Archive for the ‘writer/director’ Category

After the first week at Amwell View

June 8, 2008

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.


One more week to go

May 24, 2008

We’ve just come to the end of the fourth week of the research and rehearsals for POOL PIECE and the whole production is becoming a lot clearer. Just as well too when next week, the last week, will no doubt be dominated by technical matters. Will we be able to get a decent black-out? Will the new-fangled dimmer switches on the pool and pool-side lighting work? Can we really form a bank of haze over the pool? Most importantly will the pool at Livity School (already out of action for one day last week) survive for another week without the attention of the pool engineer. Weston, the school keeper has his doubts, but it will be a challenge to do the final technical and dress rehearsals for a hydropool show if we have to imagine the water.

In his blog, Griff, our Company Stage Manager, has written about the great help that everyone in Livity School has given us. Actually I think the production would have been impossible, or at least completely differerent without the close school involvement. The bargain we struck with Geraldine Lee, the Livity Head, was that we would get to rehearse in the hydropool for several hours per day over a period of four weeks, and in return, we would work with up to four of the school students on each day.

I believe that these sessions with the school students have been fruitful for them and the staff. We’ve certainly seen any number of smiles on the faces of both staff and students, as well as encountering those completely amazingly unexpected reactions, those astonishing moments of transformation,  that the water work will suddenly draw from the most impassive, or apparently distracted, students. So I hope that the Livity team feel that they have benefited from the bargain. It’s certainly been invaluable for me.

Although I’ve directed 3 national tours of hydropool shows before  this, and been involved in any number of other watery skirmishes, it has taken the actual sessions in the water with the Livity students to refocus me and bring home the  realities of  pool work with young people with  Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) or an Autistic  Spectrum Disorder (ASD.)

It’s very easy to sit at your desk, or swan around the Oily rehearsal room conjuring up visions of a gilded dhow gliding out of a bank of perfumed mist towards a pool-side  lined with the gleaming gongs of a gamelan orchestra. Well, in case you’re interested, we’ll probably still have that bit. (The design team led by the one-and-only Claire de Loon has created any number of wonders, and Max Reinhardt has produced a magical score for the piece using authentic Indonesian instruments and the beautiful singing voices of the cast.)

But our rehearsal sessions in the water with the young people have reminded me again and again, that at it’s best, this is a theatre of close-ups. It’s theatre that’s  most effective when we are only a matter of centimeters from our audience. One of the great benefits of working in water, apart from it’s warm, supporting gravity-defying embrace, so important to people who use wheelchairs, or have otherwise limited mobility, is that it enables us to work one the same level as the participants, rather than towering over them in a school hall.

I’ve also been reminded over and over that is  also theatre of continuous adaptation to the interests and  requirements of each participant. Very often this means that in the early stages of a session can seem quite fragmented, with the two performers trying to engage with the behaviour and the (mostly non-verbal) language of two participants who may have very little in common (apart from the fact that they are labelled PMLD or ASD or sometimes both.) What has been astonishing, even at this early stage of the project, is how often, after just 30 minutes together in the water, everyone does come together in a genuine group experience.

Perhaps most importantly, over these past few weeks in the pool, I’ve seen that what really connects and engages with our young participants, much more than  verbal expression or  splendid visuals. It’s the visceral, and the vibrational. It’s the feel of water on the back of the hand or the neck. It’s Mark Foster or Sjaak van der Bent’s rich bass-baritone, not so much heard as felt, sending their vibrations through the participants’ feet, up through the legs and the spine, until their whole body is singing the low, low song. Or it’s Nicole Worrica and Kathy Toy taking the young people on the Winding Water Dance, carrying them so that their bodies,  so often denied a range of movement, undulate and sway through the water – another kind of whole body massage. This theatre must be one that engages all the senses. The senses of seeing and hearing which have primacy in standard issue, neurotypical theatre, are, as often as not of only secondary interest here. We need to engage the sense of touch and smell, and the kinaesthetic sense, which enables the body to locate it’s position in space.

This is already such an exciting project with such a brilliant team – and we have barely begun. The most innovative aspect of this particular POOL PIECE is that we will spending six days in each of the four schools involved, and we will be working, as far as possible with the same 16 young people in each school. As Griff said in his blog, this will really give us the young people – and the adults – the chance to to really get used to us, get to  know us, and get the most out of the transformations that we will bring to their school pools. Of course it will also give the Oily team to build our understanding of the young people – and the adults –  and develop our relationship with them.

I’ve often felt that previous Oily Cart PMLD/ASD shows have been far too abrupt. It seems to me that if you have  a PMLD or ASD audience,  then a 45-55 minute performance, the common form of many a previous Oily show, could seem more like a multi-sensory mugging, than a genuine opportunity for engagement. (On the other hand I’m well aware that there is such a colossal demand for this work that next year and beyond, we must find a form that will be able to involve a far greater number of young people and their families, their schools, and the staff.)

In two of the schools, the effectct of our performances in the short and medium term will be documented & analyzed by Suzanne Zeedyk of Dundee University – but more of that later.

Tim Webb

artistic director, Oily Cart