Big Imaginations shake up theatre in the North West

Kevin Bourke

A kids’ theatre fest that’s as good for grown ups brings puppets, moonbirds and poetry-hating dragons to a venue near you.

Children’s theatre has seemed for some time to be puzzlingly low on the North West arts agenda. Too many young people are growing up with quite possibly their only experience of “the theatre” being an annual visit to the panto or one of the big – and ruinously expensive – Disney or CBeebies-style extravaganzas. But that sorry state of affairs is about to change (oh yes it is!) as next month’s Big Imaginations Children’s Theatre Festival comes to 15 venues across the region, including The Lowry, St. Helens’ Citadel and The Atkinson, Southport. Featuring UK and international talent, the festival celebrates children’s theatre and inspires family involvement with the arts.

“A couple of years ago, the provision of children’s theatre and its quality across the North West wasn’t great,” says festival programmer, Zoe Pickering. “Getting quality work in the region can be really tricky, so we came up with the idea idea of commissioning partners across the North West.” The result is a 15-strong consortium of venues, including The Lowry and the Royal Exchange, who offer expertise and knowledge as well as sharing the cost of travel and accommodation. Combined with a touring budget from the Arts Council, Big Imaginations is able to source theatre at an affordable cost. “We have not only big theatres like The Dukes in Lancaster putting on shows but also little rural village halls, where people literally have to put the chairs out themselves,” says Pickering.

We want to open people’s eyes, not only to children’s theatre but to theatre more generally

With shows for toddling two year-olds to pre-teens, the Big Imaginations programme has theatrical offerings for all ages – including the grown ups. “So much children’s theatre is about taking a story and doing something really straightforward with it,” says Pickering. “We want to push the envelope a bit and show audiences something that will surprise them and open their eyes, not only to children’s theatre but to theatre more generally.”

One-man wonder Tim Crouch re-imagines Twelfth Night for a performance of I, Malvolio at Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts and Z-arts plays host to The Icebook, a “projection mapped pop-up book” that follows one man’s journey through wilderness. The Manchester venue also stages the world premiere of Moonbird. Based on the book by Joyce Dunbar, the performance uses puppetry and masks to transport its audience to the Bedouin desert. Alongside the puppets, Talvin Community Centre hosts Nuyorican Poetry Cafe Slam-winner, Dommy B’s performance of The Dragon Who Hates Poetry and The Lowry hosts the War of the Buttons. Pickering hopes that such a diverse programme establishes the festival as a frontrunner in the world of children’s theatre. “Big Imaginations is about recognizing a certain quality of children’s work and being able to guarantee that quality to our audiences,” she says. “In the longer term, we’d also like to identify where the gaps might be.”

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