Theatre that develops the minds and the spirits of the young

The bOing! International Family Festival is an annual celebration of theatre and dance at the University of Kent, Canterbury, where leading performers from across Europe and the UK gather to perform to an audience of all ages.

A Little Wilder  by Andy Manley for the bOing! Festival

A Little Wilder by Andy Manley for the bOing! Festival

Each year, bOing! also invites discussion around a theme, this year focusing on performance for Early Years (0-5), looking at the quality of work produced in the UK and abroad. Tim Webb from Oily Cart will be one of a panel of industry professionals discussing this on Saturday 26 August 2017, and he starts the debate here:

I am proud to say that for most of my career I have made theatre for the young and the very young. I am proud because so many radical innovations have been made in this sector. This was the part of theatre that, rather than being concerned with making money or massaging the artistic ego, started with thinking about what would most stimulate, energise and motivate its young audiences. The work had to be ‘amazing’, ‘astonishing’, ‘brilliant’ because it’s aim was nothing less than the development of the minds and the spirits of the young.

Kubla Khan  by Oily Cart (photo: Neal Houghton)

Kubla Khan by Oily Cart (photo: Neal Houghton)

This was the sector of theatre that from the 1960’s through to the present was where radical changes originated in such areas as diverse casting reflecting a changing society, new writing, experiments with the duration and location of theatre (site specific and immersive work), and theatre that engaged with audiences neglected by the mainstream, for example young people with sensory, physical or intellectual impairments.

When Oily Cart, the company in which I work, did its first show for children under five in 1981, many theatre professionals considered this an ‘impossible’ audience. ‘These kids had the attention span of goldfish,’ ‘Didn’t know which end of the theatre to look at,’ and anyway, ‘Would be going to the toilet all the time,’ – all codswallop. What the members of this young audience needed were theatre makers who would take a hard look at their requirements and the languages that they used. Then make theatre that would satisfy those requirements to the highest possible standard.

Concert for Babies  by Musicalmente

Concert for Babies by Musicalmente

The once celebrated, then maligned and now virtually forgotten Theatre In Education movement took many of the first steps in looking at the development needs of the young audiences by challenging theatrical orthodoxy to find forms to satisfy those needs. There were also mavericks like Dogg’s Troupe at Interaction who made some highly effective theatre for the early and very early years, and an off-shoot of Dogg’s Troupe, Theatre Kit, run by two Australians Kathy Ukleja and Chris Speyer, all of whom were a big influence on Oily Cart.

Many of these performances didn’t take place in conventional theatre spaces but in schools, in parks and in nurseries. The performers realised that young children know little and care less about the proscenium arch. They don’t want to sit pinned in their seats looking and listening to the performers moving and making noises somewhere off in the distance. They often like to touch, feel and even taste the on-stage world, move about in it, ask it questions and tell it what to do.

This was a visceral and kinaesthetic kind of theatre that began to seem even more significant as the twenty-first century brought in so many digital entertainments. In a world of computer-based pleasures, truly live theatre became a very necessary alternative.

Light Show  by Oily Cart (photo: Neal Houghton)

Light Show by Oily Cart (photo: Neal Houghton)

This theatre, the kind that Theatre Kit pioneered and Oily Cart do, is also a theatre that rejects the one-size-fits-all approach of the mass media, and looks at the particular requirements of the minorities in our society. In the case of Oily Cart we focus not only on theatre for the very young, but also on work for people with complex intellectual, sensory and physical disabilities.

Our latest production for young people, KUBLA KHAN, comes in three versions: one for young people on the autism spectrum, another for those with profound multiple learning disabilities, and a third for the deafblind.  No doubt the mass media has many delights to offer these three types of audience, but we believe what’s really needed is a group of artists with specialist experience and the ability to work close-up and personal, always adapting the performance to the reactions and the requirements of each audience member.

It’s this strategy that gives our work its particular quality. Of course there are an encouraging number of other companies who create the best work possible for audiences they have really come to know.  But nowadays I sense that there is rather less of this kind of young people’s theatre than before. We are told so often that we live in An Age of Austerity that this impoverished state is in danger of being accepted as normal. My company, like several of the longer-established outfits, have the resources to fight against this and continue to present challenging work. But it’s much more tricky for the newer generations of artists working for young people.

Beastie Box Head  by bOing!

Beastie Box Head by bOing!

Where young people’s theatre is concerned there is a circuit of venues staging weekend performances for children and their families while the weekday market and the market for performances in schools and nurseries is shrinking by the month. Small companies, often only two or three people, tour this circuit presenting adaptations of popular children’s books on a set that can be put up in an hour or so and struck in even less. They consider themselves lucky get a booking longer than one day.

Young artists throw themselves into this work with enthusiasm believing that they will come eventually to a second stage where they will no longer have to make and publicise their own bookings as well as perform. But too often the second stage does not materialise and the three or four year old companies fall by the wayside.

Arts Council England and similar funders do what they can in our ‘impoverished’ state but as far as beginning and even ‘mid career’ artists are concerned this often amounts to serial research and development grants that are useful but finite. What is really needed is long term, committed support for an artist or a company to enable them to take their productions out on the road and really put them to the test.

Tim Webb

Artistic Director, Oily Cart

Tim Webb MBE is co-founder and artistic director of Oily Cart a company making work for young audiences and a national portfolio organisation of Arts Council England. The company, which began work in 1981, specialises in work for very young children and for young people with severe learning disabilities including autistic spectrum disorders.

Earlyarts readers are invited to join the discussion. The Saturday evening at the bOing! festival will feature a discussion called ‘Childs Play?’ with an international panel of practitioners, academics and public to consider work for early years. The debate and bOing! are free to enter. You can also book delegate packages for bOing by contacting Ali Chambers.