Wednesday, 7 December 2011

"Ring A Ding Ding!" - the opening - (wrap-up) - Francis - Dec 3, 2011

‘Ring A Ding Ding!'
Great joy, (after being immersed in the production process for the last 3 weeks), to arrive at the end product of Oily Cart’s ‘Ring A Ding Ding’ show and finally have a real live audience of kiddies in for the opening.  A real sense of delight and sparked imaginations - and a chance for me as a theatre-maker to experience a more unique sort of “complicity” between the performers and their young audience than I’m used to...

From the moment the kids arrived in the foyer and the 3 actors & 1 musician greeted them and invited them to don one of the handmade recycled hats to wear for the show, it was apparent that the invitation to the kids to “play alongside” the artists was genuine – and quite different to most children’s theatre.

What struck me was that there was little fanfare made of this invitation to play, but that it was presented  more organically. So, for instance, before the show had even started, when the (extremely talented) percussionist, George, sat happily to one side of the foyer playing his purpose-built  tubular xylophone-contraption, smiling quietly to himself, (almost like when you see small children at daycare absorbed in their own solo-imaginative play), and simply allowed the kids to approach him (or not) at their own pace - it reminded me of observing my own kids in a playground when they start naturally playing with unknown kids without introductions or stating names or intentions – they simply begin interacting. It’s like a secret language of ‘play’ that most kids just seem to know and use with each other. Observing Oily Cart’s approach to immersive interactive performance made me feel like I was “in” on this secret.

I also realised that even though the majority of this particular audience didn’t have disabilities, this natural unenforced invitation to participate is key to our own interactive work with kids with special needs. So often in a special needs environment, with the best of intentions, workers, educators, and artists like ourselves can be so keen to ‘enable participation’ of the child – admittedly, to give them experiential opportunities – that they end up almost ‘forcing’ the experience onto them – which I’ve been realising is actually contrary to most forms of childplay which are usually exploratory (ranging from cautious & tentative through to wreckless abandon) – the underlying principle being that the child determines for themselves their own pace or level of engagement.  (I’ve really got to go back and read some Rudolf Steiner – certainly the stuff around early years play that Oily Cart’s work has got me thinking about has strong resonances for the work we’re attempting to do for kids with learning difficulties...).  In the end, with theatre, you’re always going to be treading a fine line between “inviting” and “coercing” if you’re  making this kind of theatre for kids, because as the makers of the experience I guess you are the instigators of the creative imaginary play – but it’s worth being mindful of this line so you don’t unwittingly cross it. Experiencing one of Oily Cart’s shows in the flesh as an audience participant rather than merely watching a you-tube clip has really made me aware of this – and of the extraordinary power and magic of ‘unenforced play’.

Hats on inside the theatre, the actors lead the kids through a maze of hoops around the perimeter of the space before gently leading them by the hand to take their seats around the central circular-ring stage. Again, it kind of sets a tone of controlled freedom and the performance space as a friendly zone that doesn’t require absolute reverence. By the time the story actually starts, the kids have each been personally addressed by the actors, held their hands through the maze-like trail, and joined them in dressing up. They have become playmates in that ‘natural’ way of the playground I described.  (Often, after a fun romp in the park with newfound friends – particularly on this trip as we’ve been travelling – I’ll ask my kids what their newfound friends’ names were and they’ll answer “I dunno”, but they’ll clearly remember the details of the game they played and the story they made together).  So – performers as playmates...

This particular show as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in the blog is far more narrative-based than Oily Cart’s disability-specific shows – a large part of the immersive interactivity of this show being that the performers, props and puppets were only inches away from the kids noses at the edge of the circle (and yes, they do get sprayed by real water when the dog in the story rides past on a motorboat, and yes, the whole cast and audience are enveloped in smoke when the characters get lost in fog at sea) – but what was also noteworthy for me was the way that the show was broken up by participatory segments at just the points where the very young audience (2-6yr olds) might have been getting fidgety. So, at different points (as mentioned in an earlier blog) we all went on a treasure hunt through the theatre for provisions, rolled out a super-long bell-rope together, or even joined the man on the moon for a moon-dance party, circling the space holding hands to do a kooky conga together. Each time, after a little energy dispersal, the kids were ready to sit back down (lead by the actors, again by the hand) and be absolutely present and attentive for the next part of the story. (Makes me appreciate how we managed to keep the profoundly disabled kids back home engaged for 45-minute stretches of theatre with all the sensory participation our show provided).

A brief chat earlier in our stay at Oily Cart with their General Manager comes back to me at this point: he spoke of making this kind of theatre – especially the stuff specifically designed for the special needs audiences – as being like composing Jazz; it needs a strong integrating structure underneath it all, but then it also has to have room within it to improvise and simply “riff”...
All the other adults I spoke to (and the other members of the production crew with us who hadn’t seen/experienced the show in its entirety before the opening preview performances) all remarked on how wonderfully childlike being part of it all made them feel – the exhilaration of being part of the magical story as it unfolded around them – literally being swept along by it. My kids (Fidel – 4yrs & Emil – 5 and a half yrs) LOVED it. As did Michelle and I. Very much.

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