Fantastic for Families Awards 2022 Case Study

The 2021 Edinburgh International Children’s Festival: Family Encounters Programme

Noel Jordan, Festival Director of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, tells us about how the organisation met the challenge of pivoting an indoor theatre and dance festival for children to a free outdoor event in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The result, the 2021 Edinburgh International Children’s Festival: Family Encounters Programme was a winner of Best Family Activity in the 2022 Fantastic for Families Awards.

A career-defining decision

Imaginate presents the annual Edinburgh International Children’s Festival. In March 2020 we had to make the very difficult decision to cancel our May 2020 festival, as the global pandemic took hold. Like many arts organisations we began the complicated process of un-producing a large-scale event and then making plans for the following year. To give you a sense of what was involved, the Children’s Festival presents around 14 venue-based productions over one week, from Scotland and across the globe. The Festival always opens with a free day-long event for families at the National Museum of Scotland, featuring innovative pop-up performances, arts activities and creative happenings. 

At first, we naively thought we could re-book all of our artists and companies into the exact same slots for 2021. However, by December 2020 it was evident that this would not be the case and that we would need to make some drastic decisions. These decisions would affect both the livelihoods of artists in our community and also, importantly, the children, young people and families who make up our audience and who had been unable to access to live arts events for a significant period already.

As Festival Director it was a challenging career moment. We decided to postpone our venue-based theatre and dance programme for a further year and to redirect the majority of the festival budget into commissioning work either for online delivery, or for a new programme of outdoor events across the city called ‘Family Encounters’. We took the one-day concept of Scottish artists performing for free at the National Museum of Scotland and expanded this across the city over four days using outdoor locations. We knew that this pivot came with considerable risk. Several decades ago we had moved the Children’s Festival from a cluster of tents in Inverleith Park to indoor theatres, due to extreme weather and flooding. Producing outdoor events in Scotland at any time of the year is a risky business. Now here we were in 2020, in the middle of a global health epidemic, planning multiple outdoor events to ensure that children and families could have access to inspiring theatre and dance after two long years of hibernation. 

The main venue we selected for the expanded Family Encounters programme was the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, a brand-new partnership for us. Family Encounters 2021 was the first in-person event run by any of the Edinburgh festivals since the onset of the pandemic. It took place on 29-30 May and 5-6 June 2021.

And the sun shone!

Over two weekends, Family Encounters provided four days of free site-specific theatre and dance in several outdoor locations across Edinburgh – and miraculously the sun was shining every day! The Royal Botanic Garden hosted 10 specially commissioned performances including an aerial dance show on 5m high swings (with opportunity for children to try these); an audio journey with children telling stories about migration and identity; a wandering unicorn; and an interactive travel adventure inside a hut. Events in other sites across the city included a hip-hop performance in a basketball court, a video installation about Carnival in a public garden, and an adventure quest for families culminating in a live online session. What struck me as I wandered across our outdoor sites was the incredible joy on people’s faces – families were loving experiencing the events together. Live theatre was back, albeit not as we had first imagined it!

The response to Family Encounters 2021

The response to Family Encounters was incredibly encouraging: tickets sold out in days and feedback was overwhelmingly positive. A survey was emailed to everyone who booked (as the event was free but ticketed). Elements that people enjoyed the most were: to watch live performances again, to be outdoors, and to experience something as a family. Many comments praised the setting of the Botanic Garden, the quality of performances and the helpfulness of staff.  With 7,344 bookings across 4 days, we know of no Covid-19 cases linked to attendance – this alone was incredible. 

Hearing directly from families that live theatre was high on their enjoyment agenda was a real gift to our team and confirmation that what we do matters. Families’ comments included:

Absolutely fantastic experience. We travelled up from London and it was well worth it. Perfect for our four-year-old twins.’

Seeing the enjoyment on the face of my grandson’s friend who had never participated in a live performance before.

Winning the Best Family Arts Activity award is an incredible validation of our work and a celebration of this unique moment in Imaginate’s history. It also contributes to raising awareness across the UK of what Imaginate does and of the artists that we work with.

It was just so lovely to see people enjoying themselves and live performance.  There was a real festival atmosphere!  It felt like a little bit of normality.”

What we learned

Through running Family Encounters across the city in four outdoor locations, we learnt a lot about our artists and our audiences. The work that the artists created was much more site-responsive than in previous years. The ways that artists engaged with audiences was thoughtful and innovative, from stories hidden in watering cans to quests for undiscovered creatures. Presenting work across a broader canvas enabled us to create a curation of discovery for audiences as they moved around the Botanic Gardens and the journey to viewing the performances became the start of their engagement.

We reached substantial new audiences through Family Encounters 2021. 60% of event participants were first-time attenders, compared with 40% for our family events in 2019. Being able to move the work around the city, and in venues that were always free to access, meant we reached new families, many of whom returned to our 2022 Children’s Festival the following year. This included families from Multicultural Family Base (MCFB), who subsequently became a partner with us on a year-long participatory arts project, Where We Are. In terms of funders, Family Encounters was our first event sponsored by Cirrus Logic and the impact of this event led to a lasting partnership with them.

Although Family Encounters has now returned to its prior site of the National Museum of Scotland, safe from the vagaries of the Scottish weather, we have taken forward much learning from 2021. This includes the value of site-responsive thoughtfulness, the curation of a space and journey for different ages and needs, and a new partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh that has space to develop and grow. Wherever it takes place, Family Encounters will always place children and young people at the centre of the experience.

Image credits: Ruth Armstrong

18 January 2022

Noel headshoot 2019

Noel Jordan, Festival Director, Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival showcases high quality, distinctive Scottish and international performances to an annual audience of around 19,000. The Festival is run by Imaginate: the national organisation in Scotland which promotes, develops and celebrates theatre and dance for children and young people. Noel joined the Imaginate team in 2015 from Australia where he had worked in Theatre for Children and Young People for almost 30 years.

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19 January 2023