After 30 years working at the pinnacle of mainstream theatre, Patch Theatre’s new artistic director Geoff Cobham has swapped his well-heeled State Theatre audience for 40,000 uproarious school kids – and he’s never been happier.
Before arriving to see Zoom, Patch Theatre’s new show inspired by the bestselling book Harold and the Purple Crayon, audience members are asked to bring along a ‘piece of dark’. This request comes with no instructions and no guidelines, yet the four- to eight- year-olds who make up 90 per cent of the audience know exactly what to bring. The adults, not so much.
“One of the kids brought some charcoal from the fire,” says Geoff Cobham, Patch Theatre’s artistic director and the creator of Zoom, which opens at the Space Theatre on July 27. “Another brought a little box, and showed me that it was full of dark; that they’d captured it. Another kid, they brought a black bit of material that they’d cut the edges off to make it look a bit spooky, that was quite cool as well. Ask an adult the same thing and well, I think they’d send you an email or ring you up to say, ‘What do you mean by that exactly? Give me a better brief’.”
When the kids enter the theatre, they’re asked to trade in their ‘dark’ for a little spark of light, which is essentially a battery-powered night-light that the crew operate through a radio control system behind the scenes. “We can make it flash, dim, change colours, all kinds of cool stuff,” says Cobham. “So if we say to the kids, ‘Lift your light up at the same time and the colour will change to blue’, and then it does, they believe that they’re the ones controlling the environment. The magic doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be believed.”
Cobham is no stranger to transporting people to places of wonder. Before taking the helm at Patch in October 2018, he spent six years as the State Theatre Company’s resident lighting designer and 10 years as associate director at dance company Force Majeure. He has inhabited multiple managerial roles at the likes of Adelaide Festival, Sydney Festival and WOMADelaide. And, through his company Bluebottle, he’s designed lighting installations, public artworks, buildings, landscapes and freeways.
But this, he says, gesturing around Patch’s Angus Street headquarters, is where he was always meant to end up. “I just didn’t know it until I got here. My first job was in kids’ theatre, so it feels like I’ve come full circle. I feel like I’ve finally found my people – four- to eight-year-olds really get what I’m talking about. They’re into all the same things I’m into, they still look at the world in wonder, and they’re so open to new ideas.”
Cobham’s vision for Patch is to reject the passive obedience of traditional theatre-going, and instead create more immersive performances that break the ‘fourth wall’ that typically separates the performer from the audience. Pioneered by British theatre company Punchdrunk, this form of playable theatre means audiences can build their own experiences from an original vision, filled with personal moments that only they might discover and then share with others.
“When you really look at how kids like to interact and learn and be entertained, immersive theatre makes perfect sense,” says Cobham. “They don’t want to sit in rows passively watching a show. They want to be completely immersed in the work, and to be exploring the wonder of everything, and not being told what or how to think. We see 40,000 kids a year, and so it’s very hard to give everyone a personal experience without making them get up on stage and look silly, which is what’s often done in kids’ shows.”
This vision will become a reality in the latter half of the year, when Cobham and his team debut The Lighthouse, an immersive lighting installation designed not just for kids, but the whole family. “Ninety per cent of the Patch audience right now comes from schools, and I’d love to see more parents not just taking their kids to the theatre, but getting involved as well,” says Cobham. “The Lighthouse will have six chambers of lighting and you’ll go through in groups of 12, using a key to essentially unlock each new room. It’s part theatre, part immersive art piece, part rave, part science experiment.”
Breaking down the fourth wall is something that Cobham thinks about a lot. Namely, the implications of living in a world where our day-to-day interactions are done primarily through screens, with little to no opportunities to use our imagination. “If you read a book or get told a story in the dark, your brain creates an image of what’s going on,” he says. “That is so powerful. But now we have these screens that give us all this information without us having to do any work. The thinking is being done for us.”
One of his favourite parts of the new gig is finally getting honest feedback from his audience. “When I ask the kids what each show is about, I’ll get 20 different answers because that’s what they do to the world, they try to make sense of it through their own lens,” says Cobham. “They don’t care about giving me the right answer. Whereas when you ask an older kid the same question, you see them trying to read your face, trying to figure out the answer.”
It’s the perfect environment for someone who still feels like a kid at heart. “I’ll often be in a room with a lot of younger people – say, 20-year-olds – and I’m the radical, crazy one going, ‘No, no, I reckon you can do that. I reckon you could hang those off the roof’, and everyone else is like, ‘You can’t do that’,” says Cobham. “I guess I’m a bit of a cowboy, but I think that’s part of being an artist, the ability to keep pushing the boundaries, and seeing the possibilities of the world.”
Saturday, July 27 to Saturday, August 10