The University of Wonder & Imagination: Cahoots NI Interactive Theatre Review
I was lucky enough to visit The University of Wonder & Imagination: a new interactive, online performance from theatre company, Cahoots NI. 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.
In October 2020, Cahoots NI launched their new show, The University of Wonder & Imagination in response to the coronavirus pandemic limitations. The show is hosted on Zoom, so is performed live online and interacts with the audience members who are watching on their devices. I previously spoke with Emma and Paul from Cahoots about their work, and how they created the show, which you can read about here.
Admission to the University
I knew from chatting with Paul and Emma that during the show we would be going on a collective adventure; visiting different places and communicating with the performers, but other than that I wasn’t sure what the experience would be like. The other audience members and I logged into Zoom ready for the show and were welcomed with a written introduction and some mood-setting music to prepare us.
There were a total of 6 devices present as audience members, and as soon as the show started we were all welcomed and addressed personally by the first live Professor of the University, who set the scene for us. He told us about the history of the University, and what we would be doing. He explained that we would be asked to help select where we would be going, and introduced us to a second Professor who gave us some words of encouragement and what was to come; we would be selecting from a choice of 100 rooms to visit in the University. As soon as we were briefed on what to expect, we went on our first mission.
Overview of the missions
Our collective experience then took us to three departments of the University, to an eclectic mix of subject areas that beautifully blended logically approaching creative tasks, and looking creatively at traditionally logic-oriented topics. Our visits took us to departments that covered the subjects of mathemagic, physics, and art.
Every new element of the adventure was introduced to us, the audience, in a very inclusive and accessible way and was perfectly paced – there was no opportunity to mentally wander off, while none of the experience was overwhelming or ‘too much’.
I was blown away by how seamlessly all elements of the technology worked throughout the experience, and how from start to finish the show went without a glitch or any hiccups. The entire production was of a modern, very high quality in both audio and graphics, and led me to draw comparisons between hints of present-day “Dr Who” combined with a slickly presented children’s television show – a fantastic amalgamation if ever there was one.
The physical set and digital backdrops were combined in a highly pleasing manner, and any supporting visual material was perfectly mixed with the live audio in real-time to effectively create an immersive sensory experience. The visual graphics were beautifully mesmerising, and each adventure had its own underlying musical score, which subtly set the tone without being distracting to what was happening. The way these elements complemented each other was really satisfying and all contributed to the experience.
It was the delivery combined with these elements that really made for an outstanding show – the Professors’ acting was incredible, and each performance was incredibly polished, energetic, and entertaining. The entire cast was flawless, and incorporated song, movement and performance techniques to engage us throughout the show as well as speaking with us personally to assist our missions. The underlying message from each Professor was an overwhelmingly positive one that encouraged the youngsters to open their minds, see oneness in the world, pursue their dreams and set goals – and of course to look at life with a sense of imagination and wonder. All of our Professors had different delivery styles and subjects, and all left us with the empowering message of “you can do anything you can imagine”.
Lasting thoughts from the show
It’s often overlooked or forgotten by adults that kids know when they’re being patronised or spoken down to, and this is clearly something that drives the wonderful team at Cahoots NI. The performance was pitched in such a compelling and lovely manner, with inclusivity, good vibes and so much positivity packed into it that I was transported back to a simpler time.
I couldn’t see the faces of the other audience members, but I know that I smiled and laughed through the entire show, and days later am still pondering how on earth they ‘did it’! I can only imagine the wonder and enjoyment on the faces of the youngsters in the audience.
I have high hopes for the future of interactive online theatre during the times of social distancing, and if this is the first offering from Cahoots, then the bar is set incredibly high for what will follow. The show ran for just over an hour, with no lulls or filler, and encapsulated the feel of both a polished live performance and an edited video, which is an impressively unique and pioneering format, and such an innovative solution.
The University of Wonder & Imagination’s motto is:
“In imagination we trust and in wonder we must”
In the midst of challenging times, I couldn’t be happier that this message is being encouraged and put out into the world by Cahoots, and would urge everyone to visit The University of Wonder & Imagination to experience this magical show.