For 17 years Paul Bosco McEneaney says he has been honoured to give children their first taste of theatre.
His company Cahoots NI was born by necessity, but has grown into a worldwide phenomenon regularly taking its ground-breaking shows to global audiences.
The 45-year-old from Armagh said it was important to pay respect to children who come to the theatre and not patronise them: “The theatre that is produced for children should be the same as the theatre produced for adults.
“We don’t compromise on anything because our audience is children. Children are an audience today, not an audience of the future. It’s obviously a benefit that they’ll come back in the future as adults, but they need to see the best possible theatre today.
“The secret to what it is we do is make sure we’ve got good stories to tell. Stories that will entertain both children and their parents.”
Paul, whose wife Jill runs the Marketplace Theatre in Armagh, began his journey into the arts world as a musician before training as an actor which led to the creation of his own theatre company.
He said: “I’d been a jobbing actor for many years when I was commissioned to write a play for the Young at Art festival. I wrote a piece called Buster about a puppet that came to life.
“It was very successful and I got invited to a number of international festivals as a result of that. Way back then the only way to get funding was to start a theatre company, so I started Cahoots to tour that show.
“In Buster I used what has become the staple of Cahoots – using magic and illusion within a piece of theatre so that the story is enhanced. To an adult it’s special effects, but to a child it’s magic.”
He added: “When I set up Cahoots I discovered a real injustice. 17 years ago there was only one theatre and education company in Northern Ireland and they only performed in schools. No one was taking work into theatres for young audiences.
“When I got to Europe with our work I got to see the quality and standard of work there for young people.”
Paul said: “In children’s theatre it’s almost expected of you to create a spectacle. The secret to theatre is in its name – to be theatrical.
“I find a lot of adult theatre is an extension of a television soap opera. Too often the scene change is the most exciting thing that happens.
“The possibilities with children’s theatre are endless. We’re encouraged by the likes of the Arts Council to push the envelope, to not only excite and stimulate children’s imaginations, but to also make theatre challenging.
“A very successful show of ours in the past – Egg – has no words. It’s just a visual story about three little birds who one at a time fly the nest.
“Penguins is a show that we toured earlier this year. That’s a show about the relationship between two male penguins in a zoo in New York. The themes in that play are so relevant to today’s society.
“Duck, Death and The Tulip was another very successful show for us. It’s introducing the subject of death to children. It sounds bleak but it was one of the most positive, life-affirming shows.”
He added: “The negative aspect is how the theatre is received by our government. The reality is the arts – in terms of funding – is on its knees and there seems to be a lot of shortsighted politicians who don’t appreciate the economic and social impact that the arts brings to society.”
Paul said that his son has helped shape Cahoots NI: “Jaimie is coming 13 – he’s a huge inspiration in terms of delivering children’s theatre. I’m not a child, so unlike adult theatre you’ve got to guess what your audience will like.
“We will have children in our rehearsals, throughout this process. Instead of watching the play I’ll be watching their reactions.”
Cahoots NI works closely with schools in NI, performing regularly for both primary and secondary school children throughout the year.
He said: “What I love about children when they come to the theatre is that they haven’t conformed. Adults know to be quiet, when to applaud. There’s something brilliant seeing the children looking around at everything – the lights, the sets, the theatre. I feel honoured to be able to deliver that first experience.
“I think I’m addicted to wonder. The wonder children have when they come to the theatre, the wonder they have when they see something on stage that connects with them and the wonder they will have to come back. I have that same sense of wonder.
“To think we’re creating a piece of work in Belfast that will be seen by 30,000 children around the world is extraordinary.
“Our artists, performers and technical team are all from Northern Ireland. It’s not just our audience who are benefitting, the industry is too.”