WHAT'S in a name? At Imaginate, the Edinburgh-based organisation behind one of the world’s leading festivals of performing arts for children and young people, that question gathered momentum as this year’s event drew ever closer. What spurred Imaginate’s director Noel Jordan and the company’s chief executive Paul Fitzpatrick into re-branding their flagship festival was the year itself: 2017 is the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe – and they’re not the only showcases in town.

“This is festival-heavy city,” laughs Jordan. “The Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival and others besides, all happen in that late spring and early summer time – and somehow, even after more than 20 years, the name Imaginate just didn’t align itself with those other festivals. So we decided to call our festival exactly what it is: the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival (EICF), and we’ve already got that out there, in the public eye, on buses and with posters. It’s important to us that we build the same profile, locally, as we already have established elsewhere in the world. So even though we’ve got lots of visiting delegates booked in for our shows, and schools have been signing up too, we want families to be aware of what we offer and to know that they can buy tickets for a whole range of theatre and dance performances that are created especially for younger audiences. We’ve even added film to the mix this year.”

Pop into the National Museum of Scotland during the opening weekend of EICF – that’s Saturday 27 and Sunday May 28 – and you’ll discover that Jordan and his savvy team have rolled out a fun-for-all welcome mat with two days of free (drop in) activities. “We’ve got Human Snakes and Ladders, Greg Sinclair has his own beautiful space where he’ll compose and play a piece of music just for one person at a time, there will be story-telling sessions and various hands-on activities. We were amazed, actually, by how many applications we had from artists who wanted to be involved here,” says Jordan. “It means that families coming to the Museum can get a sense of what EICF is all about, discover what’s on during our festival week, and, hopefully, want to see some of our ticketed shows. We have some real gems on our programme, exceptional work that reaches out to audiences, involves them, engages their imagination but often their innermost emotions, as well. It’s an experience that we just want children, teenagers, adults to share in – it’s why I came here, from Australia, to be part of Imaginate and this Edinburgh International Children’s Festival.”

Loading article content

What’s in store at EICF for tots, tweenagers and young adults is essentially down to Jordan.When he came into post, in the autumn of 2015, the next year’s line-up was already – of necessity – done and dusted by his predecessor, Tony Reekie. “It’s how every festival works,” he says. “People plan their touring schedules well in advance, so you often have to go with their availability – which may not be in the year you’re busy planning.” There’s a hint of the rueful in his chuckle here. When Jordan sees work that lodges in his head and heart, that instinct to share it with other people kicks in – if no amount of horse-trading still ends in a non-starter, his disappointment on our behalf is palpable.

“You know, the shadow of Brexit is already hanging over us, and Edinburgh’s other festivals as well. For us, it’s not just about bringing in European work in the future, it’s also about the partnerships and collaborations that Imaginate has built up over the years. Not everything will disappear, of course – there are too many good people out there who care about performing arts for children. But we won’t automatically have the easy exchanges between organisations in Belgium, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries that have really helped our own artists to develop their own ideas and skills. But we’ll find ways. . .”

How important these crossovers and co-productions are to Imaginate and EICF is actually reflected in his 2017 programme. Would Andy Manley’s Night Light have come into being without the input from Denmark’s Teater Refleksion? Actually, Manley reckons the connections go back much further than this current show, as he explains. “Eleven years ago, Imaginate sent me over to Denmark to look at a children’s theatre festival there. Seeing the work and meeting the people who were creating it had a real influence on my own ideas. I suppose, in a way, it gave me the confidence to develop my own kind of story-telling, especially for very young audiences.”

It was to become a genuine meeting of minds. Manley had seen – as had Imaginate audiences – the Aarhus-based company in action with beautifully crafted shows like Goodbye Mr Muffin and Songs from Above. The Teater Refleksion team, meanwhile, had seen Manley’s globally successful White, and in its use of design, colour and non-verbal story-telling, they had recognised a kindred spirit. “We had both done shows in white spaces,” says Manley. “But then some-one asked if I’d thought about doing a show in a dark space. Their designer, Mariann (Aagaard) then said ‘you can’t do a show about the dark - you have to do a show about the different lights that shine in the dark’. So actually, we’re doing a show about light. And about a little girl who can’t go to sleep.”

Luckily Mister Night is on hand to guide her through the mysterious, magical beauty of the night watches where the moon, the stars, the street lamps, create beauty that most of us snooze through. “It’s just me, on-stage,” says Manley. “The little girl is invisible. We had thought about using a puppet, but that would have imposed its own limitations. So we have these wonderful designs, and a soundscape, and a little bit of text. I have done it in Danish, yes – I learned it phonetically! I think when Noel (Jordan) saw it, he thought I was speaking rubbish, but those performances were really valuable because you can see, and feel, how an audience of 3 to 6 year olds is responding. And that can be a real wake up call!”

Manley, in performance, is like a flesh and blood litmus paper, constantly registering how the attention levels ebb and flow in young, and very young, audiences.

“It’s really tricky getting it right across that three to six age range,” he says. “A three year old doesn’t necessarily see the beauty in repetition the way an older child or an adult might. It’s more ‘we’ve seen that bit, we know what it’s about - next!’ Very brutal, but also very honest and you have to take those responses on-board, especially when we’re doing a show about something we – adults included – don’t really understand. What happens when we go to sleep? We lose consciousness, but where do we go? What goes on around us? Is it scary? Maybe. We recognise that there are fears about darkness, but there’s beauty and magic, and that’s what we want to explore. For me, making shows is always about trying to understand the world we live in. Here, we’ve made it poetic, and odd, and mysterious and moving, and while we’re doing it in the dark, everyone at the end goes back into the daytime, and hopefully, some sunshine!”

Elsewhere in Jordan’s programme, there are two shows that he had some special help in choosing: Evil from Danish company Folketeatret, and Into the Water from Welsh company Up and Over. His advisors were a group of 10-15 year old children from Craigmillar, who joined him on a foray into last year’s Fringe.

“They saw pieces for babies right through to shows for young adults, and they handled the whole process of assessing and selecting incredibly well. What I found really interesting was how they didn’t just go for likes and dislikes, they totally took on board the whole business of how, sometimes, you have to make compromises because of costs. They actually rejected a group from the other side of the world because they couldn’t justify spending that amount of money on four air fares. I was also impressed by how they talked about emotional responses to the work, and how those shows would play for their own community. In the end, they chose two thoroughly contrasting works. Evil is a true story about bullying at a boys’ boarding school, Into the Water is a kind of Riverdance romp full of stomping dance and percussion. Originally we’d thought that the shows they chose would be programmed at some point in the Lyra theatre in Craigmillar, but they did such a great job, were so constructive and rigorous about it, I decided we’d have their selections in our main EICF programme.”

For Jordan this project has, in its own way, reinforced his passionate conviction that the arts are like essential vitamins and minerals for children and young people.

“I never tire of the moment when you’re in an audience and you’re surrounded by children who have just opened up to the experience that’s before them on a stage. They’re absorbed by it, have let go and are on a special journey to somewhere, or something, that might well stay with them forever. That’s just joy, sheer joy.”

Jordan was that kind of kid himself and that connection has led him here, as director of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival.

EIFC runs from Saturday May 27 to Sunday June 4

www.imaginate.org.uk