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Beating the drums for all the arts

Very quickly the North Edinburgh Arts Centre has grown from a local hive of activity to a focus for everyone in the city. Karen Shead talks to its director

As you walk along the bright yellow-floored corridors in the North Edinburgh Arts Centre there is a feeling of space and quietness. Yet, behind the closed doors, there is a buzz of excitement and hive of activity.

There is always something happening. Theatre productions, cinema screenings, after-school arts clubs and drama workshops are just a few of the activities. The facilities include a recording suite, studio theatre, workshop studios, art gallery, creche and a garden.

The purpose-built centre opened in November 2002 with core revenue funding from Edinburgh City Council. Since then, under the direction of Jacqueline McKay and her team of 10 staff, it has become not only north Edinburgh's but the whole capital's leading venue for children, young people and families. Last year, during the autumn alone, more than 1,500 pupils from 37 schools and nurseries attended workshops and performances.

"We try to have activities during the week, after-school drama and dance sessions on school half days and we also have family Saturdays," says Mrs McKay, whose past posts have included principal arts education officer at Aberdeen City Council, head of education for Scottish Ballet, and drama and dance outreach worker for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

"There aren't many arts activities parents can do with their children on a weekend. We aim to give them a choice of workshops, performances and family films."

There is an after-school club for nine- to 13-year-olds which offers art, drama and storytelling. Teachers are asked to recommend students who they think will benefit from joining.

There is even a playful introduction to art history for younger children, called First Impressions. "It's about educating children about the arts," says Mrs McKay. "We've had three-year-olds talking about what they liked about Van Gogh's paintings. It was great."

The most recent project to be launched for the under-fives, called Big Art, Wee Hands, focuses on children as artists in their own right. It includes weekly workshops ranging from group painting and montage sessions to working with clay and visits to galleries. The sessions are led by professional artists.

There are plans to open the project to older children after Easter.

The centre's broad participation programme includes a community garden project called Avant Gardeners and public arts workshops. One is set to transform the nearby Drylaw shopping centre.

"The project involves artists working in schools as well as at the centre," explains Mrs McKay. "Schools and community groups will collaborate with 10 professional artists. One will be an undergraduate, so an up-and-coming artist will benefit from this project and community interaction.

"The participants will gain practical experience in specific art forms and develop design ideas that will be produced and sited in the shopping centre."

The work will first be displayed at the North Edinburgh Arts Centre during the summer and people will have the chance to comment before it is installed at the shopping centre early next year.

"Accessing arts and culture and working with professionals should be an everyday part of children's education," says Mrs McKay.

"We want to encourage young people to access the arts as audiences but also as artists, to promote their creativity and social development. This is especially important in an area like Muirhouse where people don't normally have easy access to the arts."

The centre also offers a varied theatre programme.

"We are lucky as we are on the touring circuit now and this has helped us to establish our theatre programming identity," says Mrs McKay. "We focus very much on schools and nurseries because we believe that arts education should not be a one-off theatre trip for Christmas."

The first shows for the spring sold out as soon as the programme came out in early January.

The centre holds three teachers' forums a year to introduce the theatre programmes and highlight curricular links. The last one, in January, attracted more than 20 teachers.

Mareike Holfeld, the audience development manager, says: "So far we've had three forums. The last one was especially well attended, probably because many teachers and nursery nurses have been here to attend events. Last time we also offered taster workshops for the teachers to attend after we talked them through the programme."

"The numbers have been creeping up," says Mrs McKay. "We are forming relationships with schools and the links are key."

Staff are enthusiastic about the future of the centre. Plans in the pipeline include a programme with leading songwriters to help form young bands, a media project to create short films and work with children with special needs.

"We aim to provide content that is challenging and stimulating," says Mrs McKay, "as it's really important that children get the access to these kinds of activities."

NEAC, tel 0131 315 2151.

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