24 AUGUST 2004

Theatre reaches out to autistic children

For children with autism, theatre can rank among the worst of experiences.
But, with its latest production, the London-based company Oily Cart has devised an intimate, soothing style of acting that reaches out even to children with the most extreme forms of a condition associated with poor social and communication skills.
Set up in 1981, Oily Cart's original aim was simply to entertain children under five, often considered too young to enjoy theatre.
That goal remains, but the company has also become increasingly specialised, catering first for children with Profound and Multiple Learning Disorders and now, within that broader category, for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, to use the professional term.

的n the early 80s, the conventional wisdom was that children under five did not understand theatre, said Oily Cart's artistic director Tim Webb. 展e knew that wasn't right.

To try to convert the wider world, Webb set up Oily Cart together with Max Reinhardt, who provides musical accompaniment.
The company's name was a reference to the battered old car used for touring as well as a play on the name of the more established D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.
As Oily Cart's reputation grew, special schools began requesting performances for their children under five.

典here was enormous demand and absolutely no supply, said Webb.
He believes the demand is international and that there is no other company anywhere like Oily Cart.

Beyond Britain, it has performed in Canada and is seeking to take its specialist theatre to European countries.

Arbitrary categories
Experience of performing before children from special schools revealed that to be a very wide category.
展ithin the category of severe learning difficulties was a fantastic range. All of these categories are quite arbitrary, said Webb. 展hat has happened over the years is that we have concentrated our focus more and more.
As those on the autistic spectrum may lack understanding of emotions or have difficulty interpreting facial expressions and body language, teaching them to appreciate theatre is a particular challenge.

Oily Cart tackles it by insisting on extensive preparation before audiences sit down to watch its current production of 鼎onference of the Birds, based on a 12th-century Persian poem and touring Britain until October.
Once the action begins, spectators are limited to a maximum of six children, plus carers, and they are outnumbered by a cast of colourful paradise birds that addresses each child in turn.
Rather than bombarding the audience with excitement or ideas, the action unfolds in carefully measured stages.
The cast includes two actors who themselves had learning difficulties.

Apart from the insights they can give the other performers in how to draw a response from children who might be locked in a private world, they are also positive role models, said Webb.
的 don't identify with it in the way that they do, he said. 典hey (the audience) are very much their people.

While theatre has doubtless enhanced the lives of members of the cast, the question remains whether learning to appreciate a performance leaves a lasting impression on the audience.
Experts on autism who helped Webb to develop the production say it depends very much on the child.
In any case, the sheer transitory enjoyment factor should not be underestimated, said Kelly Stapley, class leader at London's Rainbow School for Autistic Children.

典hey (Oily Cart) had got it completely right, she said. 的t was very secure. It was very calm. It was a very safe atmosphere.
For an autistic child, who can be disorientated by the standard theatrical thrills of suspense and surprise, that is a rave review.
Theatre critics, caught up in the emotion of watching a child who initially might seem very unresponsive, become involved in a subtle drama, have been equally convinced.

鄭s for whether it is theatre or therapy, the point seems academic, wrote Michael Billington of British newspaper The Guardian. 的t simply reminds one that all art, if it's any good, has a curative aspect.

Barbara Lewis
22 August 2004

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