

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

November 24th – Under the Sea – with Seeing Beyond – Lucy Garland

Today we journeyed to Sudbury in East Anglia to watch a sensory storytelling session with pmld kids at the Hillside Special School at the invitation of Lucy Garland (Seeing Beyond).
Lucy was a colleague of Amber’s who is now based in Norwich.

Under the Sea was a new show that Lucy developed and performed with another colleague Kimberly Moore. The school had “bought” the show for the day and Lucy and Kim set up and performed 3 shows in the space of a day. Lucy and Kim were given lists of names but little other information about the children who were attending. In this case there had not been pre-show preparation.

It was fantastic to see the show and observe the children’s reactions – who obviously loved the show. The show was based around a simple narrative of a young girl, trapped in a hot and smoky city who longs to see the sea – she follows the seagulls who take her to the seaside where she dives in and then is helped by a jellfish who advises her to go inside a bubble and journey deeper under the water.

Observations – Lucy began the show with a simple song that enabled each child to be named and greeted. Pretty much each line of the narrative was accompanied by a-hands on sensory experience. The 2 hander enabled also some visual storytelling to continue while objects and experiences were handled by each child so that there was an alternative focus for children who were not involved in the hands-on experience at the time. Music was also key within the show – with original songs being sung to highlight each point of the narrative. These songs tended to continue while the children were experiencing different elements of the show. After each sensory experience the story point was repeated before moving the story forward.  Eg: Tamara jumped into the water with a splash – then all the children had the opportunity to experience the water mister on their face and hands – after the circle had been completed – the story point was repeated by the performers – Tamara jumped into the water with a splash.

Lucy had experimented with a shadow screen which was a great device for changing scenery and bringing objects out of from behind the screen to the children. She had assembled some wonderful objects and effects – including a section under black light with a glowing fluro coral reef. The children then got to experience the coral reef through the device of a hoop which had tied on fluro material strips that were illuminated by a small black light torch. This was a magical effect. There was also a bowl of glowing sea anemone type balls which each child got to handle. The jellyfish was created using a clear umbrella fringed by long threads which was big enough for each child and a carer to sit within. There was a lovely scene behind the shadow screen which utilised a laser pen and a battery operated fibre optic lamp.

Shadow sillehoutes were used to create a city scape, seagulls flying and various kinds of fishes. These worked really well. I particularly enjoyed the effect of the fishes swimming further and closer with the use of a specific torch behind them. The screen itself had been created by making a small stand up frame with an insertable pull down blind and a overhead projector behind it. Again this was interesting as we had talked about utilising shadow puppetry and screen in our work.

The school itself seemed to be an interesting place and a shame we didn’t get to finish our tour with the deputy Gail. I was particularly struck by their use of a “ Reference Object” outside each door – eg: a wooden cooking spoon on the Kitchen room. Apparently the thinking behind this – is that for some children  having a object with a particular smell, feel and look conveys more powerfully the purpose of the room – than a drawn object  - which for some kids always looks, feels and smells like paper (or laminated paper). The child then has a matching object in a special bag that hangs on the back of their chair and matches their object with the door object when they go to enter a particular room.

In walking and talking with the deputy I was also struck by how progressive their approach was in general and this would support the students to experience new things. In the case of  Lucy’s sensory storytelling – it was her third visit to the school – and none of the children seemed overly  disturbed by the turning off the lights to experience the uV scenes or other events that I might of expected some children to have adverse reactions to.

Tuesday 22nd November - Exploring cause and effect with TPO and an ASD friendly performance

Today I had a good yarn with Oily GM Roger about Oily Business model, board politics, relationships with Trust organisations, funders and corporates. Some very interesting stuff. I made lots of notes – and there is grist for Sensorium’s collective mill. One of their corporate partnerships  has been with Cusson’s Imperial Soap manufacturers – their R & D department (a bunch of chemists and noses) has been able to come up with all sorts of smells that relate to Oily’s shows – including providing the smells of Mole’s Hole....- now that would be a good relationship to cultivate....

We were on our way to a seminar about making mainstream performances friendly to Austism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) audiences and making performance for  ASD audiences.

The seminar was organised by For Crying Out Loud – www. Fcoletc. – who are a most interesting organisation involved in producing all sorts of artist led projects all over the world  – including the elastic band installation at AWESOME in Perth.....   Check them out.

Anyway – FCOL have been involved in a partnership with an Italian Children’s Theatre company called TPO who work alot with interactive digital technologies (also very interesting – also have been to Australia quite extensively including the NT with INCITE arts www), for a number of years. In 2011 they were bringing out a work called “ DANCE PLEASE” .  Because of the interactive nature of the work and the element of audience participation,  FCOL had identified the potential of this work to be accessible to ASD audiences and so had created a team to pilot this possibility. This had been done in 2 stages the earlier stage taking place in 2009. The team included Slavka Ivanovka (theatre education consultant and mother of ASD son) and performance enabler – Spencer – (a performer/director who also works as a SEN Education Assistant). Slavka , along with ASD specialist Kirty Hoyle (ACCESS Manager at the Unicorn Theatre) created a special training day for the TPO technicians and performers about ASD children – their common triggers and behaviours and giving some indication as to what the performers could expect from an ASD audience. Spencer had worked with Slavka to prepare the students for their experience of the performance. This had involved Slavka creating visual stories for the show and theatre which could be used to orientate students. They also created a performance orientation session immediately prior to the show in which they took the students through the various sound and light cues/states that would be used during the show. The pilot involved 4 different groups of children with ASD. Each group was very different and the team experimented with leaving students in the performance environment after the orientation session and taking them out before bringing them in again for the show. Spencer’s role was to assist the students in the unfamiliar environment and to be a liaison between performers, students and carers,  encouraging the carers to permit participation at the students own level and assisting to manage any challenging behaviours.

I was struck by the term – “Performance Enabler” and could envisage that term being useful to our work in OZ – imaginging that this could be a training we could develop for Education Assistants and/or others – as specific addition to their skill base and a recognition of their key role in facilitating student enjoyment of performance.

I was also struck by the fact – that the desire of a range of arts companies and venues to make theatre accessible to previously excluded audiences (ASD and pmld) is really gaining momentum in the Zeitgeist – however that even in the UK – the work is really only beginning – and that in London at least – apart from  OILY – there was not much experience in this territory.

After the seminar there was an opportunity to play with TPO’s technology which was very inspiring. It was exactly about the cause and effect stuff that Sensorium Crew had earlier gotten excited about. Apparently it happens through the live filming of the camera. The camera and computer can be programmed to make different responses to different sound or movement cues that are generated by the audience or performers.

The seminar was chaired by Amber’s friend Kirsty Hoyle who was very warm and delighted to meet  - she had tried to find us at the Unicorn but we had by then moved to the Smallwood Studios. Anyway she was most interested to meet us and talked about her interest to program work for pmld audiences – including international work – given also that OILY is not making a pmld show in 2012......

Another really cool manifestation of of our small world was that SLavka knows Rachael Riggs and Adam Bennet!!!! – She gave me her card and said to meet up and as it happens we ran in to her at the most excellent show at the Little Angel Theatre the next night!!!!!!!!

Saturday November 19th - Getting "Lost" Found in Newmarket

Saturday November 19th – “Lost” in Newmarket
After an epic journey from London we arrived in Newmarket (NE of London) to see Greenfingers perform their show “lost” to pmld audiences at the Newmarket Leisure Centre.

Regionally based outfit Greenfingers production specialise in creating work for pmld audiences. Usually they like to work one on one – that is 5 performers – 5 audience members – but principal artist Mike McManus was also reflecting on whether it would be possible to continue this ratio in the current straightened economic climate.

This show was held within an enclosed environment set which was cleverly created out of velcroing wall panels (apparently those used by police to isolate a crime scene). The roof was a large piece of silk. This made the show environment seemed cosy and contained.  The show’s theme was about self discovery and the audience were invited to help the central character “lost” discover herself through Echoe, Shadow, and Reflection.  Each show element had some fantastically catchy music that was easy to sing along with and interact. “Let’s play the echo game – Let’s play the echo game – clap clap clap – Let’s play the echo game – clap clap clap”. The children were encouraged to get up from their chairs (or be wheeled over as the case may be) and for example see their own shadow on the screen. At another point in the show – audiences were invited to bounce balls (with kinetically triggered lights inside them) inside the tent. At another point the audience were invited to bang on the Tin Buckets which were used to multi effect. The show also used live camera to zoom in on participants and project them onto the big screen as they were exploring different elements of the show. For example zooming in on participant A while she was creating patterns using a torch on luminescent board (nice effect that). Reflection involved physical mirroring and the use of mirrors which participants seemed to really get into.  They also had a really nice mirror cave where audience members could enter and play with their reflection.

Mike was very generous after the show – happy to share all sorts of insights, information and reflections on his work with pmld audiences.

 He talked about some software called Isadora which he said is often used in Dance work – but basically where a computer and camera can be programmed to produce different visual and audio effects responding to different visual, audio and kinaesthetic cues – Definitely something to explore.

A previous show about pirates and mermaids had used alot of UV light effects which he said worked to create magic – children had been given glowing eggs to take home (pearls) – Like the idea of the take home something.

They had created small round flexible screens which also worked to create the impressions of the children’s faces or hands when held over them. In this particular show they had 4 performers and a musician (who also operated the computer and camera) – and they had allowed for up to 14 participants.

Overall this show allowed for a lot of participation from the audience and this made it very dynamic. On the other hand it was not attempting to tell a complex story. I realise looking at Oily Cart also – that the development of the Jub Jub Tree was strongly influenced by the sensory storytelling tradition of Amber – and this was not necessarily the same arc as those companies exploring theatre for pmld kids.

It’s so great to have this opportunity to see other work for pmld audiences. This performance was not accompanied by preparation – or particular follow up resources. Mike said this was a matter of funding and money.

Monday, 21 November 2011

getting blogging...

After a whirlwind week of London living we're finally getting our travel blog up and running...
Feels like we're happily settled in our little flat in Kennington and have our travel cards organised and know which tube to catch to work etc etc.
Working with the fab folk at Oily Cart Theatre really does feel like an incredible opportunity. We felt a bit special turning up to work on our first day and presenting at the stage door of The Unicorn Theatre in the shadow of London Bridge - but were quickly humbled by the revelation that Director, Tim Webb, was going to be late because he was at Buckingham Palace receiving an MBE from the Queen for his services to kids with special needs!!
Tim arrived full of good humour and gently down-played the momentous occasion before greeting us warmly and getting down to work on rehearsals for their upcoming show "Ring a Ding Ding".  We were in there straight away, and found ourselves with tech-guns in our hands working on the set within minutes, and by the second day of rehearsal Tim and company were including us in their collaborative process... Since then, many magic moments and flashes of insight have popped out and here we are, culture shock and jet-lag finally fading away enough for us to start recording everything a little more fully. We'll catch up with ourselves over the next few days and get pics and more detailed blogging happening... Short version is: WE'RE HAVING A BLAST!! Soooo lucky!