Eye to Eye, Mind to Mind, Heart to HeartTheatre for Young Audiences in Scotland

A Brief Immersion …

In the foyer of The New Victory Theater’s New 42nd Studios in New York City, there are dozens of paper birdhouses amidst scattered crayons, apple juice boxes, and Goldfish crackers. It is a realm of organized chaos. Young people in the room are completely at ease, scurrying from one activity table to another and starting conversations with other small humans. The adults look … apprehensive – as though they don’t quite know the rules of engagement for this adventure, and they’re a wee bit worried that the other adults will judge them. The doors to the theatre space open without fanfare, and the audience is invited inside.

Alexander McCabe, Nerea Gurrutxaga, Andrew Gardiner and Hayley Earlam in Teenage Trilogy by Christine Devaney. Curious Seed. Edinburgh, Scotland (UK). Photo by Maria Falconer.

Everything in the playing space, including the seating for the audience, is … white. White in more hues and depths than you’d ever imagine. There is that gentle hushed quality of sound that things have just after a heavy snow. The anticipation pulses through the audience as they find a place to sit on one of the many plush carpets and pillows surrounding the stage. One of the characters (who are named Wrinkle and Cotton) is knitting amidst the scenic items of a cozy tent and an array of pristine, white birdhouses. When the audience has settled, both characters begin a brisk morning routine: wake up, wash face, comb hair, brush teeth, drink milk, eat breakfast, and done! Then it’s time to get to work inspecting and cleaning and painting to ensure that everything is perfectly white.

This is the opening sequence of White by Catherine Wheels Theatre Company of Edinburgh, Scotland under the artistic direction of Gill Robertson. The play is innocent, playful, and wonderfully fun as the audience watches Wrinkle and Cotton try to suppress their most secret secret: each of them LOVES color! Purples and greens and blues and yellows and oranges! Their effort to contain the colors sneaking into their pristine landscape of white escalates until Wrinkle finally confesses, a bit abashedly, “I like color.” A pause. Then Cotton responds exuberantly, “I like it TOO!” The story culminates in an explosion of colorful confetti and celebration as the young people gather handfuls of tissue paper bits and toss them into the air over and over again. There is a lingering, delicious joy animating the audience as the adults gather up coats and bags and strollers and snacks and drawings … while the young ones tuck a few bits of confetti into their pockets and wave to their new friends, Cotton and Wrinkle.

White is one of many performances created by Scottish artists in the last decade that has achieved international recognition at festivals like The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival (nee Imaginate) and beyond. In just over a decade, there has been an explosion of work ranging from traditional script-based TYA like Red Bridge Arts’ show Titus, to choose-your-own-adventure experiences like The Hidden from Visible Fictions, to immersive experimental work for babies and their caregivers, like MamaBabaMe, a collaboration between Starcatchers and Curious Seed.

The Current Landscape

In a country with a population just over five million, the per-capita number of high-quality theatrical experiences for young people is inspiring. Though there are few permanent or building-based companies, there are many long-established ensembles of artists with a consistent production schedule and touring repertoire.

Catherine Wheels Theatre Company and Visible Fictions are perhaps the most familiar to audiences outside of Scotland. Catherine Wheels’ production of White has toured steadily all over the world for the last several years. Their early works include Martha, Nicola McCartney’s Lifeboat, and Hansel and Gretel. More recent productions include Pondlife (featuring well-known Scottish performer and creator Andy Manley) and Emma & Gill (a collaboration with Lung Ha Theatre Company) featuring Artistic Director Gill Robertson and Emma – an actor on the autism spectrum – as the titular characters. “For Emma & Gill, we’ve needed to completely rethink our rehearsal environment to support Emma as a collaborator in the devising process through to touring the performance,” says Robertson. “We’re more mindful about the duration and physical demands of each day. It’s been quite lovely, actually. It’s a calm space but the work is still very robust. I find I’m rediscovering my own journey as a director and a performer as Emma and I explore this together.”

Visible Fictions has had several collaborations with major theatre companies in the US, including Seattle Children’s Theatre, The Mark Taper Forum, Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, MN, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Its most well-known works are Red Balloon, Tim Crouch’s Shopping for Shoes, Jason & the Argonauts, and The Adventures of Robin Hood, all of which embody Visible Fiction’s signature theatricality and shifting sense of scale. In the past year, the group has premiered a library-based, choose-your-own interactive adventure called The Hidden, and a reimagined A Ladder to the Stars (originally premiered in 2015) will tour this spring. Projects currently in development include a bilingual re-imagining of Jekyll and Hyde, a collaboration with Puppet Animation Scotland on a feature tentatively titled Up, and Slug, premiering in the fall of 2019.

Curious Seed is a relative newcomer to the TYA scene. The Edinburgh-based dance theatre company was formed in 2005 by Scottish choreographer, Christine Devaney. The work they create questions the world we live in and hopes to unlock the audience’s capacity to feel something different about the world we inhabit. Curious Seed’s foray into work for babies came when Starcatchers’ Rhona Matheson saw its critically acclaimed production Chalk About (a work commissioned by Imaginate after it had received “seeding” support in the Fresh Tracks Europe project). Matheson asked if Devaney might ever consider creating a piece for babies. Devaney was uncertain at first, but as time passed, something piqued her curiosity. “I started noticing physical connections between people in a new way, especially between very young children and their caregivers,” says Devaney. “How they are held, how they detach. I recognized the impulse, and it came to me very imagistic-ly … even before physical movement.” And MamaBabaMe was on its way to being born. Devaney’s current project is a collaboration with Lung Ha Theatre Company and Lyra entitled We Are All Just Little Creatures. This multi-generational, multi-disciplinary work explores the “creatureliness,” madness, diversity, and tenderness of being human, excavating and celebrating the uniqueness of each collaborator, and will premiere in late spring of 2019.

Starcatchers is Scotland’s National Arts and Early Years organization specializing in creating performances and exploring creative activity for babies, toddlers and young children aged 0–5 and their caregivers. Originally established as a project at North Edinburgh Arts and then under the umbrella of Imaginate, they incorporated as an independent company in 2011. They produced Scotland’s first project specifically for babies and although the initial response was that this genre of work was “quite out there,” the ripple effect across the United Kingdom has been swift. “In just a few years, the response to this work has gone from ‘why do we need this?’ to ‘why isn’t there more of this,’” says Starcatchers’ Chief Executive Rhona Matheson. Their audience numbers support the word-of-mouth support, as the work generally sells out and the audience is rarely below 90% capacity. Starcatchers’ core artists are a powerful combination of experience-creators and researchers who work with early years centers and caregivers to gain a deep understanding of the neurological and physical development of children under 5. Their rigorous research is reflected in the work they make, as is their commitment to their audience. “We acknowledge babies as independent beings in their own right,” says Matheson. “My starting point is always our audience and their experience – that’s who we have a duty to serve and inspire.”

Kai-Wen Chuang, Jade Adamson and Vince Virr in Playful Tiger, by Natasha Gilmore, Barrowland Ballet, Glasgow, Scotland. Photo by Brian Hartley.

Licketyspit has specialized in creating early years theatre and drama work since 2004. It was developed as a continuation of the Wee Stories Early Years Project, in which Artistic Director Virginia Radcliffe and her core collaborators – musician Tim Brinkhurst, designer Catherine Lindow, director Matthew Zajac and actors Deborah Arnott, Johnny Austin and Viv Grahame – began to develop a methodology and body of work for early years audiences. Licketyspit cultivates long-term engagements with families, schools, and communities in areas with high levels of multiple disadvantage. The current repertoire includes Molly Whuppie (a 300-year-old story about a Scottish superhero girl, a king, and a giant), Quangle Wangle (a play about friendship based on the poems of Edward Lear), Magic Spaghetti (a comic musical adaptation of the Calabrian folk tale, The Magic Pasta Pot), and Hare & Tortoise, Virginia Radcliffe and Deborah Arnott’s adaptation of Aesop’s classic fable.

Red Bridge Arts is perhaps the newest company on the TYA scene in Scotland, but it has built an impressive resume in its three and a half years of operation. Creative Director Alice McGrath describes Red Bridge Arts as idea-led, rather than artist-led. “Our continual question is much about how we create the right conditions for artists’ ideas to thrive, and how do we connect those ideas with audiences?” says McGrath. Their projects include the internationally acclaimed one-person shows Titus, Is This a Dagger: The Story of Macbeth, Space Ape, as well as their most recent endeavor Stick by Me – a new show for young children by Andy Manley and Ian Cameron (the team who created White). In addition to these small-cast, intimate performances, Red Bridge Arts (in collaboration with the Traverse Theatre Company) will present their new production of Black Beauty, created by Andy Manley, Andy Cannon and Shona Reppe, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, CA, in April 2019.

Other Scottish TYA companies of note include 21Common, Barrowland Ballet, Lyra, Lung Ha Theatre Company, Wee Stories, Independent Arts Projects, Frozen Charlotte, and Puppet Lab.

The companies mentioned above do not reflect the abundance of companies whose primary purpose is to create and perform with young people. Youth Theatre Arts Scotland, formerly Promote YT, is an excellent source to explore the work of those companies across Scotland.

Curious Seed’s foray into work for babies came when Starcatchers’ Rhona Matheson saw its critically acclaimed production Chalk About (a work commissioned by Imaginate after it had received “seeding” support in the Fresh Tracks Europe project). Matheson asked if Devaney might ever consider creating a piece for babies. Devaney was uncertain at first, but as time passed, something piqued her curiosity.

Flashback – Lots Of Tents … And Mud

This wave of creativity didn’t happen overnight, nor was it happenstance. It was carefully curated over decades to bear the fruit we’re seeing today.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019, Imaginate is a national organization with a respected reputation as a national and international advocate for professional theatre and dance for young audiences. The annual festival is modeled after the Vancouver Children’s Festival, but not as well suited to Scotland’s annual precipitation levels. After one particularly rainy season, Imaginate staff had to call upon the local fire department and army reserves to train them in the finer arts of trench-digging and sump-pumping. “When we got to the site in the morning there was literally a pond in the center of the tents, with some rather cheeky ducks paddling about. In that moment, we knew we needed proper venues with spaces that were sympathetic to more intimate experiences between artists and audiences,” says Tony Reekie, former Imaginate festival director. “It was a difficult decision – the energy and accessibility of the outdoor festival attracted a broader audience demographic than an indoor festival model, but crowd dynamics were challenging. Sometimes artists would have less than ten people in the audience. And there was just nothing we could do about the rain and the mud.” With this in mind, Imaginate shifted to an indoor festival in 1995–1996, but still sought to break down the perceived barriers regarding who this theatre is for.

Fortunately, the Citizens Theatre of Glasgow had a robust Theatre for Youth outreach program dating back to 1967 that provided some inspiration. Theatre About Glasgow (or TAG as it came to be called) received funding from the Scottish Arts Council to explore opportunities for artists working with young people, primarily with secondary schools within a 20-mile radius of Glasgow. Though TAG has since been re-absorbed into Citizen’s Theatre as part of its comprehensive education programs, the model of taking professional artists and performances into schools is still in operation. A recent example of its continuing work is the Divided City project in 2014–15. Based on the novel by Theresa Breslin, adapted by Martin Travers with music by Claire McKenzie, and directed by Guy Hollands, Divided City explores religious intolerance and sectarianism through the relationship of two young boys who are fierce fans of rival football teams. During the project period, 44 North Lanarkshire schools took part in workshops, classroom lessons, and performances, engaging over 10,000 young people, teachers, families, and community members. As part of the program, Citizens Theatre transformed large gathering rooms in host schools into fully-functioning theatres to provide young people with the experience of performing with professional-level lighting and sound systems, proper audience seating, and technical support.

The catalyst that has propelled the meteoric rise of Scottish TYA in the last decade is a combination of diverse creative development opportunities for artists, carefully curated festivals and performance opportunities, and a national cultural policy that recognizes the value of the performing arts in the lives of young people and families. Imaginate has invested significant resources to identify Scottish artists and sponsor their travel to other festivals in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and beyond to see TYA from long-established companies with exceptional reputations. The work abroad was visually-led, which inspired Scottish artists to reimagine their robust, script-driven theatre traditions and break from the aesthetic sensibilities of Scottish theatre for adults. Early manifestations of this new, visually vibrant, multi-disciplinary TYA inspired even more artists to embrace this new way of telling a story for an audience. One example of this chain reaction was when Paul Fitzpatrick, Imaginate’s current chief executive, saw Visible Fiction’s production, Red Balloon, in 2000. “It was absolutely life-changing for me,” says Fitzpatrick. “The love the audience gave to this inanimate object of a red balloon was so powerful, the storytelling was so charming, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s my theatre. That’s what I want to make.’” Since then, Fitzpatrick and other cultural change-makers have devoted their life’s work to supporting exceptional TYA in Scotland. Fitzpatrick states, “We want every child in Scotland to know that there’s world-class work right here on your doorstep and that you have the right to experience it.”

Ian Cameron and Andy Manley in White. Created by Andy Manley and directed by Gill Robertson. Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Paul Watt.

But What Makes It Scottish?

Scottish performance for young audiences is robust, whimsical, and complex. Noel Jordan, festival director at Imaginate, sees approximately 350 live performances for young audiences each year. When asked what makes Scottish TYA distinctive, he replied, “There’s a freshness … a way of storytelling that’s full of humor and curiosity about the world. And it’s not afraid to tell big stories. There’s a groundedness that anchors the work in something honest and real.” The particular qualities of Scottish TYA that render it unique may not emerge from seeing only one production, but after the second or third production, something ineffable begins to emerge. The work just feels Scottish. But what does that actually mean?

There’s an old Scottish proverb that goes, “A story should be told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart.” In fact, several artists interviewed here referenced Scottish storytelling traditions being imbedded in the work they create. It’s a bit difficult to detect if you’re not from Scotland, but there are a few notable undercurrents flowing through the breadth of Scottish TYA.

First, there’s a palpable sensibility that the storytelling tradition in theatre is for everyone. It feels very democratic, and there’s a certain informality in the relationship between the performer(s) and the audience. Scottish TYA makes frequent use of direct address in a way that feels like everyone’s sitting around a glowing fire together listening to a well-told story. There’s not an artificial chasm between where the audience sits and the stage, even when the architecture of the performance space enforces that separation. “There’s a clear recognition of the audience and its place in the collective experience,” says Dougie Irvine of Visible Fictions. “There’s an acceptance of their presence that meets them where they are, not where we wish they would be.” Gill Robertson of Catherine Wheels also carries a heightened awareness of who the work is for in everything she creates. “We want to give children a special experience, and with each new project we ask ourselves, ‘What will that look like?’” says Robertson. “And we have to acknowledge the reality that we will likely perform in an environment of distraction – that’s just the reality of where young people exist.” In fact, in the olden times of Scotland, it was not uncommon for listeners to engage in “quiet work” (sewing, carding wool, rope braiding) as a story was told, and they were not viewed as a less-engaged audience because of this simultaneous activity.

The second particularly Scottish quality is that though the work is both grounded and honest in its conception and delivery, there’s a charming irreverence and sense of play. This aspect of the legacy of Scottish storytelling traditions is more difficult to articulate in written form, as it’s more a felt-sense – a little electric spark between the performer and the audience. It’s akin to the imperceptible wink that happens when an audience knows a performer has made a mistake, the performer deftly corrects course and continues the performance with virtuosity and confidence, but simultaneously finds a way to let the audience know that she knows that they know that moment of humanity happened. The delight is in the awareness that they just shared something special together, like being in on a delicious secret. The sense of playfulness, curiosity, and wonder exhibited in the work meets young audiences where they are in their own imaginative journeys, which means that the performers and the audience make moment-to-moment discoveries together. In the same way we place value on children of all races having the opportunity to see themselves represented on stage, this imbedded playfulness allows children to recognize the child in themselves on stage in a way that affirms and validates their existence.

Finally, there’s a camaraderie among Scottish TYA creatives that is artistically refreshing. Most artists jokingly confess that “everyone knows everyone” in the theatre world of Scotland, and the constant cross-pollination and collaboration may seem a bit insular to an outsider. However, the advantage of such a closely associated community is the sense of accountability and personal responsibility – not only to the quality of the work produced, but to one another as colleagues. Last winter when multiple Scottish theatre companies experienced devastating funding cuts (some cuts so deep that they effectively eliminated entire companies) the collective response from the entire Scottish TYA community was palpable internationally. The larger companies with longer histories leveraged their national and international acclaim to vouch for the validity and necessity of newer, smaller companies. TYA colleagues outside of Scotland joined in the outcry and in just 11 days, the funding decision was reversed. Once again, the legacy of Scottish storytelling was a unifying force. The storytellers of old believed that everyone has a story to tell, they deserve a space in which to tell it, and that telling is a vital contribution to the collective lived experience of the human community.

“We want every child in Scotland to know that there’s world-class work right here on your doorstep and that you have the right to experience it.”

—  Paul Fitzgerald

On The Horizon

As companies like Imaginate and Visible Fictions approach their 30s, Catherine Wheels reaches its 20s, and several other companies are celebrating their first decade of work, artists are looking toward the horizon and deciding where to invest their time and talents. Questions of diversity and representation feel quite urgent as companies ask themselves, “Whose voices are missing from this work?” Ninety-six percent of Scotland’s overall population identifies as White, and many artists of color born in Scotland later move to London in order to have steady work and a livable income. Creating opportunities that allow diverse artists to maintain their livelihood is critical, but challenging, as many Scottish TYA companies work on project-to-project financial models. Artists and cultural influencers are also working toward greater inclusivity of artists and audiences with disabilities. Upcoming collaborations with Lung Ha Theatre Company and Birds of Paradise are raising the national and international profile of artists with disabilities and fostering spaces of mutual respect and learning.

An urgent concern that most theatre companies are grappling with across the globe, and one that is of particular interest to the leadership at Imaginate, is how we can demonstrate the intrinsic value of theatre in the lives of young people beyond educational objectives? How can we articulate that simply being in the audience has value? That you don’t have to make art to appreciate art? How can we help stakeholders and funders understand that children have intrinsic value in our society – not as future consumers of theatre, but as human beings living in the present moment with complex and sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities that deserve extraordinary experiences, just as much as adults do? Fortunately, the artists and curators of Scottish TYA have the relentless determination and network of resources necessary to undertake this critical work … as well as the generosity of spirit to share their findings for the good of the entire TYA field.