Cahoots NI: Interview With An Innovative Children’s Theatre Company
Cahoots NI is a Belfast based theatre company producing boldly innovative work for children and their families. Their distinctive style combines magic and illusion, physical theatre and original music. Cahoots NI tours to ever-growing audiences at home and across the world and their work is acclaimed in Ireland, the UK, Asia, America and has been enjoyed in theatres, schools and healthcare settings since 2001. With a new online show launching in October, we spoke with Cahoots Creative Engagement Manager, Emma Wilson, and founding member and Artistic Director, Paul McEneaney to find out more.
Hello Emma and Paul, thanks for talking with us at TheatreArtLife! Cahoots NI has a fantastic reputation for being a sensory-friendly theatre company. What can you tell us about the work that you do to make all of your shows sensory friendly for children and how do you make this possible?
Emma: At the start of a performance, a cast member from the show will typically come on stage before the show starts, introduce themselves and make sure everyone in the audience is comfortable and ready to see the show. They will run through some elements of the sound and lighting that audiences can expect, so that there are no surprises during the show. If there is puppetry involved in the performance, this would be a nice opportunity to bring our puppet friends out to briefly say hello before the show starts.
The light and sound levels will be adjusted to a comfortable level for our audience members, and of course they are free to move around, make noise or leave the auditorium if they wish. We have also created “relaxed packs” in the past. These get sent out to schools and contain lots of pictures of our cast members, costumes, the set, and even perhaps the journey the audience member will take into the theatre, so that everyone knows what to expect on their exciting trip to the theatre.
Paul: This is something that’s really important to Cahoots NI and is something that we do with all of our live work, whereby we have sensory friendly performances. That usually means that parents will bring children to the theatre that normally wouldn’t, or they might be intimidated or frightened for many different reasons. So with a sensory friendly performance, we always ‘unpack’ the show before the show actually starts, so we have some performers who are trained to speak with the audience before hand; they introduce all the elements and make it a safe environment and let the children know that if they shout or scream or feel the need to jump up, that’s all ok – that’s fine and this is a safe place.
This means the restrictions that one would normally associate with a performance are not in play.
Afterwards we come out and humanise the performers, and meet with people again and that has become part of what we’re known for in the USA as it’s a relatively new thing there and some venues are really starting to take it on board while others are a little bit slower. It’s remarkable to me that it’s a new thing, I mean I can only speak from my perception of our sector (which is theatre for young audiences) but it’s something that I think in Ireland we’ve been leading the way on. Our theatres and our venues are very responsive to this need and it’s really important.
It’s really, really important that theatre is for everybody – absolutely everybody.
Paul, you are a founding member of Cahoots NI, and you started the company almost 20 years ago. What have been the highlights in that time, and how have things evolved?
20 years – it really doesn’t feel like it! There have been many great experiences, highlights such as opening on Broadway with Nivelli’s War written by Charles Way that was based on a story found in an old magic book. Egg was a show I had written shortly after my son was born when I was trying to connect with him one evening before he went to bed. He was obsessed with this little egg, and that show was the show that actually got us into America.
It was a non-verbal show and I often say that show was written in 20 minutes on a plane!
But actually it was the first 2 or 3 years of my sons life that piece was really developed and it was a real lesson in terms of how to create work for young audiences – you’ve actually got to go there and understand the audience because we’re not children, so in order to write or create work for a child, it’s really important to remember what it’s like to be a child, or at least observe and experience being in the company of a child.
There’d be two large-scale theatrical highlights – I’m really proud of the work that we do in the healthcare settings. We have a project currently running which is ‘home visits’ that has gone digital as well, where we work with the children at Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children, and up until lockdown we were providing live theatrical experiences in the homes of children that were either recently diagnosed with cancer or were coming out the other side of treatment, or on some very sad occasions, dealing with children that weren’t going to get better.
But bringing a theatre piece into their home, you know about 15-20 years ago we were doing a project called ‘bedside theatre’, which was bringing theatre into hospital settings, and that was then replaced with clown doctors, as we now know is such a brilliant and wonderful happening that’s taking place in hospitals in NI now. So we moved out of the hospital environment and into respite units and into homes so we have two, sometimes three performers with a set arriving into someone’s house, it’s quite an experience, it’s a really good, fun project.
I’m really proud of that, and then our other strand is education and we’ve always had projects that identify areas within the curriculum that we feel the Arts is really well placed to help with teaching – for example Danny Carmo’s Mathematical Mysteries, where the children think they’re watching a 1 hour magic illusion show, with wondrous effects and when you ask them at the end if they would like the book that unpacks everything that happened in the show, everybody of course wants the book – but the book is all mathematical because all of the principles employed to make the show and all the effects work are mathematical. So those are the 3 strands of our work there – the health, the education and then the large or mid scale theatre pieces that tour internationally.
Have the shows translated to children all over the world when you’ve been far from home?
Emma: A lot of the work we make is non-verbal, meaning it can be enjoyed anywhere in the world without language barriers! We engage children though music and magic, puppetry, dance, digital technology and more. What sometimes differs from country to country are the reactions of the children, who are sometimes loud and involved, sometimes quiet and focused, but always a wonderful surprise!
Paul: Yes, it’s interesting, what I identified about 10 years ago was the reality that our work, particularly the non verbal work we do, be it Egg (the show I previously mentioned), or Shh! We Have a Plan based on the Chris Haughton book, when there are no words there are no language barriers, and that of course makes it much easier to tour internationally. With our audience, the direct appeal I felt was in Asia and in America, so obviously we create work for our audiences here in NI but when we tour here its 6 to 7 weeks. More often than not now, our business model is that we tour here with a piece of work – hopefully it’s successful – and it’ll go off to the USA and China.
In November we were in China for 2 months, with Shh! We Have a Plan and when the pandemic broke we were in the USA with a co-production with Birmingham Rep, another non verbal piece called Penguins. So the non-verbal work definitely has more appeal in America and Asia, rather than Europe and I think that’s just an aesthetic choice in terms of audience preferences. With spoken work that tours internationally, language becomes more of a barrier however having said that, Nivelli’s War and Danny Carmo’s Mathematical Mysteries are two pieces that have toured extensively in the USA.
We did an adaptation of Under The Hawthorne Tree, which is a really popular book by Marita Conlon-McKenna and there’s real interest in the USA and remarkably China. When I started to think, of course China – I mean they had a famine more recent than ours. It’s interesting; we are looking at that for 2023 and already working out the language barriers there. But on the whole it’s been really exciting. I think culturally, what we find is our work tends to play more successful in the USA and China.
The University of Wonder & Imagination is your forthcoming show that is going to be broadcast live from a purpose built set from 4th October. How big was the undertaking of this so that you could perform through the Covid-19 pandemic? How did you adapt your usual ways of creating a show?
Emma: This show is a huge technical undertaking for us! We had little choice but to go digital after the Covid-19 pandemic stopped our local and international touring in its tracks! We have learned many things along the way and are lucky to work with an incredible team of technicians, who are the ones really making the magic happen! Rehearsals have all been on a one on one, socially distanced basis, which is strange for us – we are used to the hustle and bustle of a busy rehearsal room!
We have taken over an unused wing of a shopping centre in our home city of Belfast. Our actors can socially distance in their own rooms, surrounded by a custom built theatrical set. From there, they will broadcast live on the internet over Zoom. Audience members will receive a link to a portal, that will beam them straight into the University of Wonder & Imagination.
This fun, interactive experience takes place live in your own home or classroom and is suitable for all the family to enjoy via the magic of digital technology. Assemble with your fellow students and journey to the most unusual of universities, where the mysterious Professor Bamberg will send you off on a self-navigated quest where nothing is quite as it seems. You will interact with the liveliest of lecturers, choose your subjects of study, enter themed rooms and encounter all kinds of problems and puzzles, unlocking your magical powers as you go. This brand new type of event is directed by the audience. The choices they make live, during the event, will shape each unique experience.
*Please note – this show is not specifically offered as a sensory friendly performance in this first initial tour, but we look forward to offering this going forward. We will be creating a pack for visually impaired audiences to describe the settings of each room and character in the University.
Paul: I think we took our usual ways and threw them out the window! We came up with what I think is a new model – I suppose we had about a month and a half of panic when the pandemic struck because we had shows in America and we had shows about to tour here, and we had a lot of development work happening. But when that all calmed down and we could take off our ‘producers hat’ and put on our ‘artist hat’ again, I started to watch a lot of online content and I began to really delve into what my response as an artist would be to that. And in an interesting kind of way, I think I found how Cahoots can work online and can still feel like a Cahoots production and the secret to it, also I think the secret to our live work, is about production standards and quality.
So I’m talking to you now from a building that has 8/9 different rooms, and in each room we have a purpose built set in that room that will be manned by a performer and that performer will talk directly to a small group – we are setup for no more than 6 devices and it will be an interactive experience. But the lighting and sound in this room is all professional, and all the music that you hear has been written for this, and all of the audio visual has technicians associated with it, so it’s a professional piece of work for young audiences that isn’t produced in a bedroom but it’s produced in what we’ve created here which is a studio of sorts.
We have a crew of 3 technicians that are just working on the technical side of the show to make it work. I think I’ve found something that hopefully will be an experience whereby the audience will feel connected with the performer, because I feel that’s one of the things really missing from online theatre as in the camera is setup at the back of the hall and the audience at home watching it are the camera’s lens. I personally found that too easy to turn off, which meant I wasn’t completely connected with what was happening on the stage. There are a few exceptions to that I’m sure, but I’m talking about this makeshift world that we found ourselves in between live theatre and creating theatre in a room and broadcasting it live. It’s that connection that I think has been difficult to find.
So for me and on this project, it’s about small numbers of people accessing a live event and a communication happening between the performer and those six devices, those six families. And in this particular production it’s always moving – so you’re in one room for no more than 10-15 minutes and you move to another, and you decide which other room you’re going to go to so you have a vested interest in being aware of what’s happening because you’re creating that content, so in many ways you’re also directing the piece as an observer.
I do think one of the things that’s happened that I observed is that religiously on a Thursday evening I was sitting down to watch the National Theatre’s amazing productions, but it was too easy to get up and turn on the kettle and make a cup of tea, or pause it and say ‘I’ll watch the rest of that tomorrow’. So I think a connection between the audience and the performer in real time and one that has consequences makes for an exciting experience.
What can the students of all ages and magical abilities expect from The University of Wonder & Imagination?
Paul: Wonder! That’s the sole aim of this project is to provide an element of wonder. My background is theatre but long before I became Cahoots AD I was an actor, then director and before that I was well into magic and illusion and that’s something that has actually painted part of the picture of what Cahoots is. My background is in theatrical magic, so devising special effects for the theatre. With that comes a lot of wonder I’m hoping, and I really hope that this experience will leave people sitting in their homes scratching their heads thinking ‘how come I was able to say that, and that happened? I thought I just thought of that and how did they know I just thought of that?’ So there are lots of magical mind games at play, and a lot of special effects built into the sets that we’ve purpose built.
Find out more about The University of Wonder & Imagination.
Is there potential for this to be the first of many virtual shows if lockdown restrictions continue, and will this be possible and feasible for Cahoots?
Emma: Depending on the nature of the restrictions, we certainly hope we can continue to make this production happen for audiences all over the world. Each of the performers in the show are in their own separate, socially distanced room and all the necessary precautions have been taken to make our space safe.
Paul: The positives of what we’ve created here in this location is that everybody is self isolated, so our performers come into a room, they are the only person in that room, they don’t interact with any of the other performers only via the digital platform. Our technical team is split into two different rooms and two of our technicians are actually partners, so they are in a bubble and share the main technical hub. The other technician operates all the Zoom controls and they are in a separate location.
It’s a big, bold experiment!
Obviously if one of our performers tests positive, then it wouldn’t be possible for them to come into this environment and they would have to self isolate from home, but we are looking at ways to combat that. Realistically, you can bring in other actors with an understudy policy because each study is only 10-15 minutes, but also there’s the capabilities of having some pre-recorded material so that in that event we could at least keep the show going for certain sections until replacements were found.
I don’t really know what this is just yet in terms of an art form platform, I’m not 100% sure if audiences are going to come online and be bamboozled and find this amazing and therefore there’ll be a demand for this kind of work. I really hope so, because what I’ve found during these last four weeks developing this piece and creating it, is there’s something really honest and special at its heart – there’s an integrity to it that I didn’t expect to find down through a lens.
So fundamentally it’ll be for the audience to decide but I’m happy with where we are at and I think we’re on to something in terms of the platform and we have the resources to keep going for a while to see what other avenues can be explored with this setup because we now have the studio space, the technology and the sets so it would be mad to say this was just a ‘one off’. I’m already having conversations with writers and other artists about using this facility to see what potential there is.
Can you tell us about the importance of sensory friendly shows in the traditional theatre setting – how can people learn about making their environments more accessible if they are just learning about this?
Emma: It’s important to ask people what they need! A few years ago we did development workshops with disability specific schools on a production called The Gift. We went right into their schools, performed for them and gathered their feedback post show. That really helped us to understand our audience’s needs and their suggestions were all taken on board and carried with us to this day. The theatre brings so much joy to young audiences that it’s important to make it accessible to young audiences of all kinds.
Paul: My big thing about working in this sector is that it’s my utter belief that children deserve the exact same theatre experiences that you and I would get, and by that I mean production standards so that working for children isn’t an entry level into the performing arts world, which I think in the past it might have been perceived as being. But children are actually an audience for today – they’re not an audience of the future, they’re an audience right here, right now, and therefore need to be respected as such and therefore deserve the same production standards – writers, directors, designers – all of those things. One could argue, they need to see it more, but that’s one of the things that I think is really important in terms of why I do what I do, and I think it’s really important.