This is probably the best children’s theatre festival in the world

The Skinny talks to Noel Jordan, Edinburgh International Children's Festival’s director about their latest programme, Scotland’s place on the international stage and why children’s theatre is so important

Feature by Amy Taylor | 15 May 2018

“It is regarded, absolutely, as probably the best children’s festival in the world, definitely in the English language speaking world,” asserts Noel Jordan of Edinburgh International Children's Festival. “We’re in an enviable position, where theatre companies, artists, they want to come here, they actually view it not only as an honour, but as an exposure to a wider platform. An invitation here can then mean suddenly, you’re seen by 300 delegates who’ve come from 23 countries – that was last year – and then the invitations to travel the world open up.”

The festival, which has been a feature on the children’s theatre scene for many, many years, this year features 14 shows from 12 different countries, inviting theatre companies from all around the world to perform in Edinburgh, but also commissioning shows, too. This year, one of these shows is Baba Yaga, a co-production between Shona Reppe and Australia’s Windmill Theatre, which was funded by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, a fund that will help Scottish theatre in the long term.

“I think the sign of any good festival is their ability to not only do premieres of new works but also have people putting their money down and contributing to a group of artists, and going, “OK, we trust your vision, off you go and make the work and we’ll premiere it.” I think that’s big and bold, and it’s important to the impact of Scottish children’s theatre in the long run, that work, hopefully, will go on to have a long life, as our commission last year [Night Light] is still touring, and I think it’ll tour for many years.”

The programme, which features familiar names such as Catherine Wheels and the National Theatre of Scotland, alongside international artists, such as Theatrehaus Ensemble from Germany and Koleka Putumba from South Africa, doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.

“There are so many highlights in the programme, it’s hard to pull out a couple,” explains Jordan. “But always for me the Scottish work is at the heart of the festival. This year, we’ve got Catherine Wheels in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, dealing with a really, potentially dark subject; a young girl grieving over the death of her grandmother, and how that is formulating in her dreamscapes and nightmares. These characters come along, kind of like dream angels, and they help her deal with accepting her passing.” 

While the topics and themes of the shows at the festival range from climate change to the refugee crisis, Jordan believes that children need to see work that presents difficult topics in the safe space of the theatre.

“I think, ultimately, it’s a safe place where literally anything about the world can be played out in a very controlled environment, and it can introduce us or expose us to questions, themes, ideas that we’ve thought about, but haven’t quite known what to do with. There’s nothing better than the concept of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes for an hour, and I think that’s what theatre does so well, that literally nothing else can do better.”

The beginning of the festival comes just a few months after the controversial decision by Creative Scotland to cut funding for some of Scotland’s best-known children’s theatre companies, including Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions. Although the decision was quickly reversed, and the funding reinstated, Jordan is keen to emphasise just how important children’s theatre is to children and young people in Scotland and the rest of the world, and why it was right of Creative Scotland to reverse the decision.

“We ultimately think that making theatre for a young audience is a political statement,” he explains. “Because we’re standing up for the rights of children, and believe that they deserve the very best. So, the change of decision actually supports us in our advocacy, and it is a reminder to us that we need to keep telling our story, and why we present children’s theatre.”

Edinburgh International Children's Festival, 26 May-3 Jun, various venues