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Special Feature:

“Works that stay with you”—Noel Jordan on the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

by Paul F Cockburn58765569c4075-noeljordanweb-large

Back in 1990, staged under canvas in Edinburgh’s Inverleith Park, the Scottish International Children’s Festival began to make a name for itself in the world of young people’s theatre and dance. A decade later, during Tony Reekie’s exceptional 20-year directorship, the festival spread its wings and rebranded itself as Imaginate. 2017, though, sees another change: welcome back (sort of) to the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival.

“The rebranding is interesting,” says director Noel Jordan, for whom 2017 is his first opportunity to curate the entire programme. “It’s partly about trying to raise the profile of the festival. Internationally, it’s regarded as one of the best children’s festivals in the world—that’s why I came here many times before taking on this role—but Edinburgh is a city that is full of festivals all year round, and ‘Imaginate’ just doesn’t have a massive local awareness. So what we thought was: let’s separate Imaginate, the organisation which runs a lot of activities across the year, from our key event—and call it what it is so there’s no confusion.”

Melbourne-born and raised, Noel had previously worked as a producer at the Sidney Opera House before relocating to the other side of the world in Scotland. However, given that on the day of the festival’s press launch, he had just flown back from a children’s festival in New Zealand, you do wonder if putting together the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival really been that different an experience?

“I think the absolute benefit of being here is the proximity to Europe and the amount of incredible theatre that I’ve had the opportunity to see and consider,” he says. “I’ve seen over 300 productions for young audiences in the last year; that’s almost one a day! When I was based in Australia, that simply wasn’t possible. This year’s programme has a diversity of what I like about children’s theatre; there are works with deeper messages that really challenge and extend us, but also works that celebrate joy and the human condition in its positive forms.”

So how does he choose the shows which will come to Edinburgh?

“When you come up with your long lead list, it’s really about works that stay with you, that resonate for some time,” Noel says. “For instance, there is a work for very young children that is almost like a hypnotic underwater installation. Called Primo, it was one that I just kept thinking about. There’s no plot, there’s no storyline; it’s about how it makes you feel in that space, and the children who were watching it were far more engaged than the adult carers and other programmers.

“Yes, creating a festival is about tones and textures and the form; also you want voices from a range of countries. This year, we have shows from nine countries, including three really strong productions from Scotland—two of which we’ve commissioned. I think the stamp of a good festival is its ability and braveness to programme new work.”

Admittedly, two productions in the festival programme are not, technically, Noel’s choice, but he’s very happy that they’re there. During the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, he guided a group of 10 young teenagers from Craigmiller, in the south of the city. These young judges saw and discussed eight shows, two of which they then selected to run as part of the Children’s Festival in their own local community.

Their final choice might well surprise you: Evil, a monologue about school bullying in a prestigious boarding school in 1950s Sweden, and Into The Water, a post-apocalyptic dance piece about two young people washed up together in a magical wasteland. “The productions are about facing up to life’s adversity, thinking what’s skills, what ideas, what knowledge I have to make me go out and be a better person, and make the world a better place,” Noel says. “I think theatre allows us to do that.”

So why does Noel believe that theatre and performance are so important for the next generation?

“The performing arts are really unique, because what they do in a very direct way is teach children and young people about the possibilities that exist in the world, and they do that in a very safe and controlled way,” he says. “So, for example, we get to learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes for the day, we get to empathise and to develop emotional sensitivity. But really it is this gateway to the possibilities that occur in the world, and no where can you do that as well as you can in a theatre, in a communal way with your friends, your parents, your teachers. And then there’s that time afterwards when you reflect, you discuss moments and you can seek out the possibilities of humanity.”

Noel’s enthusiasm for children’s theatre is clear and frankly infectious; there’s certainly no doubting his commitment to young audiences. “You wouldn’t think this, but I was a really shy young boy growing up in Australia,” he explains. “Through the arts and attending theatre, it kind of connected with me, and gave me the confidence to seek out others who also enjoyed that live experience, and to really consider that there was a possibility of a career in this field. Australia is so sporting obsessed, it allowed me to consider that it’s OK to be different, that there’s a place in the world for everybody. Theatre and dance allows us to find our space.”

For now, that space is definitely in Edinburgh. “This festival is a really key festival internationally,” Noel insists. “Everywhere I go—and I’m fortunate to travel a lot—people speak with the highest regard for Edinburgh. They come here to see who are the new artists, what new ideas are out there, and then they pick up works directly from Edinburgh to invite to their own venues or festivals.

“I think in part its because we’re interested in discussion, debate, dialogue and artists’ development; that not only occurs during the week of the festival but also throughout the year. At the moment Imaginate is the lead partner in an EU-funded project called ‘Push’, which is about getting artists to think more bravely about the content of work that they’re creating for young audiences. This festival really is kind of a beacon, pushing the development… and it’s all on offer here for local people! That’s why we’re really keen to raise awareness. Hopefully the rebranding will assist with that!

“Really no other place in the world has this opportunity,” he says. “I grew up in Melbourne and lived in Sidney for many years; neither of those cities has a children’s festival. That tells you a lot about the uniqueness of Imaginate and the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival. If anything, I just hope that I can continue the incredible high standard that the festival has established for itself.

Imaginate, Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, runs from 27 May until 4 June 2017. For more information: http://www.imaginate.org.uk/festival/