17th Jan 2020 in Arts
Within the Cathedral Quarter lies a magical theatre company who specialise in producing great quality work aimed at young audiences.
Cahoots NI (Northern Ireland) is a theatre company like no other. The company create wonderfully imaginative plays and spectacles, blending magic, illusion and music along with physical theatre in such a unique way that their performances have become internationally renowned.
The company has recently turned 18; a number associated with growing up. The significance of this isn’t lost on Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney a co-founder of the organisation and current artistic director.
Paul is currently directing Under The Hawthorn Tree which is set to run at The MAC in the Cathedral Quarter from January 30 – February 9.
Reflecting on the origins of Cahoots NI and how the organisation has evolved over the years Paul said: “We’ve come of age. Isn’t that frightening? It started by complete accident”.
The origins of Cahoots NI lies much further back than just 18 years ago. For Paul, it’s been a lifetime of passion and learning.
He explained: “When I was six or seven, I was obsessed with magic. Absolutely obsessed. My mother and father couldn’t go past a shop that had anything linked to Paul Daniels or David Nixon. I had every magic set under the sun. I just loved it and eventually I became one of the youngest members of The Magic Circle. With that, I think came a real love of circus, and fun fairs, and anything that, when I analyse it now, was built for joy or for fun or for amazement. I knew that was my world.”
By the time he reached his mid/late teens Paul was a showman, but first, like many young men of his generation he started out life on stage in a band.
“When I was 17, I got this gig with a band from Belfast” said Paul.
“We had gigs in America, so I did three, three-month tours of the States, starting when I was 17. I went from being at school in Armagh, doing magic shows and playing local bands to US – that was quite a change!.”
Eventually Paul’s work brought him back to Belfast, and then into the Cathedral Quarter where Cahoots NI now calls home.
“The first time I’d ever been out of Northern Ireland was to tour the States. I was in the back of the van for three months and I came back a very different person. I realised on my travels that theatre was my first love. So, I came back and studied performing arts.
Over the years Paul’s love for magic, music and theatre melded together. He found choosing between any of them too difficult, so searched for ways to do them all.
“I decided I was going to be an actor” he said.
“All the time I was doing magic. When I was at college, I was making a living at restaurants doing table magic. So, the music and the magic, literally since I was about 11, has sustained me, financially and artistically. I even still kept playing drums.”
Paul soon started working as an actor full time but the seeds that would one day grow into Cahoots NI were about to be planted.
He revealed: “I got into The Lyric Theatre at a good time, I did three or four shows back to back. A Midsummers Night’s Dream, The Playboy of the Western World and others.
“After that I became a jobbing actor. I was doing the odd little bit of film and nothing hugely significant, but I was making a living out of it.”
A chance discussion with Anna Cutler who ran the Belfast Children’s Theatre Festival at that time shaped the future of Cahoots NI.
“Anna asked me ‘Have you ever thought of writing anything for young people?’ I went away and wrote Puppet Magic and it got picked up by a few of the visiting international delegates.”
Following the success of Puppet Magic Paul had finally found a way to combine all his great loves into one creative basket. Almost overnight Cahoots NI was born pledging to create good quality, unique and innovative theatre for young people.
Through their different approach to young people’s theatre Paul believes Cahoots NI shows have a way of reaching children in ways other mediums can’t, challenging, engaging and educating them at the same time.
Paul feels the arts provide a platform for stimulating certain ideas and feelings that are essential to a balanced development, such as empathy.
“What to the arts do? Whether it’s watching a piece of world class theatre or reading a brilliant book, the arts allow children to empathise” explained Paul.
For Paul and the wider Cahoots NI team allowing young people to feel empathy through theatre is much more powerful than simply being taught or told the concept.
An important part of the work Cahoots NI does is to inspire young people through the medium of theatre, music and magic. Paul believes lessons taught by all forms of art, are essential to the development of many young people. Not only empathy but things like creativity and connection.
He said: “With our storytelling, we are asking the child to sit in front of a stage and believe that anything is possible. But also, to put themselves in the shoes of the people that they’re watching. So, it’s about fundamentally unpacking the story, and empathy, not as a concept, but as a feeling that you can connect with in a safe environment.”
Paul believes that the Cahoots NI vision is truly unique in its approach: “I can’t speak for any of the other independents. I know that we seem to be on our own in the business model that we have.”
I think it’s because what we do is unique. What we do is different, I’m not putting ourselves in the same world, but Cirque de Soleil did something very interesting with circus and I think we’re doing something very interesting with magic. I would dream of that kind of commercial success, but no one had really done that with theatre and magic. To take the concept of magic and take it away from boxes and tricks and make it theatrical and make it back up a story and a narrative.”
An example of how Cahoots NI are unique is their ability to tackle dark, difficult or controversial topics such as death. Paul feels it’s vital for organisations like Cahoots NI not to stretch away from being able to bring these subjects to young people in a positive light.
“I stumbled upon this book called Duck, Death and the Tulip. It was one of the most beautiful books I’d read, and it was for children” said Paul. “It was just looking at the concept of death and its relationship with the person that was going to die. And it was wonderful. I got the rights to the book and made a piece of work on it, and we put it on The Lyric Theatre for a few weeks and we toured it very successfully”
For Paul the most important part of a production like that is the conversations that happen after the show.
“I want parents to be asking their children ‘what did you think that meant?’ And, ‘what were we meant to feel do you think?’ To hear that these conversations were happening afterwards was a very telling moment for me, that actually you could broach heavy subjects in a Cahoots NI way, where it’s still full of magic, be visually delightful yet still tackles some rather difficult concepts.”
Like most arts organisations in the area Cahoots NI came to the Cathedral Quarter for financial reasons.
“Cheap rent” laughed Paul. “I was in my bedroom for two and a half years and then I had a front room and that was the Cahoots NI office. Eventually we got some support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and we moved to a room at the top of the building we’re currently in now before moving down onto the first floor.”
Now, from their office in the heart of CQ Cahoots NI are producing work that is travelling throughout Ireland, Northern Ireland, UK as well as internationally to China and the United States.
“I’m looking towards 2021, which is our twentieth year.” said Paul.
We are currently working on a new show called ‘The Vanishing Elephant’ which will play in Belfast before opening on Broadway. Our future is exciting – I’m keen to create greater and longer partnerships with other organisations here and across the world. I think the international market is massive. I’m really excited by that because here’s the thing, by having more work play internationally, we are able to create more work to play here to our home audience in Northern Ireland.
Under The Hawthorn Tree runs at The MAC from January 30 – February 9 before touring Ireland.