My Cultural Life: Paul McEneaney

Founder and artistic director of Cahoots NI on not being Harry Potter and never leaving the house without a magic book in hand

Actor, writer, director, magician, conjuror, illusionist, boss of your own theatre company… that’s quite a list. Can you expand on how your wide-ranging CV began to take shape?
I began my career as drummer in a band. I toured the states at 17 and that really gave me the performing bug. It was a real eye opener and wasn’t all plain sailing, but I haven’t looked back since. I then did a performing arts course at the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, which was fantastic. I spent a few years working as a circus performer, creating shows and giving street performances. You learn a lot about holding an audience’s attention that way. Then I moved into theatre and began acting. I appeared at the Lyric Theatre and with a number of touring theatre companies. I worked with some wonderful actors and learned the craft from them. My work now with Cahoots NI draws on all of these elements to create and present our shows for children.

What are the highlights of your career so far?
Cahoots NI was invited to represent Northern Ireland at the Smithsonian Festival in Washington and at the Assitaj Children’s Festival in Seoul, South Korea. They were both absolutely fabulous experiences and it was great to be flying the flag for home.

Where did your interest in magic begin?
According to my parents, at around the age of six I pestered them so much for a magic set that they gave in and bought me one. I practiced and practiced and did shows for my parents and sister. I then started giving shows to family and friends, whether they wanted me to or not! By the age of ten I was doing small shows in the local leisure centre. I’m still practicing - a magician never stops!

So, were you a bit of a Harry Potter as a child?
I did have a magic wand, but that’s honestly where the likeness ends.

Did your friends and family take your intentions toward magic seriously?
I didn’t give them any choice. I knew from a very early age that magic would play a part in my future career. I am a member of the Ulster Society of Magicians. I had to audition when I was 15 and was one of the youngest members ever to be accepted. It was a great honour to be elected to be chair to the organisation a few years ago and I still attend meetings whenever I can.

Does it annoy you that in the UK and Ireland, people don’t take magic seriously as an art form?
I think some people have very fixed ideas on what magic can or can’t be. Some folk think it belongs to the world of the old working men’s clubs and can’t quite see beyond the doves and boxes of yesteryear. I think magic needs theatre and, more than ever, theatre needs magic. Many of the top West End shows rely on special effects to convince/entertain audiences. I guess there were people who used to feel the same way about circus. Then along came Cirque du Soleil!

What prompted you to found Cahoots NI?

Cahoots NI wasn’t really planned, it just sort of happened. Anna Cutler, the then inspirational director of Young at Art, commissioned me to write and perform a piece for her festival. I came up with a show called Puppet Magic. It was a great success and a visiting delegate booked it. I was really rather naive back then because I didn’t appreciate that the delegate who booked it was Tony Reekie, director of one of the most prestigious children’s festival’s in the world, the Imaginate International Theatre Festival. There was so much interest in the show that I had to follow it up with another...and then another and Cahoots NI was born.

Is it a help in your career to be a big kid at heart?
I think it’s essential. I get great joy from watching young audiences believe in the magic of theatre. Children, unlike most adults, don’t need to be convinced that anything can happen on a stage and therefore as an audience can be transported anywhere. Our work - linking illusion and narrative - really reinforces the ‘anything can happen’ theory. I’m a fully paid-up member of that theory group. I guess that’s what makes me a big kid!

The company has a clocked up a fantastic international reputation. Where has its most memorable performances been?
The Imagination Stage in Washington. It was an extraordinary venue, dedicated to work for children. We had a wonderful time there and I was keen to return. I am fortunate enough to have been offered a residency there next summer, when I will be directing a children’s musical called How I Became A Pirate.

Who inspires you and why?
I’m inspired by many different people from many different art forms. In my theatre work people like the late, great, John Hewitt inspired me as a young actor; from the magic world David Devant, the first magician to mix theatre and illusion; from the clown world the incomparable Slava and his Snowshow. I am also inspired by performers like Arturo Brochette who find new and innovative ways to present unusual art forms.

What are your three favourite books?

I am totally addicted to magic books and wouldn't leave home without one. If I’m being truthful, my top three books would have to come from the magic category. They are: Act 1 and 2 by Barrie Richardson, The Complete Jarrett by Jarrett and Steinmeyer and My Magicial Life by David Devant.

The last two are both autobiographical books and detail the thinking behind some of the greatest inventors ever in the art of magic. Act 1 and 2 is more contemporary and details many great effects and ideas by one of the world’s great inventors, Barrie Richardson. I do, occasionally, read non-magic based books. I’ve just finished The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh. Great writing, superb narrative - I couldn't put it down.

The Snail and the WhaleYou’re known to be a bit of a barbecue head. Who would be the first five guests on your ideal barbie guest list?
Nigel Slater would be the cook, so he’d arrive first, followed by U2, the band for the evening, Victor Borge, Charlie Chaplin and Morecombe and Wise. What a night!

If there was a fire at your house, what would be the first three things you would save – apart from your wife Jill and your little boy Jamie, of course?
My library of magic books, my drum kit and some of the art we’ve collected over the years.

If you could weave a magic spell for your life, what would it be?

To keep enjoying and believing in what I’m doing. I’ve still many, many projects that I really must do. I guess that’s what’s exciting.

And for Cahoots NI?

To keep entertaining and inspiring the children and families in our audiences. And to keep producing work that represents the best of children’s theatre both here and internationally. We have The Snail and the Whale going into the Belfast Grand Opera House this week (September 17-19) and then at the start of October Conor Mitchell’s extraordinary horror musical The Musician is going out on tour to three international children’s festivals across Ireland and the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. They are both pretty big deals for us. Cahoots has a packed programme of work planned for the year ahead, including a smashing new project called Mathemagic, sponsored by Northern Bank and aimed at helping primary school children improve their maths. Busy times lie ahead.

Jane Coyle