As I write we have just completed the first week of a two week-long residency in and around the hydro pool of Amwell View School in Ware, Hertfordshire as part of a three-way collaboration between Apples and Snakes, Theatre Is (Arts Council England East’s beacon young people’s theatre organisation) and Oily Cart. Between now and mid-July we will be taking the project to three other schools in the London area.
The key feature of POOL PIECE is that in each school we will be working with a group of 16 young people with either Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities or an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and that we will be working in an extended way, with the performances stretching over a period of 6 days. In Amwell View the six days are consecutive, but in the other schools they will be spread out, with one or two day visits, peppered over a period of five weeks. By working in this extended way we hope that everyone, the young people, their parents and teaching staff and the Oily team members will benefit. The principle, very much based on our experience of the extended version of BLUE which we performed as part of the 2007 Manchester International Festival, is that we will all have the time to become familiar and confident with one another, and that this knowledge will lead to more effective interaction with much longer-lasting results than are possible with a more conventional approach.
We rehearsed POOL PIECE for a period of 5 weeks, and much of that time was spent in the hydro pool at Livity School in Brixton. I am deeply grateful to Geraldine Lee, the school’s Head and a former member of the Oily Cart Board, for allowing us this extensive access. Many of our rehearsals involved some of the young people of the school, and so, even during this preparatory period, we were able to see the value of building relationships with the participants over time, and how this enriched the quality of our work with them.
Half way through the rehearsals the Oily Cart team travelled up to Birmingham for a day of training in the techniques of Intensive Interaction led by Phoebe Caldwell who is the leading expert in this way of working. In brief, Intensive Interaction is a startlingly effective means of communication with people who do primarily rely on verbal language. It is especially useful as a means of breaking through to people who because of their autism or other disability exhibit very challenging behaviours. Phoebe’s day was an inspiration to us all and has had a profound effect on POOL PIECE.
As soon as we opened at Amwell View at the beginning of June it was clear that the flexibility and ability to responds to each participant’s requirements that we had built into POOL PIECE was extremely beneficial. Although there is a clear structure for the piece, it also encourages the performers to listen to the vocalising of the participants, and to observe their body language – then respond, and carry the dialogue forward using that language. To some extent this approach has underpinned all Oily Cart performances for young people with severe learning disabilities, but the extended contact time of POOL PIECE, and the influence of Phoebe Caldwell, has empowered us to take it to a new level.
Of course, it’s early days, but I believe that POOL PIECE is connecting with its young audiences – and their carers – much more consistently and powerfully than was the case in previous Oily Cart productions. The parents and staff who have been present certainly feel this to be true. At times the very experienced members of the Oily Cart team have found the reactions of the young people emotionally overwhelming. The greatest tribute to the work comes from the expressions and the body language of the young people themselves who, in the course of a just a few days have travelled immense distances from apprehension and tension to a beaming, delighted, calm.
POOL PIECE depends on the intelligence and skills of a particularly talented Oily Cart team. This is an absolutely vintage ensemble comprising Griff Fender (Company Stage Manager, Mark Foster, Debbie Longworth (DSM & Mark’s PA), Kathy Toy (musician/performer and the only one new to the Cart), Sjaak van der Bent & Nicole Worrica. They could not be bettered.
Max Reinhardt has composed some wonderful music for the piece. It is played on instruments abstracted from an Indonesian gamelan, loaned to us by Jamie Linwood, the instrument-maker and long-time friend of the company. Max is also making a major contribution by actually playing in the shows.
POOL PIECE looks ravishing thanks to the set, props and costumes conjured up by our Head of Design, Claire de Loon, the lighting devised for the especially interesting circumstances of the pool by Jens Cole, and the choreography of Katie Green. The challenging logistics of the POOL PIECE tour, which not only takes place in and around the water, a fact that immediately complicates everything, but also involves multiple fit-ups in a series of venues, are in the capable hands of our Production Manager, Jesus Gamon.
For several of the rehearsals and for some of the opening performances at Amwell View we were joined by the poets Aoife Mannix and Joe Coelho, from the Apples and Snakes stable and they have already contributed quite a substantial number of poems, their responses to the work in the pool.
Some of these poems will be used to inform and inspire the APPLE CART leg of the POOL PIECE tour, which will take place during our second at Amwell View, the week beginning 9th of June. During this week the Oily Cart team will be joined by Aoife and Joe, plus 6 artists from the Arts Council’s Eastern Region who have been recruited by Theatre Is, which has the goal of promoting best arts practice in the Eastern Region. These 6 artists, who include directors, visual artists and performers from the East, first joined us for a development week at Amwell View back in February.
During the APPLE CART week we will divide poets, Eastern Region artists & Oily Cart company into two teams. Each team will then devise two scratch performances for the pool: one for the young people of Amwell View, the other for either a group of under 2’s (with or without a disability), or for a group of people who have been affected by strokes. These scratch performances will not be an attempt to dramatise the poems, but we hope that the poetry will have a catalytic effect on the devising processes of the two groups.
I am fascinated by the potential of bringing the Oily Cart’s interactive, close-up and multi-sensory approaches to bear on these two audiences, one of whom, the stroke support group, we have never tried to work with before. It will also be very interesting to see how poetry can facilitate communication with two groups who do not rely on verbal language.
The POOL PIECE rehearsal process and the weeks of performance at Livity, Amwell View & Watergate schools, is being extensively videoed by Paul Williams & Edgar de Oliveira, and the results will be analysed by Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk of the Department of Psychology at the University of Dundee. It is hope that the resulting paper will be published in academic journals and that a DVD of the work will be available for schools and anywhere else where we can spread the word.
I must stop writing about POOL PIECE although, as I know you’re beginning to worry, I could go on & on. I’ll conclude by expressing my gratitude to Jan Liversage & Penny Warner (respectively the Head and our contact teacher at Amwell View), to Stuart Mullins, Andre Bath, Claudia West and Michael Corley of Theatre Is, and to Lisa Mead from Apples and Snakes for their invaluable help in bringing both the POOL PIECE and the APPLE CART project to fruition.