Webb, T. (2012) ‘Impossible audiences: The Oily Cart’s theatre for infants, people with complex learning disabilities and other young audiences who are primarily non verbal’ in Maguire, M. & Schuitema, K. (eds) theatre for young audiences – a critical handbook. pp. 93 – 103.
Tim Webb aims to discuss and analyse theatre for the disabled, young children and other audiences that are, as he states, unable to see or hear what’s on happening on stage, get anxious with new experiences and other possibilities, which can make it difficult for the audience to understand the performance.
Generally, theatre makers avoided very young audiences of under 5 years old, underestimating the level of understanding they hold, holding the idea that they have “limited language skills and an inability to sit still” (p. 94). Webb learnt that young audiences are able to be engaged and communicated with through the use of themes, language and characters that are comprehensible to them, with changing theatrical language, such as strong visuals and live music.
The fact that infants are unaware of the fourth wall of theatre affected Webb’s development of performance. The performance needs to have an open interaction with the audience, including open questions, and an active role in the development of the piece. Open questions allow a variety of responses from the audience, in turn allowing improvisation to progress the piece. This successfully engages the young audience, explains Webb.
Whilst working with a school of young people with varying disabilities, Webb was advised to think about the duration and the location of the performance. For example, a longer duration allows the audience to get familiar with the performers and vice versa.
Kinaesthetic sense was also an important aspect to work with. This sense allowed please for the young audience, through exercises like hammocking, for example. This is especially effective for audiences with hearing or sight impairment as their kinaesthetic sense is activated and this allows them to sense space and location.
In working with audiences with PMLD and ASD, Webb discovered the wide variety of engagement and reactions they received. Now concentrating on these audiences, Webb uses similar aims as the infant audience – theatre relevant to their perception of the world, using language they utilise. The aim is to use themes and characters the audience will find interest in, and be able to engage the audience in a range of abilities, writes Webb. Webb places a strong importance on kinaesthetic sense.
Webb continues to explain that this type of theatre must also be highly interactive. Adaptation is important to fulfil the spectator’s needs. Listening is essential with this audience, as it is difficult what they may be thinking, so Oily Cart needs preparation and space for listening.
Oily Cart makes a point to create or link a social story in their performances with audiences with complex learning disabilities, as this further engages the audience. This could also be used to understand or help audiences facing issues with “social interaction, new experiences and changes to their daily routine” (p. 100). Social story also helps the audience with such needs to create a bridge of communication with the performers, or responses to characters.
This is helpful as the world, or event the performance space can be a strange experience, leading to “disorientation and panic” (p. 100). Oily Cart work on demystifying theatre and performance for these audiences, Demystifying carries value in engagement.
This type of theatre, as Webb describes it as being multi-sensory, close up, and highly interactive theatre, can appeal to other audiences, such as babies aged six months to two years. This audience too is largely non-verbal, and theatrical ideas and conventions are unimportant to them. Oily Cart aims to create theatre and space for the opportunity to participate in multi-layered work, which creates additional benefits.