It was once the Scottish International Children’s Festival, first staged under canvas in Inverleith Park back in 1990; then a decade later, during Tony Reekie’s inspired 20-year directorship, it became Imaginate, the flourishing international festival recognised as a world leader in the field. And this year, as new director Noel Jordan announces his first full festival programme, Edinburgh’s early summer celebration of children’s theatre and dance is reborn again – this time as the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, part of what has gradually become a larger Imaginate organisation, with a year-round role in promoting and producing children’s theatre in Scotland.
“The idea is to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festivals by bringing our name in line with the city’s whole family of events – the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Science Festival, and so on,” says Jordan, who arrived from Australia to take up the job 18 months ago. “But Imaginate is still very much there, with Paul Fitzpatrick in charge, staging the festival as its main event, and working to develop children’s theatre all over Scotland.”
The 2017 children’s festival opens on 27 May; and in a year when the Edinburgh International Festival is celebrating with a strong focus on opera, and less international drama than usual, the EICF is offering a strikingly rich and varied programme of international theatre and dance, featuring major companies from Scotland, England, Wales, Denmark, Australia, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and France.
The shows range from almost pure dance and movement – the French show Bounce, or the world premiere of MamaBabaMe, a show for toddlers by Scottish companies Starcatchers and Curious Seed that seeks to capture in movement and music the unique bond between babies and their mothers – to complex theatre pieces about love, loss, or loneliness, like the great Kopergietery of Belgium’s The Queen Has Vanished, or a new collaboration between Scottish children’s theatre artist Andy Manley and the Danish company Refleksion, set in the mind of a child who wonders who looks after the night. This year’s EICF even includes a film, based on Windmill Theatre of Australia’s smash-hit theatre show Girl Asleep, about a girl about to turn 15, who is frightened of leaving her childhood behind.
And if the 2017 EICF seems exceptionally rich and varied, then that’s partly because of the work of a group of ten young judges from Craigmillar, aged 11-15, who during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe went to see eight shows for children and young people that were possible contenders, and then chose two that they felt should appear during EICF, at their own local venue, the Lyra Theatre in Craigmillar. They chose the Folketeatret of Denmark’s Evil, a monologue about school bullying set among middle class boys in 1950s Sweden; and from Wales, a post-apocalyptic tale called Into The Water, about two young people – played by renowned folk-dance duo Up & Over It – who are washed up together in a magical wasteland, and find their way forward through brilliant routines of toe-tapping, games and Irish dance.
“The group were really amazing,” says Jordan, “and the younger ones, in particular, were just full of opinions and ideas about every show we saw. We’d come out, and sit down on the grass, and just get into the discussion. And I suppose I learned two things, among many others – that when a situation speaks to their own experience, young people around this age don’t care where or when it’s set, and can recognise the emotional reality across any number of boundaries; and that they just love displays of mind-blowing performing skill, like the one Up & Over It provide in Into The Water.”
Even if this year’s 16 shows range widely in subject and style, though, there are images that sometimes seem to recur, across the work brought together in an international festival; and this year it’s striking that there are at least three shows which revolve around images of a more watery world, with rising sea levels. Into The Water is explicitly post-apocalyptic, envisaging the aftermath of a second Flood; You And Me And The Space Between, from Terrapin Puppet Theatre of Australia, is a monologue set on an island that is sinking into the waves, turning its people into refugees. And Primo, which will appear at Assembly Roxy, is a show for two to five year-olds – made by Alfredo Zinola and Felipe Gonzalez from Germany – in which the two performers are immersed in a tank of water, creating strange underwater games and movement theatre for an audience who watch them through a series of portholes.
“There’s so much rich and wonderful children’s theatre being created on this side of the world that it’s hard to generalise,” says Jordan. “But I do see a growing, tremendously powerful, use of technology to create wonderful visual effects, and help us imagine different worlds, both physical and psychological. This year, for instance, shows like You And Me And The Space Between, The Queen Has Vanished, and the Netherlands show Falling Dreams are all exceptional in that way.
“And apart from that – well it’s just been a privilege to take over the job of programming this festival at such a positive moment, and to continue creating the balance between Scottish-made and international work – and between theatre and dance – that’s become one of its hallmarks. We hope we’re creating a wonderful festival for audiences in Edinburgh and from all over Scotland; and we’re also running a delegate programme - with workshops, masterclasses, question and answer sessions – that has become one of the key events in the whole world of international children’s theatre. So yes, it’s a good moment; and for me, so far, it’s been an absolute joy to be involved.”
The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival is at venues across Edinburgh, from 27 May until 4 June.