Imaginate Festival’s new director on why he loves children’s theatre

Noel Jordan fell in love with the Imaginate Festival when he was a visiting producer from Australia. Now, he’s its new director

Noel Jordan fell in love with the Imaginate Festival when he was a visiting producer from Australia. Now, he’s its new director

It’s been all change this year at Scotland’s acclaimed international theatre festival for children. In 2015, the festival’s inspired director Tony Reekie – who had been with Imaginate since it first began as the Scottish International Children’s Festival in 1990, in a cluster of tents in Inverleith Park – announced that he would step down from the job after his final festival, last May. And before his successor was appointed, the Imaginate board took the decision to divide the job of artistic director in two, appointing both an overall Executive Director of the organisation, and a Festival Director who would programme the Imaginate event itself.

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“I think the idea was simply to acknowledge that the Festival Director’s job, which Tony did so brilliantly, just involves a huge amount of travelling, seeing shows all over the world,” says Paul Fitzpatrick, who was appointed Executive Director of Imaginate just a year ago, after working as a producer with the award-winning Edinburgh-based children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels.

“Yet as Imaginate develops, there’s also more and more to do here in Scotland, in terms of building relationships with artists and companies here, and working on the strategic development of the organisation, from funding to audience-building to creative partnerships. Obviously, it’s an idea that can only work well if the two directors collaborate closely, and have roughly the same priorities for the organisation, but so far it seems to be going well.”

And although Imaginate remains a modestly-sized organisation by international festival standards, with just six staff, and an annual budget of around £600,000, the new structure also makes sense to Imaginate’s new Festival Director, the Australian children’s theatre producer Noel Jordan, who spent several years running the children’s programme at Sydney Opera House, and often showcased work there that he had first seen at Imaginate.

“I think I first came to Imaginate as a visiting producer in 2007,” says Jordan, “and three things struck me immediately. The first was the sheer quality of the work on show – it was just a beautifully curated festival, and I really admired Tony Reekie’s work in achieving that. Then there was the warmth of the welcome, and the fact that you felt you were attending a real festival with real audiences full of children, not just a showcase for promoters.

“And then finally, there was the quality and quantity of the Scottish work in the Festival. I had expected a rich feast of work from across Europe, from countries like Denmark and Belgium that are legendary for their great children’s theatre. But when I saw the quality of work being produced here by companies like Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions, I not only wanted to bring it to Australia, I was also excited by the idea that the presence of Imaginate in Scotland had helped encourage this terrific development of children’s theatre here. So when I saw the Imaginate job advertised last year, I thought – well, this is one of the world’s most exciting children’s theatre festivals, and I’ve got to go for it.”

Jordan is keen to emphasise, though, that given the long-term planning that’s essential in the international festival business, this year’s programme is still mainly Tony Reekie’s work. “There’s just one show in there that I discovered myself,” says Jordan, “and that’s this beautiful show Down To Earth, by the Leicester-based company Bamboozle, which is specially designed for children with learning difficulties, and which we’ll be 
taking into schools during the festival.”

For the rest, this year’s 14-show festival offers the usual rich mix of Scottish and international work, ranging from the spectacular Australian show Fluff – about the Gingham family, who travel the world rescuing lost toys – to Kopergietery of Belgium’s installation show Broken Dreams, and a brand new Scottish-made dance piece Go Get ‘Em Kid, commissioned by Imaginate from Tamsyn Russell Dance.

“I’m delighted that there’s so much dance and visual theatre in this year’s programme,” says Jordan. “But I’m also conscious that one of the things that first drew me to Scottish children’s theatre was the quality of the writing, in shows like Nicola McCartney’s Lifeboat and David Greig’s Yellow Moon, and there’s plenty of room for that this year too – for example in Andy Cannon’s Tales Of A Grandson. There are some changes I’d like to see – I’d like to grow the audience, explore the potential for using larger venues, programme more work from Asia. But the most important thing is to maintain the terrific standard of quality that this festival has always set.”

And Fitzpatrick agrees. “This is a festival that’s won a huge international reputation,” he says. “Yet like many good things in Scottish theatre, it’s often more widely recognised outside Scotland than at home, in its own city. So we’ll be working hard, over the coming years, to increase the visibility of the festival in Edinburgh, staging events like our Family Fringe at the National Museum of Scotland, and taking the festival to parts of the city it hasn’t reached before.

“The truth is that I just love Imaginate, and I want everyone in Edinburgh to love it as much as I do. So there’s plenty of work to do here; and whatever happens to our future funding, I’m enough of an optimist to think that we’ll keep finding ways of making more brilliant children’s theatre happen, and finding new audiences for it.”

• The Imaginate Festival 2016 runs in venues across Edinburgh from 28 May until 5 June,