Six of the funest
Theatre can be a disturbing experience for young people with autistic spectrum disorders. Its distinguishing features - surprises in situation, language or sound, and the ups and downs of characters' emotional journeys - are all unfamiliar and potentially upsetting. It takes a company with the track record of Oily Cart to know how to circumvent such problems. Its latest touring production, Conference of the Birds, is the first foray into this particular field, although the troupe has been devising shows for children with special needs for 23 years - this is the first suitable for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities.
The performance itself is charming. Based on the 12th - century Persian poem by Farid Ud-Din Attar, it tells the story of the inhabitants of the kingdom of the birds who are desperately trying to persuade their errant queen to return. They must discover "the finest thing of all" to tempt her, and try a sequence of sensory delights: the touch of feathers, the sound of seeds in a gourd, the atmospheric effect of pipe music and the sound, feel and smell of scented water.
The "finest thing of all" is revealed to be the children themselves, their faces looking down in turn from a huge video screen while the cast, dressed in jewel-coloured velvet and hats with bendy decorations, sing each a song incorporating the pupil's name. There are never more than six children entertained at a time. They lie on swaying hammocks and each is accompanied by a carer.
The cast, which includes actor Mark Foster, who has learning disabilities and has been with Oily Cart for five years, is sensitive to reactions and able to respond suitably to anxiety or impassivity. They are colourful, magical, in a world they have created with, at its centre, a giant blue egg in a mini-fountain, but they are never for a moment unaware of their audience's needs. Each pupil receives the undivided attention of one actor for the sensory experiences. As author-director Tim Webb says: "The implication is 'You are the most important person in the world'. These children need practical help all the time. What we do is give pleasure for the sake of it."
At Greenmead school in Putney, south-west London, smiling faces, writ large on the screen, bear out the truth of this. Angela Laxton, Greenmead's headteacher, is delighted: "This is the sixth year we've worked with Oily Cart, but it is the first time the whole school has come to their sessions," she says.
She is impressed with the care taken to put the children at ease: "Every child made a 'bird passport' with information about themselves which they took to performances." The performers used these to personalise experiences.
Tim Webb says that the troupe studied a DVD of David Attenborough's Life of Birds to develop movement for the show. But he and his cast have to go further, "to think what's really communicated. People come in as actors and musicians but frequently go off and get qualifications in special needs teaching". It is his ultimate ambition to have a fully integrated company one day.
For children with autistic spectrum disorders it is necessary to make the show familiar, and thus unthreatening, in advance. The company has made a video to be watched by all children and young people who come to see the show.
They provide a pack for pupils to work on and go into detail about the logistics of a visit. As Tim Webb says, even rules about lifting children vary from one authority to another and the company needs to be aware of such things.
Angela Laxton says Oily Cart is a favourite of hers because "they go very much at the child's pace, they are sensitive and pick up on responses and their preparation is exceptional".
She believes strongly that creativity must be a priority for her three to eleven-year-olds, so The Conference of the Birds has been "a very valuable experience and one which will have a longer-term effect than just the day".
For one thing, she and her staff are quick to pick up ideas they can adapt for use in other circumstances. For example, the gourds, each containing a light and swooshing black-eyed beans, will certainly be copied. The video of the visit, produced in two days, is both moving and "a polished item to show parents".
Ms Laxton was particularly impressed by the powerful effect of screen projection, the excitement of the children "once they realised they were looking at themselves in the world's best mirror".
Oily Cart. Tel: 020 8672 6329; www.oilycart.org.uk