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The children's show making light of the big questions

By using light as an interactive storytelling tool, Zooom is rewriting the rule book when it comes to children's theatre

Sydney Opera House

A child alone in her bedroom, unable to sleep and curious to understand, begins a transformational journey guided by a lost star. Zooom, the latest work from immersive theatre company Patch, is a groundbreaking piece of interactive children's theatre. It pairs state of the art technology with an empathetic sense of adventure and curiosity.

We spoke to Patch Theatre Artistic Director and renowned lighting designer Geoff Cobham about nurturing children’s imaginations, exploring big ideas in a magical way and discouraging grown-ups from using the 'shhhhh' word during performances of Zooom...

To connect to the child within, Geoff Cobham turned to his favourite childhood book: Harold and the Purple Crayon.

“It’s a children’s book written in the 1950s and it’s never gone out of print. It’s about a little boy who is alone in the world and all he has is a purple crayon. And with that crayon he creates his world,” explains Cobham. “That book was very inspirational to me as a child, and is one of the reasons I’m in theatre and have the confidence to do what I do.”

“The whole world is from a child’s point of view, so Harold can draw a tiny little miniature town and then step up into it as if he’s a giant. Harold draws his world and makes sense of it. It gives him a sense of agency and control and lets him experience things and answer questions, big questions, on his own terms. The book really captures exactly what it’s like, I think, to explore as a child.”

In Zooom, the character of Harold takes the form of a tiny ember of light, rather than a crayon, guiding an unnamed narrator through a series of lessons that take her into thrilling new worlds. The ember plays with the girl, teaches her and then turns himself into various figures and pictures.

“He draws the world for her, and together they share all these new adventures. They go through portals that allow them to change time and dimension,” Cobham says. “So they have all these magical doorways that they can walk through, finding themselves in exciting places with entire worlds opening up before them.” 

The audience is asked to bring something dark to the performance in exchange for a light. Cobham explains that this process directly connects them to the performers and the show, integrating them into the journey.

“My office is full of black on black drawings of ghosts, stars, universes, chickens and black holes. I also have paper sculptures of bats in caves, telescopes with no ends and some spooky black butterflies. Oh and some weird jars full of black goo!” 

Pieces of “dark” brought to the Zooom season at DreamBIG Children’s Festival, Adelaide

The audience then swap their dark thing for light – a "little spark". Their spark will keep them safe and that will help guide them through certain interactive elements of the show.

“I believe we have a very primitive connection to light. The first animation was the spinning of sticks taken from the fire, the ember on the end creating a circle of light. Light creates wonder in all of us," explains Cobham.

"One of my fascinations with light is that every bit of light that’s emitted goes to the end of the universe. So, if I turn a light on in my house, that light goes all the way out the window to the end of the universe. Scientists don’t know what light is made of or how it operates. It’s a particle and a wave, which doesn’t make any sense in physics. It’s still this magical thing even to them, who spend their entire life understanding the universe.”

...children aren’t afraid of big questions. They’re not afraid of letting their mind wander, or letting their imagination do the talking. Their brains are very open to new ideas. It’s a beautiful way of looking at the world

Unlike most children's shows, Zooom encourages children to be curious, to ask who's behind the curtain or how certain stage elements work.

“We often have children who are open and curious throughout the show – we call them ‘engineers’, they have lots of explanations for how all the lighting tricks work, they often narrate the show explaining to those around them how ‘the laser is made from water’ or ‘that is done with string’. I really like it when there is dialogue from children during the show so we discourage adults from using the 'shhhhh' word so children can put themselves at the centre of the story.”

The idea of the limitlessness of a child’s imagination is central to Cobham’s vision not only for Zooom, but for the company more broadly. Based in South Australia, Patch Theatre has been operating since 1972, these days specialising in non-traditional theatre work encompassing interactive or immersive elements. 

“Most children’s theatre is very tidy. It has clear endings. One of the things we’re trying to do at Patch is not make shows we know the answers to. We want to work together with children to discover something new or, at least, open their mind to a range of questions they wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.”

“To create the show I got into the minds of children. We asked our audience all kinds of questions like 'who is the dark?', 'what does the dark want?', 'where does the light sleep?' and 'if I had the only light in the world what would it look like?'.” 

These questions led to bigger questions. 

Zooom doesn’t shy away from ideas like ‘what is the universe?’, ‘how big is it?’, ‘where do we come from?’. Because children aren’t afraid of big questions. They’re not afraid of letting their mind wander, or letting their imagination do the talking. Their brains are very open to new ideas. It’s a beautiful way of looking at the world, and a really wonderful way of being. With Zooom we want to connect with that, and, more than anything, we want to nurture that.''

Zooom runs from June 29 until July 10 in the Playhouse.

Find more about Kids & Families at the Opera House