Two years ago, in March 2020, Edinburgh’s International Children’s Festival was one of the first major Scottish arts events to announce its cancellation, as the first wave of Covid-related lockdowns swept across Europe. The event was scheduled, as usual, to take place in May; and overnight, the Festival’s director Noel Jordan, and chief executive Paul Fitzpatrick, in charge of the Scottish children’s theatre umbrella organisation Imaginate, became Scotland’s first experts in the fascinating but depressing art of “unproducing”, gradually unravelling all their carefully-laid plans.
The festival returned in 2021, in a carefully-designed “online and outdoor” format; but it’s only this year that the EICF seems set to reappear as its familiar self, a little slimmed down by the financial pressures of the last two years, but once again recognisable as one of Europe’s leading children’s theatre festivals, appearing in venues across and beyond the city, from the Traverse Theatre and Assembly Roxy, to Lyra in Craigmillar, and the Brunton in Musselburgh.
“It’s a pretty eclectic programme this year,” says Festival director Noel Jordan, “in that there’s a real mix of brand new material, and shows that we had programmed for 2020, and are delighted to be able to stage at last. In order to reduce risks and travel miles, every show, this year, is from Scotland or a near neighbouring country, with work coming from England, Ireland, the Netherlands and Belgium, with a special focus on Flanders.
“We are determined, though, to keep working with companies from further afield, from Canada and the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil. As an Australian myself, I know how tough the travel restrictions have been over these two years. But when we start bringing artists from further afield again, I think it will have to be on a new basis, as people in the arts become more and more aware of the need to reduce carbon footprint, and to make sure, for example, that artists coming from further away aren’t just making the journey to appear at a single festival.”
The result, this year, is a Children’s Festival that – in a reflection of the ever-growing strength of Scottish children’s theatre – features six Scottish-made shows alongside six visiting productions. The visitors include strongly visual and movement-based Flemish shows Light!, for younger children, and Plock!, in which a boy acrobatically explores his obsession with the painter Jackson Pollock; along with acclaimed Irish solo dance piece Birdboy, and Little Murmur, an acclaimed dance piece about dyslexia by leading British dancer-choreographer Aakash Odedra.
The Scottish shows are all the products of long-term work before and during the pandemic, and have already been seen in Scotland in various forms, although this year’s EICF will offer them a first international showcase. They range from baby circus show Little Top, through music theatre pieces Whirlygig and Sound Symphony, to choreographer Natasha Gilmore’s great family-in-lockdown filmed piece, Family Portrait.
There’s also the full-on drama of groupwork’s movement theatre piece The Hope River Girls (a Scotsman Fringe First winner in 2019, under the title The Afflicted), and Oliver Emanuel’s new play I Am Tiger. And the festival’s emphasis on work produced or developed by Scottish-based artists during the pandemic is particularly pleasing to Imaginate’s new chief executive Belinda McElhinney, who took over from Paul Fitzpatrick last year, after a career that has ranged from working in the software industry in England, through a period as an actor, to a series of jobs in the arts in Scotland, since she moved north with her Scottish husband 20 years ago.
When McElhinney first arrived at Imaginate in 2020, to carry out research into children as audience members, she already knew the organisation well, through her years as executive producer for Natasha Gilmore’s Barrowland Ballet; and she says that what instantly drew her to the job was the unique opportunity it offers to nurture and support creative talent, across the whole sector in Scotland.
“When I moved to Scotland, I immediately felt there was more recognition for children’s theatre work here. It’s something to do with how the child is viewed, as having a right to cultural experience, embodied in the UN Charter; so children’s theatre is not just about developing the theatre audiences of tomorrow, but about something worthwhile in itself.
“So at Imaginate, I guess I very much want to help the organisation continue the journey it was on under Paul’s leadership, and to develop its all-year-round support for the sector, including great democratic initiatives like Theatre In Schools Scotland, which aims to get theatre into every primary school in the country.
“At the moment, for example, I feel very concerned about the time artists have missed over the last two years, particularly about those who have graduated in recent years, and whether they’re getting the opportunity to work, and to build a community of fellow artists; and in this job, it is possible to offer that kind of support.
“As someone who once worked in the commercial IT sector, I also know how it feels to work in an industry where your own values just aren’t seen as relevant. In this job, though, it really is all about the values of equity, fairness and access that matter to me; both for artists striving to build a career, and for every child – because they all have an equal right to the brand new world-views that good theatre or arts experiences can bring.
“The world has changed, yes; and we are having to think hard about new ways to connect internationally. Once we’re all in the room, though, the magical relationship between audience and performers is always the same; and I’m so glad that this year we’re able to offer that to our audiences once more, through such a terrific programme of shows.”
Edinburgh International Children’s Festival 2022 runs from 7-15 May, at venues across Edinburgh. Details at www.imaginate.org.uk/festival/