Interview: festival director Noel Jordan – ‘What Imaginate does so well, is bring the world to your doorstep’

Constellations image of a woman in black sitting on a large black ball of wool

credit: Pedro Arnay

The new Imaginate festival director talks taking over the reigns and this year’s dynamic line up

For the public, a festival is all about the work on stage. But behind every great event lies a crowd of busy worker bees, and Imaginate is no exception. In recent months, the children’s theatre festival – widely recognised as one of the best in the world – has had a major shake-up in its hive.

After 20 years of successful service, festival director Tony Reekie headed for pastures new – and in swooped Noel Jordan, former programmer of children’s work at Sydney Opera House.

‘The most important thing for me, is maintaining the incredible quality that Tony set up over the years,’ says Jordan, when we meet in Imaginate’s Edinburgh office. ‘For people, Imaginate equals quality, so I have to keep that bar high.

‘I’m keen for children to have a range of experiences, so that when they come to Imaginate, they can’t predict the kind of thing they’ll see.’

Around the office, posters and leaflets are being sent out, and a pile of newly printed festival programmes sits filled with promise. Despite talking about this year’s line up with pride and passion, Jordan has had limited input to its creation. Reekie programmed most of the festival before his departure, so it won’t be until 2017 that we see Jordan’s true colours.

For now, however, he’s more than happy to wax lyrical about what audiences can expect to find inside this year’s festival – as well he should. With 14 shows hailing from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, Germany, Spain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Norway, Australia and New Zealand, it’s an international box of delights for families of all ages.

‘What Imaginate does so well, is bring the world to your doorstep,’ says Jordan. ‘You can travel to nine different countries from theatres in Edinburgh – and that’s an amazing opportunity to see the lives and experiences of others. It opens up your mind – that’s what it did for me as a child, and I’m very keen for that to continue here.’

Search for a theme in this year’s Imaginate festival and you won’t find one. But audience interaction is clearly on the agenda for most of the performers, although rarely in an obvious way.

Katie’s Birthday Party has the entire room joining in her celebrations, as she makes the transition from primary to secondary school; Broken Dreams asks you to write down your yet-to-be realised hopes on the way in, then incorporates them into a musical; the team behind Traces records your name upon arrival, then uses it in the performance; and The Jury features children giving their opinion on contemporary dance – echoing similar thoughts within the audience.

While for younger pre-school viewers, Blue Block Studio is a hands-on, guided play space, and dance work Poggle leaves plenty of time for post-show play and exploration.

‘You’re not just a passive audience member,’ says Jordan of the interactive shows. ‘And that’s what a festival should do – give you an experience you would never get at another time.’

One other thing a festival can do, is cherry pick the shows that have gone down a storm elsewhere, like Fluff, A Story of Lost Toys which has played to capacity crowds for over ten years. Based on the colourful art of Joan Miró, dance theatre work Constellations is a constant hit with families. The Great Illusionist has enchanted audiences with its blend of beauty and impressive magic. The Bookbinder thrilled both children and adults at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, and Andy Cannon’s Tales of a Grandson and Catherine Wheels’ The Story of the Little Gentleman also make welcome returns.

As Jordan says, festival programme in hand, ‘It’s a real ride.’

Imaginate, various venues, Edinburgh, Sat 28 May—Sun 5 Jun

Edinburgh International Children's Festival

Edinburgh's international children's festival of performing arts presents a programme of theatre, dance, storytelling and puppetry. It's an opportunity for children, their teachers and their families to see high quality Scottish and international shows. It's also a chance for programmers and artists to congregate, discuss…