JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHILDREN’S THEATRE IN SCOTLAND: A DECADE OF SUCCESS, AND A NEW TURNING-POINT for the Scotsman Magazine 11.4.15.
IT’S EASTER WEEK; and as the nation’s children revel in their spring school break, theatres everywhere fill their schedules with children’s shows, designed to amuse the holiday audience. 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 whole week-long festival of children’s daytime theatre, most of it made in Scotland; shows this weekend Shows 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, this spring, young audiences elsewhere 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.
In the last 20 years, in other words – under the influence of Imaginate, Scotland’s ground-breaking international festival of chlldren’s theatre staged in Edinburgh each May – Scottish-made children’s theatre has left behind its former Cinderella status, and become a major player on the world stage, famous for 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 3 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 retelling of the Second World War adventure of two young girls who survived in mid-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 separate role of Imaginate Festival director. The idea, says Paul 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. 15 years ago there were five permanently-funded children’s theatre companies in Scotland, whereas now there are only two, Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions; the children’s sector has had its share of mysterious failures to give regular funding to very impressive companies – Wee Stories, for example, or the wonderful Starcatchers company for younger children.
“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 to 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 keep making the case for that, every day.”
Dundee Rep’s Children’s Theatre Festival continues until tomorrow, 12 April. Imaginate 2015 runs from 11-17 May, in venues across Edinburgh.