Writers at Work: What Else is Out There, Part 4

Hi everyone,

Sandy Asher and I hope that you’ve enjoyed our conversations this month in Writers at Work about our personal experiences and thoughts on how we’ve asked ourselves, “What else is out there?” and then set out in pursuit.

Today’s concluding remarks come from Sandy.

Topic 14: What Else is Out There?
Part 4: Sandy
September 30, 2014

Uh-oh, David. Sounds as if you’ve wandered awfully close to the Forest of People Who Do Not Hug at those academic gatherings. You’ve accomplished great things there, but hold tight to your map so you can find your way back out!

As for me, my latest adventure in discovering “What else is out there?” has taken me deep into hugging territory. In fact, it’s all about hugging experts: very young children. And it was my granddaughter, a hug specialist, who led me down this marvelous path when she was three years old.

It all began in December of 2008. My daughter and son-in-law had been offered free lodging in London over the holidays while U.K.-based friends traveled back to the United States to visit their own family. Their house had a spare bedroom, airfares to England were affordable in the dead of winter, and the grandkids would be in residence, so, of course, off we went.

But before leaving home, I went on-line and booked tickets for three shows being performed during out stay by theater groups who specialized in work for young audiences. My daughter, granddaughter, and I would attend; the grandson was still too young for live theater, so he would spend that time with his dad and granddad.

All of the performances were professional, and each was unique. One was almost wordless, but visually beautiful as it explored nightfall, bedtime, and falling asleep from a child’s point of view. Another was a raucous adaptation of a Raold Dahl story I’d never heard of, “The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me,” complete with huge puppets and a Keystone Cops kind of frenetic energy.

And then there was the third, “How Long Is a Piece of String?” created and performed by Tim Webb’s astonishing Oily Cart Theatre. The other performances were excellent and well attended. This one was a life changer. This was “What else is out there?” with frosting and jimmies and a cherry on top! It featured a kind of theater for the very young that was new to me, but not to Oily Cart and their Artistic Director, Tim Webb. They’ve been creating and touring new works for 30 years now, specializing in theater for the very young (0 – 3 and 3 – 5, mostly), and in theater for young people with special needs.

No, that is not a typo. They do theater for children under a year old, and their parents, of course. In small groups. They also do theater for no more than a handful of seriously challenged children and their caregivers at a time, and I believe they’ve done one piece where the audience consisted of one child at a time, plus caregiver(s). No need to take my word for it. Visit their website at http://www.oilycart.org.uk, follow them on Facebook, and, to see clips of actual performances, search for them on YouTube.com. I recommend starting with “Oily Cart + String Trailer,” “Oily Cart + Air Trailer,” “Oily Cart + Blue,” and “Oily Cart + Blue Balloon” for examples of their work with and for all of those populations. You can also see interviews with Tim Webb, Artistic Director and resident genius.

Okay, so there we were – daughter, granddaughter, and moi – on a cold, crisp December afternoon in London, excited about going to the theater but completely unaware of what we were about to experience. When about 15 children, mostly 3 – 5 year olds, and their accompanying adults had assembled in the lobby, we were instructed to put one hand on a red string and follow it to where the play would be taking place. This took us to a cavernous black box theater space. I knew immediately something extraordinary was about to happen because there were all sorts of string-related gizmos, designs, and contraptions on the walls and a musician was singing us to our seats while playing – what else? – stringed instruments. What followed was something called “full immersion” theater, an approach in which children become an integral part of the play and fully experience the world of the story through their senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

At first, I was holding my granddaughter’s hand and leading her into the experience, but within five minutes, all of the children had left their adults behind and taken up residence in the world of the play. The Pied Piper has nothing on the Oily Cart company! And then the magic took over for me, too. Seated with the rest of the adults in the center of the room as the action moved around us in all directions, I realized this was great theater for everyone, child and adult. It had everything: a clever story well-acted, delightful music, and spectacular visual imagery – heightened by the breathtaking sight of our own little ones totally enjoying themselves as they learned to care for yarn doll babies, worked the Rube Goldberg-style gizmos, rowed a boat while being spritzed by water, crossed a rope bridge, bathed their babies in cascades of multi-colored bubbles, and finally tucked them into a caravan of cribs to be reunited with their String Parents.

I fell madly in love – with Oily Cart, with “How Long Is a Piece of String?” and with the concept of full-immersion theater for the very young. I returned home determined to write that kind of play. My picture book Here Comes Gosling! seemed a good place to start – children could join Froggie and Rabbit in a variety of activities involving their senses. (We’re more restrictive about serving children food here in the U.S., so “taste” ended up as pretend-eating rather than actual ingesting.) At an American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference, I read the book at a Playwrights Slam session and announced that I needed a theater group to work with me on developing a full-immersion script for the very young. Patricia Zimmer, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, came forward immediately, saying she’d worked with a large Head Start school in her area before and could see this as a great match.

It was! We took Patricia’s university students into the Head Start classrooms to test out my ideas with real, live 3 – 5 year olds and later performed the finished play for them. I will never forget the moment when the children were gathered around a red-and-white picnic blanket, playing “Dance and Freeze” with Froggie, Rabbit, Goose, Gander, and baby Gosling and giggling madly while their parents and teachers grinned ear-to-ear in the background. “I did it!” I thought. “They’re experiencing this dance at this picnic in this imaginary world because of the words I put on a page.” And then I thought, “How can I ever again write a play in which preschoolers don’t get up and dance?”

Well, I calmed down, of course. And so did they, sitting quietly to listen to Froggie read a story before filing out through the greenery-decorated archway that had led them into this new world and would now take them back to their everyday lives. After other productions in Austin, TX and Bentonville, AR, the stage version of Here Comes Gosling! is headed toward publication by Dramatic Publishing Company. I hope it keeps a lot of little people dancing for a very long time.

I’m now working on a new script for the same age group, “Chicken Story Time.” Through “full-immersion theater,” very young children discover “what else is out there.” And so do I!

Hugs, everybody!

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