Wednesday, 30 November 2011

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

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