With the International Children's Festival heading indoors this summer, performances could become more spectacular as young audiences are treated like adults. Julie Morrice reports
The box office for the Scottish International Children's Festival opened for school parties on January 28, at 10am. Interest was high and by lunchtime nearly a fifth of the school tickets had been sold. Now in its ninth year, the festival has established itself as a summer-term highlight for many Scottish primary schools. But this year, the regulars will find a transformation: the Children's Festival has come in from the cold.
Gone are the tents and the park, and in their place is a takeover of some of Edinburgh's most prestigious performance venues. The programme of home-grown and international theatre, workshops and, for the first time, film, will be played out in the Traverse, the Royal Lyceum, Theatre Workshop, the Filmhouse, the Garage Theatre and Wasps Studio. The change may come as a shock to audiences, but for festival director Tony Reekie, it is part of a process of focussing on what the festival is really about. "We are about the performing arts. What really matters is the particular experience of a child: the one show or workshop that really involves and affects them. The park and the gala-day atmosphere were extras."
There is no doubt that last year's festival weather wash-out encouraged the move to an indoor setting. When your under-fives play area is submerged for three days, and getting around the site is a duck-board-and-welly experience, the thought of bricks and mortar becomes very attractive. "The bottom line, " says Reekie, "is that if the audiences had been adults, they wouldn't have put up with it. It's simply that children just get on with the situation in hand." But for Reekie, it was Peter Pan that clinched it. The festival had commissioned a new piece of work from TAG Theatre Company. "We told them, 'It's a great idea. Go away and develop it. There will be no artistic interference from us.' Then we had to call them back and say, 'Sorry, it'll have to be Peter Pan with no flying'."
The sad truth is that a tented village is never going to be an ideal performing space. Over the years, the festival tents have been getting smaller and smaller in an attempt to create the intimate atmosphere many of the performances required. But with the least bit of wind rattling and flapping your venue, and the shouts from outside impingeing on the dialogue, there is no getting away from the basic mismatch.
Now Reekie looks forward particularly to two shows in Traverse Theatre 2: a wordless German piece, in which two old people hang out their washing and gradually build a fantasy laundry world; and a Danish company's adaptation from Hans Christian Andersen, in which the audience sit on the enormous velvet skirt of the show's harpist. Neither of them would have been possible in Inverleith Park. In its new incarnation, says Reekie, the festival is most like the Edinburgh International Festival. "The message is, we are going to treat you as we would an adult audience." Yes, he agrees, there is a need for someone to provide the outdoor fun and games that were part of the Inverleith Park set-up; yes, there is certainly room for theatre work which meshes in neatly with the 5-14 curriculum, but the Children's Festival cannot be expected to take all these things on board. As the most prominent of the scarce organisations involved in artistic work for children in Scotland, the festival has been expected to be all things to all children. But, in this, Reekie's second full festival as director, there is a strong feeling of getting serious about "presenting, promoting and enabling" quality work for children in Scotland, and getting it taken seriously by the powers that be. At present, Reekie points out, you need artists who can leave their ego behind. "You will never do more radical or challenging work than for children, but you won't get the adulation and feedback from the establishment that so many performers need." In fact, you'll be lucky to get a newspaper review.
Getting serious about artistic quality does not mean forgetting who your audience are, however. Reekie, whose own first child is expected just a few weeks before this year's festival, is well aware of the particular needs of young audiences. There will be a strong emphasis on making the venues as child-friendly and cosy as possible, with the provision of comfortable seats, books and drawing materials in the foyers, and packed-lunch eating areas. Traffic wardens will be on duty to help school parties across Lothian Road, and there is a 100 per cent travel subsidy for school groups. Most significantly, schools performances have been split from public shows. The "contained blitzkrieg" of large school parties just doesn't mix with the happy family group, says Reekie.
So schools will have the run of the festival from Tuesday to Thursday, leaving a long weekend for mum, dad and the weans. As for the future, Reekie hopes that the festival will start programming shows at other times of the year and be able to tour them around Scotland. Last year, 95 of the 153 schools that visited the festival came from Edinburgh and the Lothians.
He would also like to work on events for older children and teenagers, and on long-term projects with schools which would then feed into the festival itself. The possibilities seem endless, whatever the weather.
The Scottish International Children's Festival runs from May 19-24. Schools programme now available, phone 0131 553 7700. Public programme available from April