By Paul Fitzpatrick

CHILDREN have a huge amount to deal with at the moment. Last year we heard reports of children and young people suffering from climate emergency anxiety. Now they will have to deal with coronavirus anxiety.

When we get through this, and we will get through this, we will need a way for children to come together and try to understand what they have experienced. And we need to find a way to help that happen. But what can we do? How can we help them deal with this extraordinary experience in their young lives? What can we do to enable them to get on and enjoy their childhood? If only there was a gym for emotional resilience. Or a class for joy and hope.

There is. It’s called the theatre.

When a child goes to the theatre, they are transported to different countries, different worlds and situations. They encounter wonderful people and unpleasant bullies. They experience what it’s like to live in the head of an isolated teenager on a Scottish island, in the cosy nest of a baby sparrow or running wild with a mythical creature in Australia. They experience the highs, the lows, the pain and the beauty of the world. It’s a full-body workout for the mind, the emotions and the imagination.

After this unprecedented period of social distancing and isolation, we are going to crave meaningful social contact. Where better to find that than at the theatre? The Edinburgh International Festival was founded in 1947 to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” by bringing people and artists together from around the world following the Second World War. Following the current global crisis we need the theatres, festivals and, crucially, the artists to still be here, ready to provide that platform of healing for us all, particularly children.

Last week I announced the cancellation of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival. Losing this year’s festival wasn’t the thing that pained me, what pained me was the impact on the artists, self-employed production teams and the front of house staff who would lose their jobs. When we come back we need those people to be ready to come back with us. So we will pay every individual the full amount of the contract they would have had with us. We have also agreed to make payments to every performing company to ensure that they will not suffer financial hardship from our cancellation. This is a risky decision because I currently don’t know what support there will be for Imaginate and I have a full-time team whom I also need to keep employed. However, the bigger risk is for us to survive but for all the workers we rely on to make our wonderful festival happen not to be there when we return.

The New Victory Theatre in New York recently did a five-year study on the effect of attending the theatre as a child and they had an unexpected result. The study found that over time, when attending the theatre regularly, children developed the ability to imagine their lives differently. They could see a future for themselves that was different from the one they were living. The work-out of the imagination in the theatre gave them the strength to develop something very special: hope. And that is something we all need at the moment.

Paul Fitzpatrick is Chief Executive, Imaginate