Theatre preview: The Edinburgh International Children's Festival

It's been a traumatic time for children's theatre in Scotland, since the beginning of 2018. Back in January, when Creative Scotland announced its controversial funding decisions for the next three years, it emerged that two of Scotland's finest and most internationally acclaimed children's theatre companies, Catherine Wheels of Musselburgh and Visible Fictions of Glasgow, had lost their long-term regular funding, and were being switched to a new touring fund that had yet to be set up.

Things To Wear by Theaterhaus Ensemble, part of this year's Edinburgh International Children's Festival PIC: Katrin Schander /
Things To Wear by Theaterhaus Ensemble, part of this year's Edinburgh International Children's Festival PIC: Katrin Schander /

A wave of protest and discussion followed, during which it was suggested that Scotland’s theatre-makers for children – who rapidly emerged onto the world stage after the old Scottish Arts Council began to ring-fence money for this area of work – were no longer seen as a distinctive sector essential to a thriving theatre landscape, but must sink or swim alongside other touring companies. Then, after a few weeks, the decisions on Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions were abruptly reversed, and their three-year funding restored; leaving behind a trail of confusion, anxiety and exhaustion, around two tiny organisations which had had to mobilise instant national campaigns to protect their very existence.

And to Noel Jordan – the Australian director of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, which opens its 29th annual programme at the National Museum of Scotland today – the whole spectacle has been a fascinating one. Jordan arrived in Edinburgh from Sydney two and a half years ago, and this three-year funding review – from which the children’s festival itself, and its year-round parent organisation Imaginate, emerged unscathed – was the first he had experienced. “In Australia, we have a complex system of peer review, with decisions made by panels that include a high proportion of artists – and when they’ve made up their minds, that’s that. So it’s been fascinating to me to watch the impact of public and industry pressure on Creative Scotland’s decisions, and to see them being reversed.

“For us, though, the main concern is that all our work depends on the strength of a thriving children’s theatre scene in Scotland – we know that it’s the chance to see and possibly programme work made in Scotland, or made by Scottish-based artists working internationally, that attracts a high proportion of our international delegates to the festival.

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    “So Imaginate’s year-round activity is all about supporting the children’s theatre scene here in every way we can, whether it’s through festival-related workshops like our Push programme, funded by Creative Europe, which brings Scottish-based and international artists together around specific themes, or through projects like Theatre In Schools Scotland, where we’re working with the National Theatre of Scotland and our top companies to bring live theatre to every primary school in the country, within the next few years.”

    When it comes to programming, though, Jordan is generally working a year or 18 months ahead, and he feels that the Scottish work being showcased in this year’s festival is as strong and varied as ever. There are 15 shows in this year’s festival, of which three were made by Scottish-based artists, alone or in collaboration; and Jordan is thrilled that one of these shows – a new version of the Baba Yaga fairytale made by Shona Reppe, Christine Johnston and Rosemary Myers – was born out of a creative friendship forged during the 2016 festival, when Edinburgh-based children’s theatre artist Shona Reppe fell in love with Johnston’s remarkable show Fluff: A Story Of Lost Toys, created at her base in Brisbane.

    The other Scottish shows this year are Andy Manley’s Stick By Me – a companion piece to his Scottish-Danish show Night Light, one of last year’s festival hits – and the Catherine Wheels-National Theatre of Scotland co-production Eddie And The Slumber Sisters, in which a magical group of Andrews Sisters-style singers try to help young Eddie accept the death of her much-loved grandma. And these are surrounded by a rich range of shows from Ireland, Norway, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, with Jordan particularly thrilled that South Africa is represented in the festival for the first time in 29 years.

    “The show is called Mbuzeni,” he explains, “and it’s aimed at teenagers and adults. It’s about these four young girls who are fascinated by the cemetery that lies between their village and the orphanage where they live – and about how they chat and sing and laugh their way to an understanding that death is part of life. I’m also delighted to have two shows from Quebec, including Gretel And Hansel by the fine Quebec Theatre maker Suzanne Lebeau – it focuses on sibling rivalry in the story, rather than on the wicked witch.

    “There’s a spooky show from New Zealand called The Road That Wasn’t There, chosen from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe by our Wee Night Out group of school students from Craigmillar for their local theatre, Lyra. And as ever, there’s a great range of shows for very young children and babies, including the lovely Norwegian show Toddler Room, for kids aged nought to three.

    “That’s at the National Museum of Scotland throughout this opening weekend, along with pop-up glimpses of other festival shows; and it really is our hope that our weekend at the museum attracts people who might otherwise never have thought of coming to the festival. Despite all the success EICF has had since 1990, it’s still surprising how many people in Edinburgh just don’t know about

    it. So we know that EICF is held in great esteem all over the world; but we also want this festival, and theatre in general, to be part of every child’s life in Edinburgh, and across Scotland – and though we have many ambitions for the future, that’s probably the most important one, in the end.

    The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival is at the National Museum of Scotland this weekend, and at venues across the city until 3 June,