A man for all stages

13th April 2001 at 01:00
Scotland's annual International Children's Theatre Festival, starting at the end of May, has moved on from the big top to big name sponsorship. Brian Hayward talks to the visionary behind it

Ten years ago the Scottish International Children's Theatre Festival was a collection of tents in Inverleith Park, Edinburgh, in August. Then came the George Street base with a brass plate on the front.

Now it boasts a consultancy name and titled sponsorship from the Bank of Scotland. It is a gratifying reward for director Tony Reekie's enthusiasm and commitment to children's theatre, and for his drive to make the summer festival the engine for a year-round programme.

Mr Reekie's ambition and increasing expertise have made the festival one of the first organisations to benefit from the Scottish Arts Council's National Lottery-funded "advancement" programme, specially designed to help turn one off event committees into permanent organisations. The new organisation needed a name, and the consultants, unable to think of words that described SICTF's work, came up with Imaginate.

Better still, funders began throwing money at the team. The Scottish Arts Council raised its stake by almost half to nearly pound;100,000. The City of Edinburgh awards pound;60,000, because it is a festival city and because it recognises that SICTF draws children from all over Scotland to the capital, this year from as far as South Uist and the Skerries.

The Bank of Scotland has always supported the festival - otherwise it would never have survived - but now its promotional services are lending a hand.

The visible differences are that the festival is now genuinely international, whereas in former years overseas presence has been hardly more than token, and for the first time it is to tour a production around Scotland.

There is a paradox here: in previous years festival shows have gone on to tour Scotland independently, which undoubtedly has been a good thing, but that of course raised a question mark against the festival's very raison d'etre. Mr Reekie can now afford to buy in bigger, "main stage" shows which are unsuitable for small-stage touring.

A third innovation, and one at the heart of the advancement of children's theatre in Scotland, is "the delegate package". This has two parts. In the first, Imaginate will use Lottery funds to take 12 Scottish theatre practitioners to a week-long children's festival in Denmark, where they will see a select few of the 450 performances on offer and talk with Danish workers. In the second phase, four of these Danish productions will come to Edinburgh to be part of the "delegate package" of shows and discussions for 60 atists, arts officers and programmers, mostly from Scotland but a few from overseas.

Mr Reekie recognises the importance of people talking to one another. "One of the really nice things is that the author of the new Visible Fictions piece said it grew out of something he heard said at last year's festival," he says, illustrating his point.

In what must be one of the more pleasurable aspects of his work, Mr Reekie tours the world show-spotting. Like an American film tycoon, he thinks messages are for Western Union and so avoids productions that teach, preach or moralise. He looks for emotional engagement with children and theatre that gives them experiences they could come by in no other way.

Mr Reekie claims that children's responses to his choice of productions are "never really a problem, though the adults' sometimes can be". He says: "They come with such presuppositions about what children's theatre should be, about what is appropriate."

That is part of the problem of the internal dynamics of children's theatre, he says, and gestures at the debate sparked off by the Swedish children's theatre worker Suzanne Osten, who asks why adults undervalue children, why they persuade them to leave childhood behind and how this affects the nature of the contract between a children's theatre and its audience. He says he increasingly finds children's theatre incredibly complex and has come to think of it as the most political kind of theatre there is.

Theatre-in-education is a dangerous cousin, predicating as it does that theatre for children has to be functional, useful, working towards an intentional mind-set. Opposedly, Mr Reekie seeks out plays that operate at many levels and can resonate with every age of spectator: he cites the occasion when, at the end of The Red Balloon, a delighted child in the audience turned to her father and saw him in tears.

He understands that spectators need time to assimilate the experience, and that is why he never wants to follow a production with a workshop or discussion; these must warp individual understanding to the perspective of the workshop leader.

Edinburgh teachers already have almost booked out the festival at the end of May. Afterwards, Theater Triebwork from Germany will take its production of oby Dick on tour from Kilmarnock to Invergordon. "A great story told in a great way. Fabulous music, brilliant performers. I couldn't ask for anything else," Mr Reekie says in the programme, and you know he believes it.

Bank of Scotland Children's International Theatre Festival, May 28-June 3. For a programme contact Imaginate, tel 0131 225 8050, or see www.imaginate.org.uk

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