MY STORY Theatre of the senses

Ellie Griffiths is a specialist in sensory theatre, a way of capturing imaginations through lights, sound, textures, vibrations and smells. She is the artistic director and joint-CEO of Oily Cart, having taken over from the trio who founded the children’s theatre company 40 years ago. She has become the first UK artist to be awarded the Assitej International Award for Artistic Excellence, presented by the international network of children’s theatre organisations and shared with the Serbian choreographer Dalija Acin Thelander.

How did your career start?

I started out as a stage performer and clown doctor in children's hospitals (I was Dr Wonderpants!). I was also creating my own theatre work on the fringe scene which experimented with mixing art forms, playing with different contexts and actor/audience relationships. I did lots of street theatre, site specific, devised shows, and live art. Some projects were funded, some were not, some were wonderful, some were terrible.

My career properly began when I discovered the work of Oily Cart and started working for them as a performer. This work was everything I needed theatre to be: expansive, political, fiercely creative and deeply human.


Why have you won this award?

I think it's a recognition of both me as an artist and sensory theatre as an exciting artistic genre. It's also an acknowledgement of the young disabled artists and audiences I work with who push us to reimagine what theatre can be. Oily Cart started making sensory theatre work 40 years ago. Behind closed doors some incredible pioneering creative work was happening, but it has often been invisible to the wider theatre industry. I have fought for this work to be visible, to be rigorous, to be ambitious and artistic. I have enjoyed pushing sensory theatre in new directions - making sensory exhibitions, sensory films/installations, sensory sound art, sensory street theatre. I think the award acknowledges this continued creative exploration, balanced with critical thinking 


What does Assitej do?

Assitej is an incredible worldwide organisation which places babies, children and young people front and centre in cultural activity. It brings together and connects artists making theatre for children from Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas. There are international showcases and conferences so artists can be inspired and share knowledge.

I have really cherished being part of this network and the amazing artists and individuals it has led me to meet.

You have made a reputation working with disabled young people, particularly those on the autistic spectrum. How were you drawn to this specialism?

I see sensory theatre as a way of opening up theatre to include everyone, rather than a specialist form. I think most artists working in theatre in the UK are making work for a very small section of the population, whether they are aware of it or not. Most shows I see are very clearly designed for non-disabled, white middle class audiences. Our biases are unconscious and many potential audiences are invisible day to day. So it's important for each theatre maker to always ask “who am I still excluding?” There is no such thing as neutral art. 

For me, it has always been vital that theatre communicates and is relevant. Discovering the work of Oily Cart and working with the founders Tim Webb, Max Reinhardt and Claire De Loon was a real epiphany for me, like I finally found a form I could bring my whole self to. I am naturally drawn to immersive, interactive theatre experiences. I am not a fan of theatre where I have to sit quietly and behave. What I love about working in a sensory way is that it really equals the playing field and creates spaces that can hold everyone and reset the balance of power. 

When you invite more different people into theatre, I love how it affects the atmosphere and shifts into something less predictable, and more alive. I never feel more flow than when I do sensory work that lets your guard down and creates authentic human connection. This leads to some really moving atmospheres and spontaneous moments. Working in sensory theatre has been like re-learning the world. 


The award is for your wider work than for what you do with Oily Cart, but since you took the company over in 2019 has the way you work changed?

I have been really lucky that our board of trustees, my co-director Zoe Lally and our core team have been unbelievably open and supportive of me growing into this role. This means I have been able to continue the creative exploring and critical thinking I was doing as an independent artist in a really natural way. I haven't had to shoe-horn myself into someone else's way of working. I was trained for five years by the Oily Cart founders so I understood and shared their vision. Stepping into this role felt like coming home - I see myself as the rebellious teenager of the family.


And how has Oily Cart evolved under your guidance?

Zoe (the executive director and joint CEO) and myself are building on the founders’ vision of taking theatre to “impossible” places. We are constantly looking for where our work can reach further and mean more to more people. I am proud of how we have built closer relationships with local families, while still being placed in international festivals and starting exciting collaborations with world-leading companies. It's always a balance of fighting for innovation and quality, while also staying really in tune with the people we make the work for and with.

Our priority for this next chapter of the company's life is to commit to inclusion at every level of the organisation, not just in our audiences. This is a huge job and a steep learning curve to make our day to day working practices as accessible as our shows. We are led by the phrase "nothing about us without us" and are now getting to collaborate with incredible disabled artists to make each of our shows, which has felt like a big step in the right direction. It is our job to question Oily Cart's place in theatre and in the world, 40 years on from it's creation. I love the pioneering spirit that the company is built on. It is really energising. As a natural provocateur, I love smashing apart expectations of what inclusive theatre can be. That’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings.


Is the provision of theatre for disabled and disturbed children generally improving?

We use the term “disabled children and young people” in line with social model of disability: From my perspective, it seems that awareness is indeed growing in the arts and across sectors. 

How have you and Oily Cart managed during the pandemic, and have you had any help from the Arts Council or the government’s culture recovery fund?

Oily Cart have been lucky to maintain our level of funding over the last year. For this we are forever grateful to our funders, including Arts Council England, for their flexibility and loyalty during such a challenging time. Because of this we didn't have to apply for emergency/recovery funding and have been able to put our full energy into continuing to reach our audiences. As the first national lockdown began, we created what we called our 'Un-cancellable programme' - this included doorstep gigs, zoom shows, sensory films and shows delivered to family's homes through packages and soundtracks. It has been a challenge finding new ways of working when our work to this point has always centred around touch.

No audience is more deserving and I have been really moved by the responses, such as "We had the privilege of experiencing #SpaceToBe from the wonderful people at @oilycart. A week of immersive, multisensory activities we did at home. Deep, meaningful, powerful and profound experiences which were new to us as a family and were very special." (Space to Be audience member).

For me it has been a cathartic at such a disturbing time, to feel I can make any sort of difference in a tiny way.


You have said that your kind of theatre goes beyond words to be primarily sensory. How?  

I think sometimes theatre makers can forget that beauty doesn't just have to be can be in the atmosphere of a moment, a touch, an act of tenderness, we can be moved on so many different levels. At Oily Cart,we find beauty and poetry in a wide range of things like vibration of sound, smells, tastes, and textures. Our shows are 360 experiences that wrap our audiences up in the imaginary world, that have had audiences floating in swimming pools, bouncing on trampolines, even flying.


You are sharing the award with Dalija Acin Thelander with whom you have been working. How?

Dalija makes incredible dance shows for babies and young children. I have learnt huge amounts from seeing the rigour and artistry she puts into her work. It was a real honour to be awarded alongside her, as we are already supportive peers and friends

Over the next year I am mentoring her in her first work for disabled children which is with the Swedish Opera house, premiering in Spring 2022. I am so excited to see what she creates, I know it will be innovative and high quality. I think neither of are scared of taking risks and making noise to make sure artistic work for these often overlooked audiences is valued and visible.

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