I’m not sure if you can ever really get out of the Oily Cart once you’ve been in but since finishing our tour of Wales at UHW’s Hydrotherapy unit, funded by the Noah’s Ark Charity, I have been thinking about the major lessons I learnt during the ride and how the experience will impact on my development as an artist.
During our three-week tour to schools across the country there were many joyful, lively, surprising, atmospheric and moving versions of the show. Staff were overwhelmingly positive and Splish Splash was received with excitement and anticipation in all of the schools we visited.
It was in the hospital however, that the production took on a very different life. Here, instead of working with students and staff, we were working with parents and their children. Whole families arrived at the unit, some of whom clearly weren’t sure what to expect but were ultimately glad they had come. Many of the parents spoke of the difficulties they had finding activities that their neuro-typical or able-bodied children could enjoy alongside their child with additional needs. They also shared their frustration about the lack of provision for their children during school holidays. It was clear that we were offering a welcome opportunity for some family bonding with this immersive shared experience and it was something that these families were crying out for.
There were many memorable moments; a young girl gleefully splashing about in the water with her older brother who is usually confined to a wheelchair. A little boy who enjoyed the show with his mum, who had never been in a swimming pool before, let alone part of a hydro-theatre performance. The way in which the sensitive cast, skilfully integrated siblings watching from poolside so that they too could share in the magic. I remember Tim saying during our rehearsals in Neath that Oily Cart’s work is extra special when families are involved and he was absolutely right.
Medical staff also supported the children in the water and came to observe and it was wonderful to see how responsive and open the Paediatric Physiotherapists were to Oily Cart’s sensory approach. Not only was it evident that they enjoyed great relationships with their patients but they truly embraced the theatricality of the experience too. Afterwards they talked about what they had gained from taking part and how they could use and apply some of the methods and techniques from the production to their own clinical practice.
As word spread about what was happening in the Dolphin Ward, more and more people from the hospital and the health board wanted to come and see for themselves what was so special about the show. It was a brave decision for the hospital to host a theatre company in its paediatric hydrotherapy unit but it was gratifying to know that their courage had paid off and Splish Splash was creating a positive buzz amongst management as well as in clinical circles.
I kept hearing that more work of this nature was needed but clarity about what this meant came during a conversation with Kully, when she asked me what I thought it was about the piece that was having such an impact. Yes, it was the sensory elements, the music, the dancing, the characters, the costumes, the set, the lights, all of which altered the, usually clinical, physical space and provided customised, audience-centred entertainment but in isolation none of those things would have had as significant an impact. Essentially what people were responding to was the transporting effect of theatre, the transcendence from the real into the imaginary. The intimate connection between performers and audience that allows them to share a journey together and, in this instance, with family and friends, who clearly very rarely have that chance. It is this that I will now seek to take forward in my own practice; looking at what theatre can do for special audiences and their families, exploring how it can help medical practitioners exercise a more holistic approach to wellbeing, alongside clinical care, and considering the dynamic possibilities of the relationship between theatre and therapy.