Joyce McMillan: Children’s theatre conquering world

IT’S Easter Week and theatres everywhere have filled schedules with shows designed to amuse the holiday audience.

Childrens Theatre. Picture: Contributed
'White' Childrens Theatre. Picture: Contributed

There are Octonauts on stage in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and a retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories at the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow; and at Dundee Rep, there’s a week-long festival of daytime theatre, most of it made in Scotland; shows this weekend ­include Dundee Youth Theatre’s own puppet version of The Little Prince, and The Pine Tree, The Poggle And Me, co-produced by the MacRobert and Barrowland Ballet.

And across the world, audiences are also enjoying children’s theatre made in Scotland. Catherine Wheels’ acclaimed show for tiny tots, White, is visiting Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland, the same company’s Lifeboat, by Nicola ­McCartney, is currently in ­Chicago on a long US tour, and Jason And The Argonauts, created by the Glasgow-based Visible Fictions, has just finished a run in Pennsylvania.

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In the last 20 years, in other words – under the influence of Imaginate, Scotland’s groundbreaking international festival of children’s theatre staged in Edinburgh each May – Scottish-made children’s theatre has left behind its Cinderella status, and become a major player on the world stage, combining formal boldness with a strong grasp of narrative, and real popular appeal. White, for example, is one of the most successful shows ever created for audiences aged three and under; a gorgeous moving sculpture of a story about difference and diversity, acclaimed by Sarah Jessica Parker when it visited New York as “the best 40 minutes of my life”. And Lifeboat is a brilliant, poignant telling of the Second World War adventure of two girls who survived in the Atlantic, after their evacuee ship was torpedoed en route for America.

Despite this impressive recent success story, though, there’s no sense of complacency around Scottish children’s theatre, as it moves into new times. Imaginate, in particular, is changing its structure, as former Catherine Wheels producer Paul Fitzpatrick takes over as the organisation’s Chief Executive, and applications flow in for the new role of festival director. The idea, says Fitzpatrick, is to maintain the festival’s brilliant reputation as a key international showcase of children’s theatre, built up over 20 years by previous director Tony Reekie, while enabling Imaginate to step up its contribution to Scotland’s year-round theatre life.

“The truth is,” says Fitzpatrick, “that despite the huge international recognition Scottish-based children’s companies have won in recent years, there’s often relatively little awareness of their work in Scotland. And the production base for these shows is shrinking, rather than growing. Fifteen years ago there were five permanently funded children’s theatre companies in Scotland, whereas now there are only two, Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions.”

He adds: “So what we hope to do is to work with others – including the National Theatre of Scotland, which has emerged as a great co-producer of work for children – to provide stronger year-round support for children’s theatre ­artists who aren’t part of a regularly funded company, and to keep on building the Scottish audience for their work. Essentially, it’s great to have a Scottish government that strongly supports the importance of the arts in children’s lives. But often, the emphasis is very much on participation, and on children making their own work. Whereas what we’re about is helping world-class theatre artists make work for children that will really set their imaginations ablaze; and making sure that the world’s greatest children’s theatre is seen here in Scotland. And we still have to make the case for that, every day.”

Dundee Rep’s Children’s Theatre Festival continues until tomorrow. Imaginate 2015 runs from 11-17 May, in venues across Edinburgh.