Sound Symphony - music for and with Autistic young people

5/25/2022 5:44:50 PM
Sound Symphony - music for and with Autistic young people
Fantasic For Families
  • Image by Brian Hartley

During Autism Awareness Month, we started chatting with our friends at Oily Cart (ring a bell? They were among last year's Fantastic For Families Awards winners!) about their latest project: Sound Symphony, a sensory show for sound seekers. Long story short, we decided that we wanted to feature it on our website. This show is currently on tour - scroll down to find tour dates near you. 

If you don't know Oily Cart yet, here's a short introduction. They create high-quality, theatrical experiences that exclude no one! For 40 years, Oily Cart has been making sensory theatre for and with disabled and non-disabled children and their families. Their accessible performances use touch, sounds, smells, lights, shadows, music and movement to cocoon the audience in the imaginary world of the show. Ellie Griffiths, one of the Oily Cart Team, talked to us about Sound Symphony. Keep reading to find out what it's all about, how Autistic young people are involved and where to experience it live.

 What is the story in Sound Symphony?

Sound Symphony is set in the world of a pompous classical concert hall, where a group of musicians are to perform a symphony. One of them becomes distracted/inspired and begins to deviate from the score, playing with textures and sounds around them and incorporating them into the music. They start to get the audience on board in their rebellion and bit by bit the symphony unravels into a glorious improvisation that celebrates all different ways of making sounds and music. It’s quite a mischievous show! There is bubble wrap music, stapler shoes and sound costumes, but I won’t give away any more spoilers!

 Photo from an Oily Cart show, where a child in the audience plays an instrument


How did Sound Symphony come to life?

The idea for the show came from the research of Dr Joe Wright. His background is as an experimental jazz musician, and His PhD explored the ways Autistic young people relate to music. Often when people make or adapt shows for this audience they turn the sound down, which works great for some. But many Autistic young people love intense full-body experiences of sound. I had noticed when performing in sensory shows that many young people were more interested in the sound source (vibration of voice, speaker or instrument) than they were in anything the actors were saying. Dr Joe’s research found that many are often just as transfixed, or much more interested in objects found in their environments, for example repeatedly switching on and off a light switch, or the sound of a ball bouncing. So I wanted to make a show for the sound seekers, where sound was front and centre of the experience!

In the early days, I worked with Dr Joe and a group of experimental musicians and composers who were set on the task of co-composing with Autistic young people. It really was a match made in heaven. This became the start of Sound Symphony, which became a joyful, rebellious celebration of all the weird and wonderful breadth of sounds the world has on offer. It was the producer Mhari Robinson of Independent Arts Projects who believed in the project from the start and worked with me to realise this dream. I’ll be forever grateful to her for taking that chance.

 And how were Autistic young people brought into the process of development of the piece?

This time around, using what we had learnt from the pandemic, we worked with two Autistic young artists to develop an interactive website where you can conduct your own Sound Symphony, to compliment the show and provide a fun ‘at home’ experience. This will go alongside a film and sensory box sent to families who can’t make it to the venue shows.

Audience at Sound Symphony with a performer who is weaing glowing neon spoons in their midst


Why make a piece of work especially with and for Autistic young people?

We prioritise Autistic young people who experience the most barriers to access. Most of our audiences don’t communicate through verbal language and would find standard theatre formats, even a relaxed performance, not engaging or relevant to them. Our work has very small audiences so the performers can be extremely responsive to each audience member. It has lots of touchy feely moments with props and costumes where the audience can get close up and feel. We make sure that the audience gets to feel the music through their whole bodies, this might be by feeling the vibration of the cello, or the speakers. Many audience members end up playing the instruments themselves by the end of the show!. We LOVE making shows for this audience. The spontaneity and honest responses keep it interesting and inspiring always.

Can you tell us about working with the composers?

The Musical Director of the show is Greg Sinclair, a Scottish Cellist, who was involved in every stage of the research and development. Greg has an equal love of sound and music, so he was a great collaborator for this project. He is also an exceptional listener, which sounds weird but was the most essential thing because of how sensitively he listens to improvise and collaborate with our young artists and audience.

Above all else, this show is a celebration. It’s a celebration of music and sounds. It’s a celebration of difference, but most of all, it's a celebration of the young people’s way of being in the world. It means an awful lot to each person who was involved in the process and the performers. We can’t wait to share it with audiences across the country.

What makes it uniquely an Oily Cart show?

The audience take the lead and the performers follow! That’s the secret to any Oily Cart show!

 An Oily Cart performer sat in a wheelchair, holding a clarinet and laughing into the camera

Sound Symphony is on a live tour from 31 May to 28 June 2022.

Tour dates:

31 May - The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

4 - 5 June - Brixton House, London

8 - 9 June - Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury

15 - 16 June - Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry

21 June - The Civic, Barnsley

24 June - Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock


Show info:

Audience guidance: A/autistic young people

Age recommendation: 8 and over

Running time: 45 minutes with no interval.

Can't wait until the tour? Or are the touring locations too far away? You can still experience Sound Symphony at home! Make your own Sound Symphony at home on the Oily Cart interactive website.

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