Sensory theatre for disabled children

Providing stimulation for all the senses, a performance by Oily Cart can involve sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. Their aim is to connect with the very young and those with disabilities. Rowenna Davis observes

There is a certain wide-eyed, open-mouthed look of amazement that only babies can achieve.

It’s the dominant expression found in audiences of “Baby Balloon”, the latest production of Oily Cart, a multi-sensory theatre company for the very young and those with complex disabilities. In this particular show, infant audiences of six months to two years are treated to an interactive performance of dancers, musicians, rattles and roving lights. From the safe vantage point of their parents’ laps, they watch in awe as multicoloured helium balloons and water bubbles dance overhead.

“I’m always surprised that the performers are able to sustain their attention for 45 minutes straight without a tantrum,” says Emma Coyte, who has brought her 13-month old baby Sydney along for a second viewing. “He just loves it – he’s totally wowed by the music and he claps and sings along,” she says.

According to Tim Webb, Oily Cart’s co-founder and artistic director, the show is about more than just good entertainment. “You can almost hear the babies’ synapses’ firing,” he says. “Their imagination and their motivation to use language and engage with the world around them is enhanced.”

Less conventional senses

In 1981 Webb helped pioneer the travelling theatre company, which now performs more than 200 shows a year. Oily Cart delivers two productions during the 12 months one for the under fives, and another for young people with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities or Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

By working with less conventional senses, Oily Cart is able to circumvent the communication barriers normally associated with disability or young age. “We think our shows should look, sound, smell and feel great,” explains Webb. “These other senses are relevant to everyone but they are more salient to people with disabilities.”

Such an approach has helped inspire some pretty original theatre. Past performances have included perfume sprays, paper fans and ultra violet lighting. Others have enabled audiences to taste bread baked live on stage and engage with actors on trampolines. A future performance is planned to take place in a hydrotherapy pool.

Such creative methods of working bring out new ways of seeing people with disabilities. “These young people are often given reductive labels,” says Webb, “but put a warm sponge on their back and they’ll turn around and vocalize something or make eye contact in a way that defies that label. Staff or parents will turn to you and say, ‘Did you see that?’.”

Parents with very young or disabled children often struggle to find suitable cultural activities for their families. Oily Cart helps to fill that gap, Webb says. “Families go to great lengths to see our shows. Mainstream theatres and theme parks increasingly take disability on board but they have yet to realise that there’s more to it than making things accessible with wheelchair ramps.”

The process of making shows for more than 25 years has taught Oily Cart about how to engage with young and disabled audiences. Once written, all performances evolve with input from musicians, art directors, nursery staff and – most importantly in the case of Baby Balloon – babies themselves.

Enthusiasm is all important

P22 24 April 2008“If they’re enthusiastic we go with it,” says Webb, who advises those working with similar groups to be open to unconventional possibilities. “It might be sound, tone, light or physical position that stimulates – you need to be attentive to detail.”

Working intensively is also important. A typical show has about five performers, but audience numbers are restricted, and rarely exceed 10. When working with people with physical and complex disabilities, the numbers are even lower the upcoming hydrotherapy pool production can only be performed with two young people per show. Each performer is trained to respond sensitively to each individual’s reaction to get the most out of the performance.

All this costs money, and although Oily Cart’s performances are heavily subsidised by the Arts Council, ticket prices still hover around £15 for a parent and child.

But Webb believes the performances are worth it. “If you use multi-sensory techniques with a genuine desire to communicate, you open up wonderful possibilities of engagement that weren’t there before,” he explains.

Such work, he believes, is also artistically satisfying. “Adults tend to be terribly polite and sit through anything – but our audiences let us know if we’re not engaging their attention.”

This article appears in the 24 April issue under the headline “Senses working overtime”

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