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25 years young

First, a declaration.

After 20 years as a professional theatre critic in Scotland, I can say honestly that, in my opinion, the country's finest theatre festival is Imaginate, the annual programme of theatre for children and young people which is hosted in Edinburgh each May and celebrates its 25th edition this year.

The prestigious drama programme of the Edinburgh International Festival is wonderful, of course, and many a great production is to be found on the Edinburgh Fringe. However, for sheer consistency of quality, there is nothing that quite matches director Tony Reekie's festival.

When I meet Reekie in Edinburgh for this interview, I find him in typically enthusiastic and forthright form. The festival's silver anniversary is, clearly, a moment for celebration, but it's also a time to reflect on how far this much-loved event has come.

The festival began its life under then producer Duncan Low (for whom Reekie then worked as an assistant) in 1990, as The Scottish International Children's Festival.

A multi-arts festival, rather than the theatre and dance programme we know today, it was comprised of all manner of shows - from juggling and clown acts, to musical shows and some theatre - performed in and around tents erected in Edinburgh's Inverleith Park. As a family fun event, it was a rip-roaring success. However, despite Low's desire to stage quality theatre for children, there was a problem.

"Duncan had a good eye for some really interesting work," says Reekie, "but the international shows he brought over just died a death. They were never designed to be performed in a tent. They needed the right space. They needed intimacy, quiet, blackout. They needed all the things you get in a theatre, but you don't get in a tent."

Reekie took over as the festival's director in 1995. By the time of his second programme, in 1997, he had successfully moved the event out of Inverleith's tents and into Edinburgh's theatres. This was, he says, "probably the most important thing that we did".

The director was inspired by the success, in Scotland and abroad, of Glasgow-based children's theatre company Visible Fictions' first show Bill's New Frock back in 1991. The idea that Scottish children's theatre was going out into the world and benefitting from that experience led him to reconfigure the festival as a year-round company.

In 2000, Imaginate was born. The company would not only programme the annual festival, but also promote connections between Scottish children's theatre practitioners and international artists, assist in the development of children's theatre in Scotland, and operate as an advocate for professional children's work across the country.

An early success for the new company was a trip to the world's biggest children's theatre festival, in Denmark. In 2000, Imaginate took 12 artists and, crucially, an arts officer from the Scottish Arts Council (since incorporated into Creative Scotland) on a visit which, Reekie remembers, had a profound effect on a number of the artists; not least Shona Reppe, whose next show, the highly acclaimed Cinderella, saw her "step up two or three gears in her theatre making".

Proud though he is of the many accolades which have come the way of his festival and of the role Imaginate has played in helping to develop artists and their work, Reekie is deeply concerned at the ongoing lack of support, at a political level, for Scotland's children's theatre sector. Scotland has, he points out, only two permanently funded professional children's theatre companies; namely Visible Fictions and Catherine Wheels. This leaves us miles behind other European countries, such as Denmark and The Netherlands. "The Dutch have had 90% cuts recently," the director observes, "yet they still produce way more [professional children's theatre] than we do."

The lack of decently funded children's companies and productions in Scotland leaves a vacuum in our schools which worries Reekie deeply. "Some of the most successful theatre companies in Scotland today are those amateur companies that go into schools," he says. "They absolutely clean up with some of the worst theatre you could ever see."

Reekie is a passionate believer in the Norwegian model, which sets out that "professional arts be available for every child, every year".

It's little surprise, therefore, that in a 2014 programme which includes work from eight countries, the director is particularly excited by a show from Norway. If Only Rosa Could Do Magic, by highly acclaimed actress and theatre maker Katja Brita Lindeberg, is a clown show with a difference.

Its protagonist, Rosa, is a lonely princess, a hapless clown for whom nothing goes quite right.

"I didn't think I could handle a show about a clown princess," Reekie admits. "However, 10 minutes into the performance, I was saying to myself, 'Ah, that's what clowning should be about!' She won me when she decided to try to play badminton by herself."

From tents in Inverleith Park to sold-out performances of top international work in Edinburgh's professional theatre venues, the Imaginate Festival has come a long way in its first quarter-century. Here's to another 25 years of feeding the childhood imagination.

The Imaginate Festival runs at various Edinburgh venues from May 5-12. Some productions tour elsewhere in Scotland. For further information, visit imaginate.org.uk

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