Geoff Cobham and Zoë Barry discuss the magic of Superluminal

by | Jun 21, 2024

Art and science converge at the world premiere of Superluminal, a family-friendly interactive installation from award-winning Patch Theatre that will spark wonder in the enquiring minds of children aged 4 to 8 at the South Australian Museum for Illuminate Adelaide.

A labour of love for co-directors Geoff Cobham and Zoë Barry who believe that great artists and scientists are very similar people.

“They both use their creativity to see the world in a new way,” explains Barry. “Most great art and scientific discoveries stem from someone creative enough to see an accident or mistake as an opportunity or an answer to a problem. Also, science is magic and vice versa. I was working with some 4-year-olds and “magically” changing some lights that they were holding, with a hidden remote control, when they blew on the lights. After a while, I showed them I was using the remote, and eventually, I gave them the remote control. To my surprise, it was still magic. I had forgotten that a remote is magical—it invisibly controls things. Wherever possible, we try to put the science/magic into their hands. True agency for a child is having control over something magical or bigger than themselves.

At Patch, this manifests in many different ways. In ZOOOM, children are asked to bring a ‘piece of dark’ to the show—something they have no problem doing. We have a huge collection of cardboard telescopes with black ends, some caves with bats in them, lots of black-on-black drawings, and jars with who knows what gloop inside them. In Superluminal, they are literally holding or building something in each room. Our audience is wired for play and very in touch with their inner artist/scientist. For our young audience, most things are new and amazing.

I have been reading Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder by Dacher Keltner. “Twenty years into teaching happiness,” he writes, “I have an answer: FIND AWE.” Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” Five-year-olds are comfortably able to achieve this state, and our team at Patch works hard to create spaces for them to encounter and process awe. This brings them (and us) happiness.”

The show’s genesis began in 2022 when the South Australian Museum approached the group with a book, they wanted them to create a show from.

“We really liked the idea of making a work for the Museum, but as we devise our work using design as our stepping-off point, we suggested an alternate idea and Superluminal was born,” says Cobham. “I have always wanted to create work about time because our audience, the majority of whom are aged between 4 and 8 years old, have a very fluid understanding of it. Sometimes a minute takes forever, and other times an hour is not long enough. I am fascinated by their ability to be effortlessly in the moment and their blatant disregard for schedules. Their understanding of time is not helped by being told by adults “In a minute,” which rarely means an actual minute and can sometimes be an hour! The Museum is a literal time machine, an amazing collection of moments in time. The word superluminal describes travelling faster than the speed of light, which (if possible) would be the moment time stops.

The Superluminal creative team (Maddog Delaney, Zoë Barry, and I) were lucky enough to spend some time with the Museum’s extended collection, including endless drawers of nature, and the unique people who collect and study nature. After immersing ourselves in their worlds, we returned to our studio with our heads reeling; so much information and so little time to tell it all. So, we took a step back and did this thing where we tried to get our 5-year-old brains back on. We really work hard at trying to have their POV… after all, we have all had it once before! It is a very pure brain space—things are less complicated, the world is one big awe factory, and most things are an experiment of some sort. So, we ended up with a guided experience in what I think is a 5-year-old’s version of what the scientists do at the museum (the scientists will probably be horrified by this!).

Basically, the children get their own lantern which they use to discover invisible UV animal tracks and reveal magical coloured layers of animals from different eras. Then they gather their lanterns together to make a campfire before moving into a marsh where they construct their own animals from “bones”. They figure out what sounds the animals might have made, where they might have lived, and then create a dance of the animals which captures the shadow of their creation… I know, right? Exactly what scientists do!

To achieve this, it took us many creative developments over 12 months, with time built in for our makers in between. Many of these creative developments involved inviting children to come and play with the things we had built and teach us which parts were important.”

 Clearly an ambition for many decades, but when did Barry first understand that building theatrical pathways for children would become her main creative goal?

“One of my first jobs out of drama school was performing in a 1980s feminist collective theatre in education company called Pippi Stormm” she says. “We toured schools and juvenile detention centres—it was an incredible introduction to a unique audience. Over the last 40 years, I have mostly worked as a designer for theatre productions aimed at adults. I distinctly remember a moment after working on a Sydney Theatre Company, thinking I had made it to the big time but when I stepped into the foyer after the show, I was struck by the realization that the adults I had just entertained felt like aliens to me—they were discussing real estate and renovations, not the play. At that moment, I realized that 5-year-olds were my people—they truly get me.

After a Patch show, our audience engage in amazing conversations about our performance. We intentionally create non-verbal shows and let teachers know that it’s a ‘shush’ free zone, encouraging children to discuss the show during the performance. Having spent a long time working with dance theatre companies, where finding an audience was challenging, I found that 5-year-olds are the perfect audience for non-linear narratives. They will happily make their own sense of abstract art; placing themselves at the centre of the experience and will then tell us a story, usually about themselves and the journey they went on. If we receive 20 different stories told to us afterwards, we know we’ve successfully immersed them in art and empowered them to take the lead in their creative journey.”

Patch has been making theatre for 4 to 8-year-olds in South Australia for the last 51 years. Throughout those years, the many directors have all adhered to the original guiding principle: placing children at the centre of art. Their world-class performances explore the way children see the world, acknowledging the relevance of their thinking with stories that promote imagination, wonder, and discovery. Cobham has been the Artistic Director at Patch for six years but worked as a designer on many of their shows in the ten years prior to this. His design-led focus to new work has resulted in visually stunning, accessible performances created for inter-generational audiences, in theatres and beyond.

Barry has composed a unique soundscape for the show including the jungle after dark, frogs, bird calls, and even animals snoring

 Zoë loves to collaborate with young people to create her musical scores, and for Superluminal she has recorded many 4 – 8-year-olds making the sounds of real and imaginary animals, and – of particular delight to the children – the sounds of animals snoring,” says Cobham. “These hilarious sounds are woven into recordings of nature from around the world. Zoë has made music out of the recordings of these natural environments, from the Australian bush to dawn choruses and night creatures, by listening for patterns in the natural sounds, and arranging them into musical and rhythmic phrases. There is even a disco piece created from the sounds of birds ‘laughing’. She has created a beautifully immersive, calming but also energising score that is enchantingly unique.”

Both Barry and Cobham hope that parents will forget they are adults and enter a state of wonder alongside their children. The most common feedback from parents is a very surprised, “I think I enjoyed that as much as the kids!” Both creatives know they will be amazed at how their children can focus and follow non-verbal guidance. Being in the dark with 29 other people and exploring light, time, and animals will be a bonding experience for all—like going on a weekend camp in just 40 minutes!

The creative pair love to see parents listening to their children. “Our advice for any post-show questions is to say, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ Patch staff respond this way if questioned by children about how things work in the show.”

With colour-changing lanterns in hand and the magical sounds of nature all around, children and their guardians will explore nature’s extraordinary creatures, systems, and beauty as they are guided by performers through Superluminal’s five interactive spaces. They’ll follow tracks and discover animals from the past, present, and possible future, before creating their own mythical creatures and bringing them to life.

Says Cobham, “Superluminal gives children the freedom to explore, engage, and create – something that is rare in a performance. Pablo Picasso famously said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” So let your children be the artists they are as they journey through this incredible work we have created. Trust me, your children will LOVE it.”

July 6 – August 10


Main Image: Andrew Beveridge

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