Classic poem, Kubla Khan gets the Oily Cart treatment


A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice: Tim Webb talks to Disability Arts Online about Oily Cart’s production of Kubla Khan, out on tour August to October.

Cast of Kubla Khan

Oily Cart’s Kubla Khan. Photograph: Neal Houghton

Oily Cart create “colourful, tactile wonderlands” for the very young and young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Their newest show, based on Samuel Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, carries all the hallmarks of an Oily Cart production.

Artistic director, Tim Webb, details the vital ingredients of an Oily Cart show, explaining that it will always be “multi-sensory, with a substantial involvement of the senses of touch, smell, taste, temperature, kinesthetic.” These elements have an equal billing alongside “the theatre stand-bys of sight and hearing.”

It will also be “highly interactive, with all performers being very perceptive of and reactive to the interventions of the audience or participants, and that includes the adult companions.”

“To be truly interactive the performers need to able to work in close proximity to the participants for substantial parts of any show. The participants’ interventions reactions also need to be included so that, as far as possible, they become the co-creators of the performance.”

Kubla Khan instruments

Two members of the Kubla Khan cast

Oily Cart has developed over the years to become more broadly multi-sensory, developing work with the kinesthetic and temperature senses. They have also been concentrating on establishing more robust preparatory work, the pre-show involvement, for the young people and their associated adults in their audiences. In the past year or so, they have begun creating shows specifically for deafblind audiences.

The company is leading on increasing amounts of training, everything from their annual summer school to mentoring individual artists, and developing more international work. This year the company has toured the USA and Webb has led training in the US, Japan, Russia and Sweden.

The decision to work on Kubla Kahn is, in the first instance, personal to Webb:

“It’s long been one of my favourite poems. It’s complex, filled with a sense of movement and open to many interpretations.”

But the choice for Oily Cart to dramatise the poem is, of course, ultimately about their audiences:

“We have always believed we cannot truly know what anyone is really thinking, and that in particular many in our audiences may be affected by some form of locked-in syndrome. If we cannot know what another person is thinking or feeling, how can we know that the theatre we are preparing will be effective?”

Webb explains that his own reaction, and that of the music director, the stage managers, the production managers, all inform the creative process.

“Story, character, and verbal language can be important even though we believe that some in our audience, often labelled as having profound and multiple learning disabilities, may rather experience a piece as a succession of sensory moments neither remembering what came before nor anticipating what will come next.”

Being unable to accurately know what an audience member is deriving from an Oily Cart show means it’s crucial to avoid assumptions, including that narrative is somehow less important than sensory elements.

“Our shows have to be effective at both ends of a spectrum that runs from intellectual complexity through to a succession of discrete moments. We believe that Kubla Khan provides a strong foundation for both approaches.”

This isn’t the first time Oily Cart has worked with a deafblind audience in mind. In 2016, the company was approached by So-Edinenie, an association that works for the deafblind in Russia and they began working together to create a piece, The Four Winds, which is currently touring. So-Edinenie then put Oily Cart in touch with Sense to help with the research for Four Winds, which then evolved into research for the deafblind-focused version of Kubla Kahn.

Kubla Khan river channel prop

Kubla Khan uses special props to make for a multi-sensory experience. Photograph: Neal Houghton

Interpreting the vivid imagery from Coleridge’s poem for a deafblind audience is a fascinating feat. Webb found a central motif for the show which guided the interpretation:

“The River Alph runs through the poem, binding it together. In our production we have a channel beside which the audience sit. The channel floods, drains, fills with sand and ice, all of which provides a physical expression of the moods of the poem. This is very much a show in which poetry meets plumbing!”

Oily Cart is adapting Kubla Kahn according to the audience, whether deafblind participants, those with autism or learning disabilities:

“The deafblind version will have a greater emphasis on the sensory elements other than the seen and heard. It will also have a greater emphasis on sound-as-vibration than the other versions.”

All adaptations will make extensive use of preparatory briefing and follow-up material, but Webb emphasizes that this pre-show aspect will be especially significant in the deafblind show.

“The adult companions (teachers, parents) will have specific actions to undertake as the show unfolds and we will suggest ways in which they can contribute to the young participants’ involvement. All this preparatory and follow-up material will be made available online.

There will be a sensory prep pack, filled with actual examples of the objects to be encountered in the show (water, ice, sand, incense, a rain cloud, the crown of the emperor), which will be made available in the oasis area we set up outside each performance space. Here, a storyteller will briefly relate the story of the show and the sensory prompts will be employed.”

Another key factor in the deafblind version of Kubla Khan is that each young person involved will be accompanied by an adult companion, a teacher or a family member, who will best know the language or languages which will support the young participant to engage with the performance. The preparatory tools that Oily Cart provides will help these adult companions bring out the key moments of the show with whatever interpretation or augmentation may be needed.

“Any Oily Cart performance is fundamentally a three-way dialogue between young participant, their personal companion and the performer. The performer scrutinises the reactions of both participant and companion and adapts the material and the style of presentation to engage them. In this way we hope to ensure that the participants and companions are powerfully involved throughout the performance.”

Kubla Kahn is touring later in the summer, opening at the Boing Festival at Gulbenkian, Canterbury on 26th and 27th August, visiting South London’s the Albany, Deptford on 26th and 27th September, before travelling to North London for its run at artsdepot, North Finchley on 11th and 12th October.