The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world. From its rookie origins in 1947 as an unofficial side-act to the Edinburgh Festival, it’s grown from work staged by eight companies to, last year, performances of 3,269 shows from 48 different countries.
But of all the visitors who now pour into Edinburgh’s streets each August, what about the kids? For the past four years, family shows have accounted for five per cent of the total staged. So, has the Fringe’s offering for children changed over the years?
Guardian journalist and critic Lyn Gardner has reviewed at the Fringe since the early 1980s. She says that the festival as a good place for work for younger audiences is a fairly recent phenomenon. “The way festivals were marketed changed and people went, ’Oh, we’ll bring the family for a few days’,” she recalls.
Reflecting on changing attitudes to bringing kids’ work to the Fringe, Gardner uses New Zealand-based Trick of the Light Theatre as an "example of a company making very good work anyway, who have realised that there is a market [for children’s shows]”. Following 2015’s The Bookbinder, Trick of the Light is back at the Fringe with its latest show, The Road That Wasn’t There.
The Fringe’s growth into more of a family affair is, in part, symptomatic of a wider re-branding of festivals to embrace what is a sizeable chunk of the population. Glastonbury Festival, for example, now offers advice on its website to parents on the best type of buggy to bring. There’s a growing recognition of the lucrative nature of the family market.
One distinctive recent feature of kids’ programming at the Fringe are tentpole adaptations of popular children’s books like The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which played at the Pleasance in 2015. Les Petits Theatre Company are bringing their stage adaptation of David Walliams’ The First Hippo on the Moon to this year’s Fringe. Such productions, when made well, draw big family audiences.
One of the biggest successes in this regard is Tall Stories’ adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s smash hit The Gruffalo, which debuted at the Fringe in 2001 and has since played the West End and toured around the world. Now, as they celebrate their 20th year, the company are returning to Edinburgh with their acclaimed production of The Gruffalo’s Child.
According to joint artistic director Toby Mitchell, the Fringe’s kids’ offering has “totally changed” since Tall Stories first took adaptations of Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde to Edinburgh in 1997. “The kids’ section of the Fringe [guide] was tiny, a few pages,” he recalls. “We’ve gone from being part of a very small pool doing work for families, to being part of this almost mini-festival.”
As well as a greater emphasis on children’s programming among the bigger venues, Mitchell points to the recent establishment of child-specific facilities like the Pleasance’s Kidzone—with its interactive play area, baby change and café— as important. “It’s somewhere families can base themselves,” he says.
And a crop of newer venues and performance spaces has also opened up the terrain to a diverse range of work for younger audiences at the Fringe. For example, Summerhall—now entering its seventh year at the festival—has made a name for itself by staging formally experimental and thought-provoking productions.
“Our policy is to put on work which has something to say about the world,” says Verity Leigh, Summerhall’s programme manager. “We try to do that as much with our children’s shows as with shows programmed with an older audience in mind.” In 2016, this included Belgian children’s theatre company BRONKS’s Us/Them, about the Beslan siege.
In 2015, Edinburgh-based Catherine Wheels Theatre Company staged The Voice Thief, a site-specific show for children aged nine and up, in Summerhall’s basement. The company also premiered White at the Fringe in 2010. Lyn Gardner fondly recalls this white-box piece as a "demonstration of how absolutely fantastic Edinburgh can be as a showcase for children’s work”.
White won three awards at the Fringe and has since toured around the UK and abroad. It was one of the first shows created as part of the Made in Scotland programme, a collaborative effort involving entities like public-funding body Creative Scotland. Its aim is to raise the international profile of Scottish work at the Fringe.
“The Arts Council tried for a long time to make different things happen, that would mean Scottish work would have a profile on the Fringe,” says Gill Robertson, Catherine Wheels’ artistic director. “But it didn’t really work until Made in Scotland.”
Both Made in Scotland and Creative Scotland have helped to establish a platform for family-friendly Scottish shows. This year, for example, Tania Czajka’s Edinburgh-based company Le Petit Monde is making its Fringe debut at the Scottish Storytelling Centre with The Wonderful World of Lapin. This bilingual puppet show has been made with Creative Scotland’s support.
The Scottish Storytelling Centre, the world’s first venue dedicated to live storytelling, opened on the Royal Mile in 2006. With a 99-seat capacity, “it’s an intimate space,” says programme and events manager, Daniel Abercrombie. “It’s lovely for children’s shows – they don’t feel isolated or overwhelmed.” The Centre curates work from both new and established companies.
For Czajka, bringing The Wonderful World of Lapin to the Fringe (particularly in the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s central location) is a major step up. “I’m putting more energy and effort into this show than any before,” she says. “I’m really hoping that promoters will come and see it, and that it will interest international promoters as well.”
The Fringe’s global reach offers companies a rich opportunity to showcase their work. Gill Roberston, however, while freely acknowledging the "great engine” the festival can be, believes that more still needs to be done in terms of quality control. And, she adds, “a lot of work just tries to get people’s attention by being an adaptation of a well-known book, or linked to CBBC.”
And taking a show to the Fringe is a financially high-risk venture, often involving a tough fight for visibility. Robertson is a big fan of the renowned Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, which takes place in May and June each year. She’d like to see a similarly curated kids’ space at the Fringe, because many people “probably just aren’t aware of the really amazing work out there”.
When it comes to children’s shows at the Fringe, there’s clearly still room for improvement. Venues like Underbelly’s twin big top Circus Hub attract younger audiences of all ages but, it remains the case, for example, that there’s less work at the festival for teenagers. If you’re prepared to do your research, however, you’ll undoubtedly find some gems this year.