REVIEW (From a distance): The University of Wonder & Imagination (Cahoots NI)

One of the best things to have come out of this year is the development of digital theatre and the opportunities it brings to reach a much wider audience. Some of the most exciting and innovative theatre we have seen in recent months has been produced by theatre companies we had not previously heard of, based in places we have never visited. One of the places at the forefront of the digital revolution is Northern Ireland, and the Belfast International Arts Festival (in its 58th year and now online ) is currently showcasing some stunning new shows developed especially for the digital domain. After a first virtual visit to BIAF to see Big Telly’s innovative Macbeth, we were back in front of the screens on Tuesday evening (but this time with the munchkins) for a press performance of The University of Wonder & Imagination.

Produced by children’s theatre specialists Cahoots NI, The University of Wonder and Imagination is an hour-long interactive digital production which seamlessly blends digital technology with physical effects to create the slickest production that we have seen on Zoom. Hosted by the mysterious Professor Bambridge (Sean Kearns) small audience groups are led on a digital journey of discovery around the university like no other. Forget Google Classroom. This is online learning that your kids will actually want to do!

A man dressed as a professor with his hands open and wearing a suit and bow tie, with his hands open and outstretched, in front of a background filled with small cards
Sean Kearns as Professor Bambridge in the University of Wonder & Imagination

The tour begins with an visit to the Principal of the University (Lata Sharma), who gets the audience making some simple choices that will determine the course of their journey. Then it’s back to Professor Bambridge to inform us who else we will be visiting, with our choice of three professors seemingly made at random from a list of 100 different rooms (in the first of many exciting magic tricks that take place over the course of the show). Soon we’re zooming off again via a magical portal that we later learn has been painted by one of those three professors.

Lata Sharma in The University of Wonder & Imagination

Interlinking some very impressive graphics with live action from a purpose built set, the show combines green screen technology with good old fashioned artistry to create some real “how did they do that?” moments. Unlike other productions that we have seen, the use of Zoom features is fairly minimal, with the five Cahoots actors all being beamed to us via a single stream. This helps to maintain the illusion, with no opportunity to spy behind the scenes via gallery mode. Similarly, although the audience are all visible to the actors, there is very little use of Zoom to feature households on the screen, with the performers instead making a really conscious effort to refer to groups by name, and to manage participation via microphones. All of this ensures that it remains interactive but with the feel of a traditional audience experience where the performer, rather than the stage manager, is in control of the interaction. (Top tip – Make a theatre den to watch the show from and you will get lots of compliments from the professors!)

Hugh Brown in The University of Wonder & Imagination

From mathematics and cosmology to art and literature, there is something for everyone at this university like no other, with the whizzing between rooms ensuring that the pace is perfect for youngsters with limited attention spans. It’s great for the grown-ups too, with a fantastic balance of visual tricks and some sneaky educational information, including a bold attempt from Philippa O’Hara to explain the theory of relativity (which has totally broken Mummy’s brain)!

A woman with an old fashioned camera in front of a green screen
Philippa O-Hara in The University of Wonder & Imagination

It’s clear to see the benefits of staging Zoom theatre from a custom made set, which not only makes the production look incredibly professional, but also allows for the incorporation of some mind-blowing tricks that couldn’t be done by someone on their own in a bedroom. This is a real feature of the whole show, but the most impressive moments come from actor Hugh Brown and “mathemagician” Caolan McBride. We don’t want to spoil the magic, but there is one particular moment in McBride’s act which is a real treat for those who already like maths (and may well make mathematicians out of those who are not so numerically inclined)! Both munchkins were in awe throughout.

Caolan McBride in The University of Wonder & Imagination

The University of Wonder & Imagination more than lived up to its name and is a fantastic example of how innovative digital theatre can deliver as engaging an experience as an in-person show, and share it with a far wider audience. We can’t imagine that this show could be better in person. The use of digital is not just a means of delivering theatre – It actually enhances it. A real treat for the whole family, Mrs Mummy (who had to be persuaded to put her work away and watch with us in the first place) declared it to be the best digital show she has ever seen, while Mummy (whose job involves creating online content for a rather less exciting university) is starting to think that she needs to invest in a green screen and start training her team in magic tricks.

The University of Wonder & Imagination is playing at the Belfast International Arts Festival from October 22nd – 25th and October 29th – November 1st. We attended a Press Day performance on 20 October.

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