Director and writer, Tim Webb, hands me three sheets of laminated A4 paper, which act as the script, broken down into short episodes for three distinct audiences, ASC (Autism Spectrum), PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities) and those who are Deaf-Blind. I meet five performers, Anni Dafydd, Ruby Campbell, Hannah Kimpton, Kayleigh Cottam and George Panda, wearing an array of brightly coloured costumes with sponges, balls, musical instruments and even a scaled down ship attached to their heads.
The pool space is lit with underwater lights and three interactive boxes bob on the surface waiting to be discovered. The choreography has been learnt, the music scored, the narrative formed and the characters explored. In many ways, it seems as though most of the work has already taken place but, in fact, it is only now that the potential of the show can be realised. With the addition of its most crucial element – its audience participants.
Oily Cart has been making theatre for audiences with specific needs for 40 years and the attention to detail this work requires is staggering. The performers in the show need to be prepared for every eventuality in the pool, be that somebody surfing on their instruments, taking a bite out of their costume, making up their own song lyrics and dance moves or changing the structure of the piece entirely. The only way to be truly prepared and ready to react is to train… and for the next two weeks that is exactly what the extraordinarily committed cast do. Using a mixture of young people with a broad range of needs, their Carers and a few willing adult volunteers, they explore the plethora of routes and pathways that the show could take, embracing each one as an opportunity to hone their responses and wring out every possibility for interaction, connection and feeling.
Tim is not satisfied until he has explored the sensory potential of every object in the room; what can a watering can do besides pour water? What happens if you use it under the water? Does it make an interesting sound and what sensations occur when the water is sucked in and pumped out through the top? Can an umbrella also be used as a fan to waft air over those in the pool or to make a soundproof bubble?
This innate curiosity and playfulness underpins all of the work taking place and each member of the team gets a chance to act as a participant and experience the sensory journey being created before it is shared with, the far more discerning, real audience members. This, in itself, is revelatory. Much was discussed about the vibrations from the specially modified calabash ‘Saturn’ drums, created for the show by Oily Cart’s resident instrument maker, Jamie Linwood. However, it wasn’t until I experienced the show as a visually impaired participant might, that about halfway through, my other senses metamorphosed and I understood what everyone was talking about. The surge I experienced in the water when the drumming began was incredible.
It is hard to explain how powerful this intimate work is but the impact it has on the children and the staff, who accompany them in the pool, is very moving. When one carer calls another over to see just how much a pupil with PMLD is smiling, or a boy who usually refuses to leave the safety rails decides to venture further in to the pool to look at a box spewing bubbles, or children described as ‘non-verbal’ expel all sorts of sounds and noises when hearing their name sung aloud; it feels like the show is offering a profound opportunity for self-expression, choice and play. For most of the the first fortnight I well-up during every performance and I ask the musical director, Max Reinhardt, when I will become more acclimatised to the proceedings. He says perhaps we should hope I never do and he’s probably right. I want to continue to be surprised and delighted by this exceptional work which can also make me laugh out loud in equal measure.
Despite the oppressive heat (the hydrotherapy pool rooms are a balmy 35 degrees), Tim watches every performance with hawk-eye focus, monitoring reactions and studying how the children and performers interact with one another and the watery wonderland around them. He then shares his observations with the cast and they discuss how to incorporate the audiences’ unpredictable offerings into the show even more, as well as the importance of pause and processing time. In tandem, Max continually refines the soaring harmonies and associate director, Debbie Bandara, fine tunes the choreography until the show is ready for its first proper previews.
We often acknowledge that no two theatre experiences are the same because of the nature of live performance and the energy and exchange between performers and their audience but this has never been more apparent to me than in Splish Splash. Each show is entirely different, moulded by a dedicated and sensitive cast to the individual requirements and personalities of the audience. Given the emphasis so often placed on what artists are trying to say or communicate, this totally audience-led approach is refreshing. Every decision in the pool is made with their needs and enjoyment as the primary concern.
Working with Oily Cart has expanded my ideas on theatre, audiences and disability. Creating work in a pool is not without its issues; stage manager and all-round super woman, Bea, is forever recharging batteries for the floating lights and working with production manager Will to replace or repair items that have suffered from the moisture or chemicals they’ve been exposed to.
The immersive environment however, has opened my eyes to the possibilities of different spaces and how an audience might move or be moved within a performance. I have also been inspired by the generosity and care that the gifted, diligent actors have demonstrated. Most importantly of all though; what I thought I knew about disability has been challenged. Tim has talked about the use of categorisation and its potential to impose limitations or pigeon-hole those with special needs but as he points out, ‘they’re just kids and they’re all different’. He is, of course, absolutely right. They are also all equally deserving of space to play, the opportunity to make choices, to respond, share their joy and experience theatre, made just for them, by people who have dedicated their time and talent to crafting it in the best way possible, with and for their unique and brilliant audience.
Francesca Pickard, July 2018
Production photographs by Suzi Corker