With the Children's International Theatre Festival starting this week in Edinburgh, Brian Hayward gets the director's insight into what is best in show
Teachers and parents who like taking children to the annual Edinburgh theatre festivals can have two bites of the cherry.
In August (7-29), they can chance the lucky dip of the Fringe with its bran tub of disasters and delights; but first they can be among the 10,000 who choose from 76 performances by 14 companies from around the world which are hand-picked for their quality to be part of the Bank of Scotland Children's International Theatre Festival.
The rather grand title belies the often intimate, original performances that the festival director, Tony Reekie, seeks out for the programme, which opens on Tuesday and runs until May 30.
One of the little miracles of theatre is the way this kind of performance excites a different imaginative response in every spectator, each child assimilating and reacting in ways that often surprise their parent or teacher.
Is it a retrograde step, then, for the festival programme to contain, for the first time, advice on how to link the performances with the curriculum, as though going to quality theatre now needs to be justified on educational grounds?
"I'm aware of the incredible workload that teachers have and how they are pushed more and more to justify every kind of arts work do with children.
"Teachers are under great pressure, and the festival can help them by offering this kind of advice," is Mr Reekie's answer.
"Talking with my son's teacher at a PTA meeting made me realise how much less space teachers have nowadays for creative teaching, and how, when pressure builds up, it is the arts that are most likely to suffer.
"Though any theatre worth the name is educational in some sense, at the same time it is vital that theatre work should stand alone, apart, and that children have access to theatre on its own terms".
Asked for the director's choice of performances from this year's festival, he tends to answer "All of them", but he confesses to a special pride in at least three shows in particular.
An important first for the festival is the appearance of a Russian company.
In the days of the Cold War, the status and funding of children's theatre companies in the Soviet Union were the envy of Western artists. Now, in a changed world, the old-established Ekaterinburg Theatre Company brings a cast of seven (a veritable crowd in children's theatre terms) to perform a traditional version of Kashtanka, a story by Chekhov.
Chekhovian theatre for the 9-to 14-year-olds may seem ambitious, but the tale of the dog that goes off to join the circus promises to drive every dog lover to tears, and will be a tiny lesson in growing up.
In contrasting novelty, Hoops, Hats and Acrobats is the first dance programme to be commissioned for the festival. Mr Reekie says dance is "very, very popular" with children, but good dance programmes are extremely difficult to find. The answer has been to commission the vivacious Ruby Worth to devise a fun programme for 5-to 9-year-olds.
It is very much a development of the work she has been doing in schools for Moray Council in the past five years. Working with mixed middle primary groups in Findhorn and the fishing villages, she has been exploring child's play as a natural path into expressive movement, never losing sight of the fun element.
New on the scene too is Cat in a Cup, a company of graduates from Queen Margaret College. They clearly excite Mr Reekie, who had no small hand in fostering their work. Jo Timmins, their artistic director, was "bowled over" by her first contact with children's theatre and further enthused by a trip with other Scottish practitioners to a children's theatre festival in the Netherlands. She set up the company and, after a slot in the WYSIWYG showcase last autumn, secured a six-week tour and National Lottery funding.
Mr Reekie eulogises their fresh agenda and unique way of telling a story, and reckons that they are the most important development in the past 10 years of Scottish children's theatre.
The arrival of a new company like this must be gratifying to Mr Reekie, who has always been aware of the inspirational role of the festival and his Imaginate company that drives it.
Alongside the children, teachers and parents who will come to the festival will be 120 delegates - directors, impresarios, Broadway producers, administrators -from Britain, the Continent and as far afield as Singapore and New Zealand. All the Scottish children's theatre companies will be there, if they are not on the road. The absentees always are the adult theatre people who, says Mr Reekie, "would learn a helluvva lot about their craft if they came". It used to depress him, until he was told that they don't go to watch each other either.
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