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Lyn Gardner: Children are as big a diversity problem for theatre as any other group

Imaginate (renamed Edinburgh International Children’s Festival) producer Pamela Walker and head of marketing and communications Marion Bourbouze with the international award at The Stage Awards this year. Photo: Alex Brenner
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I spent part of last week at the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival. It’s one of an increasing number of children’s arts and theatre festivals around the country including Spark in Leicester, Nottingham’s Lakeside International Children’s Theatre and Dance Festival, bOing! in Canterbury, and Take Off in Darlington.

In recent years, there has been a huge boom in shows created for family audiences, from the glorious Matilda to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and numerous adaptations of novels by Michael Morpurgo and David Walliams. That’s great. But there is a difference between shows created to serve a wide demographic and those aimed at young audiences. EICF and these other festivals are proof of that. For venues to ignore young audiences and regularly fail to make them an offer (apart from Live on Stage TV spin-offs) is tantamount to saying that theatre and theatres don’t really think they matter. Children are as much part of theatre’s diversity problem as any other group. They’re just less capable of being vocal about it for themselves.

EICF was a joy. I loved the moment when the 10-year-old behind me announced: “I knew it. Right from the start,” when it seemed that a customer at Le Monde Bouleverse bistro had consumed his own family in Theatre Lovett’s creepy comic-horror A Feast of Bones.

I loved the way that Anglo-Norwegian company NIE told a story in We Come from Far, Far Away about two unaccompanied young Syrian children making the perilous journey from Aleppo to Oslo. They did it with such care, with unassuming theatricality and direct engagement with its young audience. I was tickled by the hilariously surreal, subversive retelling of Baba Yaga, by Shona Reppe, Christine Johnston and Rosemary Meyers, in which the heroine Vaselina is rewarded for taking a risk rather than being a good girl who follows the rules.

All these shows prove that theatre made for children doesn’t have to be light and fluffy. A Feast of Bones was set in the shadow of the slaughter of the First World War, while Catherine Wheels’ Eddie and the Slumber Sisters also confronted grief and death head-on in a piece made for eight to 13-year-olds.

EICF is a significant part of how Scotland has developed such a strong children’s arts sector. And most of all, I admire the fact that at one year shy of its 30th birthday, the festival places such an emphasis on work for babies and the very young. It is an act of faith and a genuine investment in the future.

As choreographer Siri Dybwik, of Norwegian company Dybwikdans, who was here with Toddler Room, a dance piece created for three-year-olds and younger, says: “Childhood is not a waiting time to be an adult.”

Toddler Room was just one of six shows in the festival, many from international companies, aimed at the under-fives.

That may well reflect the Scottish government’s wise policy of investing in early years, but it’s even more than that. It is a reflection of a festival that understands that while presenting theatre for the very young may be enormously costly and brings logistical challenges, it is an investment in the future that brings unlimited returns.

Those returns take many different forms and others are finally showing similar foresight with innovative uses of culture. Last month, The Stage reported that 27 NHS organisations in the North West have committed to offer arts on prescription, focusing on new mothers and babies. Yet this work is still absurdly undervalued. People, including those working in theatre, sometimes question the point of making theatre for the very young. Which is odd because it is an area in which the UK has been a world leader, with companies from Theatre-Rites to Travelling Light to Replay and Oily Cart.

Read our interview with outgoing Oily Cart artistic director Tim Webb

These companies are not only pioneers in the making of shows for the very young, but the work they create – often because it is non-verbal – is radical and inventive in theatrical terms. It is not just audiences, but also artists who reap the creative rewards when working in this area.

Sadly, the rewards are unlikely to be financial as these shows with limited audiences cost money, and theatres are often reluctant to pay the fees necessarily to support them, even if that means they are failing to serve the audience of carers and young children. Neither are the rewards likely to come in the form of glowing reviews and awards. Children’s theatre has a long history of being marginalised by critics, and as traditional platforms cut their coverage, it is even less likely to make reviews lists. Even when it does, the work is more likely to be aimed at older children and text based, and so more like work made for adult audiences.

The exception to this is in Scotland, where coverage is far more supportive and critically acute. An area of practice that is critically valued is also more likely to be valued by venues and the wider industry. EICF gets widespread coverage from the Scottish press. If only English children’s festivals could expect the same.

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