How the Edinburgh International Children's Festival is gearing up to stage live performances

Taking place later this month, the 2021 Edinburgh International Children’s Festival will be a hybrid event, with some shows available to watch online and others taking place in outdoor locations across the city. Joyce McMillan reports

Robert Softley Gale and Oona Dooks in The Super Special Disability Roadshow PIC: Chris Dooks

When the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival was founded in 1989 – under canvas, in the city’s Inverleith Park – few of those who braved the changeable spring weather to experience its programme of international theatre and outdoor fun imagined its extraordinary future, as it gradually evolved into the one of the world’s largest and most successful children’s theatre festivals, and became a permanent fixture on the city’s festival calendar, in late May and early June each year.

And even fewer, of course, could possibly have predicted that soon after its joyful 30th birthday celebrations, in 2019, the festival would follow the rest of the global arts scene into the biggest crisis it has faced since 1945. Last spring, EICF was one of the first Scottish arts organisations to announce the cancellation of its 2020 event; and although Imaginate, the Scottish children’s theatre organisation which runs the Festival, had originally hoped to re-stage the planned 2020 festival one year on, it gradually became apparent, as months passed, that the 2021 event, too, would have to be very different from a normal Children’s Festival.

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Which is how the festival’s Australian director, Noel Jordan – himself in pandemic exile, and unable to visit family back home since his last trip in 2019 – found himself, a fortnight ago, announcing a 2021 Edinburgh International Children’s Festival with the subtitle “Online And Outdoor,” featuring 24 shows, nine of which will be available to watch online throughout the festival, with the rest taking place in outdoor locations across the city.

“Fairly early on last year,” explains Jordan, “I decided that our 2021 programme would focus entirely on work from the UK and Ireland. That was partly to make travel easier, if that had turned out to be possible. But it was also because we felt that in this crisis, one of our priorities had to be to use our Creative Scotland funding in ways that would help support artists in our own community through the pandemic; and although we’re proud of our credentials as an international festival, built up over three decades, we’re delighted that for this year, between and 80 and 90 per cent of the work in the Festival programme has been made in Scotland.”

Jordan is particularly pleased that this year’s online programme includes Robert Softley Gale’s Super Special Disability Roadshow, a long-discussed joint project between Imaginate and Birds Of Paradise Theatre company designed to encourage awareness of disability issues in audiences aged between 8 and 12. The 45-minute show is currently being filmed in Glasgow, and features Softley Gale and pianist Sally Clay – two of Scotland’s leading performers with disabilities – in dialogue with two young disabled performers, Oona Dooks and Oliver Martindale, who appear only on screen.

“The idea,” says Softley Gale, “is that Sally and I are this duo who have been performing a show about disability around schools for years, and my character thinks he knows it all about disability issues, until we arrive at a school where some of the young people begin to challenge us. There are plenty of songs and jokes, and we’re trying to make it into a really effective film, recorded as a live performance; but we’re also very much hoping that a stage version will be able to go on tour, as soon as the pandemic situation improves.”

The EICF online programme also includes some previous Scottish-made favourites, including Shona Reppe’s Potato Needs A Bath, and Catherine Wheels’s global hit White; and what Jordan describes as a remarkable live online magic show from the Cahoots company of Northern Ireland, The University Of Wonder And Imagination. “I’m finding that the most exciting online shows are the ones that involve a genuine live event, with interactive elements,” says Jordan. “That’s true of many of our online shows this year, and it’s particularly true of this one.”

One of the main reasons for Jordan’s excitement over this year’s programme, though, lies in the festival’s successful effort to develop what were its much-loved family weekends at the National Museum of Scotland – now on hold – into a positive outdoor alternative, staged mainly in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. The programme at the Botanics includes nine short snippet-sized shows, including My Land Your Land by Borders-based company Two Destination Language, whose artistic director Katherina Radeva has been talking to Edinburgh-based children who share her Bulgarian heritage about their sense of home, and the different cultures they inhabit; and at the Lyra Theatre in Craigmillar, Tony Mills of the East Lothian-based company Room 2 Manoeuvre will be continuing the company’s exploration of how sport and dance can be combined with an outdoor show based on the movements of basketball.

“We noticed during the autumn and winter that the Botanics was one of the few venues still staging events despite the pandemic conditions,” says Jordan, “and that they seemed to have huge expertise in dealing with all the issues involved. So it made so much sense to partner with them this year. As with our Family Days at the National Museum, these short shows in some ways represent the experimental part of our programme, and our investment in the future; and some will be more successful than others.

“There’s a real joy in presenting work outdoors though, in such a beautiful environment, after the year we’ve all had. And it’s strange to think that in heading back to the Botanics, just next door to Inverleith Park, the festival is in some ways returning to its geographical roots. We just hope that people will love it; and that we’ll be able to take some of what we’ve learned about the positives of being online and outdoors, forward into the new post-pandemic world.”

Edinburgh International Children’s Festival 2021 runs from 25 May to 6 June. Details & booking at http://www.imaginate.org.uk/festival/whats-on/

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