Arts Aloud Interview: Tamsin Ace on creating the perfect arts programme for children

Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival is now one of the biggest hitters in the children’s arts calendar.

Arts Aloud spoke to Tamsin Ace, Head of Festival Programme and a busy working mum herself, to pick her brains on what makes it so special.

AA: How did Imagine Children’s Festival first come about?
TA: Believe it or not, the festival is actually one of the Southbank Centre’s longest running festivals, even pre-dating Artistic Director Jude Kelly’s 10 years on the programme. Historically there was always a strong literature focus for half term breaks, but the idea was to create more of an ‘appointment to visit’ in the calendar.  Creating a ‘festival’ of arts meant that we could make it much bigger and also look for ways to incorporate broader aspects of the children’s arts scene, year-round. 

Did you have a specific audience in mind when you devised the festival? (For example, Early Years, KS1 or KS2) and how do you balance content for the range of visitors that the festival might appeal to?
Imagine Children’s Festival puts children of all ages at the heart of the festival, not just in the events and activities but every aspect, from including them in visitor experience teams to selling merchandise, serving food and generally running the show! That’s something that we are very proud of and love to shout about.

Children have always been a very important part of the community. Morning, noon and night we have always worked to create a space that children can be free in. As you’ve said, some parents perhaps feel that they sometimes ‘colonise’ the space with their young children and buggies, but the festival was keen to take things one step further and make a point of actively encouraging this family participation. We didn’t want to create a festival where children were invisible and it was run by adults.

The Imagine journey is very much one of discovery, where visiting families are open to discovering other art forms


How is the festival funded and how does this impact on the content that is available?
Outside of the Arts Council funding that we receive, the remainder of the festival is funded in a variety of ways including ticketing, retail units on our website, sponsorship opportunities and contributions of other trusts. Every festival has a subsidy of some description but by funding it in this way it fulfils our ability to create a programme which has a careful balance of commercial and populist content, as well as aspects which are free or alternative. 

Typically, well-known aspects to the programme, such as the reimagining of well-loved children’s books, are easy crowd winners and certainly draw the audience, but once they are in we hope that the journey is very much one of discovery, where visiting families are open to discovering other art forms which they weren’t aware of previously.

Does the festival have any official learning objectives at play? Or is inspire and entertain the main aim?
Although it’s not our official call-out, I’d probably say the main aim is to ensure that what’s on offer both reflects children and challenges them. We spend a lot of time curating content for the programme and researching the very best in the children’s arts scene, but equally there are an array of artists who we might already be aware of that aren’t making stuff for a family audience, and perhaps could. 

Artists such as Eilidh MacAskill and her Gendersaurus Rex project is a really good example. Her work asks some serious questions about gender, feminism and sexuality. It would be brilliant to find a way to get children thinking about some of these issues in an appropriate way. 

In terms of learning, we feel that the majority of this comes from the quality, creativity and diversity of the work on offer. Bringing this to a new audience is the single biggest learning opportunity. 

In your view, what do you believe to have been the most successful or memorable aspect of the festival?
I’ve been at Southbank Centre for 8 years, taking over the Imagine programme 5 years ago, and I have seen so much growth in that time. 

Literature has really moved on and remains at the heart of the programme. We’ve built on our publisher relationships beyond the culture of ‘new releases’ and ‘junkits’ and now have a very carefully curated programme of author talks, signings and workshops. 

The expansion of the free programme has also been fantastic, with aspects running all day, from 10.30am to 4pm. Plus we’ve also transformed the dining space in the Royal Festival Hall to provide an abundance of seating in order for families to enjoy their own packed lunch on-site. 

The introduction of our ‘mini festival makers’ has also been a proud moment. Children have always been part of the journey but from the minute that we became a ‘festival’, children have had an increased input, even getting involved in the design of its identity. We had school groups of children 7 to 10 years old from Lambeth visiting weekly in the first year and it was their input that helped create a fresher more relevant appearance (the brightly coloured robot and alien images now synonymous with the festival). This kind of collaboration has since evolved into one-day takeovers. 

We’d like to make superstars out of more authors…
that would be a very good message to send our children

What’s your vision for the future?
We see no reason why the festival can’t continue to get bigger and better every year. Space is an obvious constraint and challenges exist around how we can meet our full capacity yet avoid the feeling of overcrowding for visitors. 

We also want to welcome even more of the local community to the Royal Festival Hall and see them enjoying the festival as well as spending a greater amount of time in the space and around the site.

From an artistic perspective we’d love to see more international work and perhaps even commission some more of our own work. This year David Walliams was obviously hugely popular but we’d also like to make superstars of even more authors, newer or perhaps lesser-known authors. We feel that would be a very good message to send our children.

Imagine Children’s Festival runs for 2 weeks in February and includes a programme of children’s music, theatre, literature and free events. 

Check back for updates on the programme for 2017 (Usually released around November). 

Booking now: 5 family arts activities you won’t want to miss

I am always getting asked how on earth I find out about the things that I write about, especially when most activities are sold out quicker than you can lift a limb. Sometimes it’s a tip-off by press contacts, sometimes it’s my own digging around and sometimes it’s just pure luck – a chance spot on social media or a passing conversation with a friend. 
With half term holidays just around the corner, and Easter looming not long after, here are 5 unmissable arts activities where only the truly organised will be richly rewarded.
1. Imagine Children’s Festival
The Southbank Centre’s annual art, theatre and literary festival for kids takes hold for just under two weeks in February bringing a smorgasbord of family fun. This year’s event celebrates 100 years since the birth of the great poet and storyteller Roald Dahl, and is marked by its very own programme of events including an orchestral production of the BFG and the chance to make your own very own dream jar. The infamous giant storytelling bed also returns as well as a range of events and workshops ranging from improv to writing and poetry. Outside of the paid programme there’s also a host of free activities to get involved in, suitable for children of all ages. 
Imagine Children’s Festival
10-21 February, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, London SE1 8XX
Admission prices vary. Check specific events for age guidance
See website for details

2. Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius
The much celebrated painter of the Mona Lisa has being given special recognition by the Science Museum in this incredible exhibition which honours his status as an inventor and engineer by re-building his inventions. Promising 13 interactive games and 10 multimedia installations, the exhibition also features historical models recreated from his famous drawings and sketches of flying machines and some more modern examples too. Set to be the must-see exhibition of the year and so exciting it’s sure to put the dinosaur queue at the neighbouring Natural History Museum to shame.   
Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius
10 February-4 September, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD.  Admission Adults £10, Children 7-16 £8, Under 7s Free
Recommended age 5+

3. Goosebumps Kids
Last year Adventures in Wonderland set the bar very high in the world of children’s immersive theatre, so with the handiwork of the same set designer (Samuel Wyer) and the same incredible location (The Vaults) I am expecting great things! Audience members are expected to wind their way through the abandoned railway tunnels and through a series of spine-tingling tales inspired by some of Stine’s most popular creations including The Blob That Ate Everyone and The Haunted Mask. Goosebumps Kids is billed to be a shorter (50 mins, no interval) and slightly less scary take on the adult version which opens on the 6th April, but is expected to have enough twists and turns to keep you all on your (curling) toes.
Goosebumps Kids
From 14 May, The Vaults Theatre, Leake St, London SE1 7NN
Admission for all visitors is £15 per visitor, plus £1.50 booking fee  
Recommended age 5-11
Book tickets for Goosebumps Kids

4. Half Term at the Royal Albert Hall
If you’re feeling the need to improve your child’s listening skills, what better place to go than one of Britain’s most famous concert halls, home to the annual Proms. As well as term-time music and storytelling sessions for the under 5s, half term brings a musical extravaganza to this incredible Grade II Listed building in the form of Jazz For Kids; a special jazz session for children aged 4-9 hosted by The Dixie Ticklers. Children are invited to sing, dance, listen to the music and meet the musicians, with plenty of opportunity to fondle the instruments for themselves. When you’re done, you’re in the perfect place to make a day of it – right on the doorstep of the fabulous Kensington Gardens, home to Princess Diana Memorial Playground and the Serpentine Galleries.
Jazz For Kids: Jumpin’ at the Royal Albert Hall
18 February, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP
10.30am and 1.30pm. Admission Adults £13.24, Children £7.12
Recommended age 4-9
See website for details of this and other half term events

5. My First Ballet
For the fifth year running, My First Ballet returns to London’s Peacock Theatre in an exciting collaboration between English National Ballet and English National Ballet School, enabling children as young as three to experience an adaptation of a classic ballet production. This year’s treat is the romantic fairytale Sleeping Beauty, featuring all the magic of the traditional story but with the addition of narrators and shortened musical scores to help little ones to follow proceedings. A victim of their own success, these tailor-made productions are always a sell-out, so if you aren’t lucky enough to catch its preview in London, the production will be touring around the country until the end of May.

My First Ballet
24 March–2 April, Peacock Theatre, Portugal St, London WC2A 2HT
Times vary, check website for booking details. Tickets £10-£25, Family ticket £65
Recommended age 3+
Locations included in the nationwide tour are Norwich (8 & 9 Apr), Dartford (16 & 17 Apr), Hastings (7 & 8 May), Manchester (23 & 24 Apr), Bristol, (21 & 22 May), Woking (28 & 29 May) and Oxford (30 Apr & 1 May)

Booking now: Imagine Children’s Festival, a smorgasbord of family fun

Every year the lunatics take over the asylum for two weeks, as the Southbank Centre hosts Imagine Children’s Festival, its annual arts festival dedicated to children.

Many of you will already be familiar with the space, and welcome some quiet contemplation whilst the kids throw themselves onto bean bags in The Clore Ballroom, or ride up and down in the JCB Singing Lift. For those of you who aren’t, the Southbank Centre is the UK’s largest arts centre, comprising of three iconic buildings (Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery) located smack-bang in the heart of London’s bustling South Bank.

Packed with events and activities to keep families busy over half term, last year’s highlights included live illustration by Quentin Blake, The Big Sleepover on the Royal Festival Hall stage and a time machine. This year promises to be bigger and broader with events and activities for all ages.

Highlights from this year’s programme include:
– The return of the popular The Big Sleepover
Russell Brand will be keeping it clean, channeling his energy into reading from his new children’s book The Pied Piper of Hamelin
– The London premiere of a brand new production of Brundibár, the renowned children’s opera by Hans Krása
Bouncing Cats and Boom Boom Pups, a new Southbank Centre commission by Hip Hop spoken word artist Maxwell Golden who has created a special call and response children’s show
Charlie and Lola’s Best Bestest Play – The stars of the hit BBC TV series and books by Lauren Child are brought to life by a magical mix of puppets, live interaction and music
– A bigger programme for babies with Baby Yoga sessions, Move and Shake and two shows for under-threes by Half Moon Young People’s Theatre; Curious and Circles in the Sand. Plus there will be a brand new early years soft play village

And for those who are usually put off by the high prices, the good news is that over half of the 2015 programme will be free of charge, offering all families and schools a chance to sample literature, music, theatre, poetry and dance, without having to part with a penny. There are also a wide selection of shows and activities for under £5.

Best of the free activities are:
– A family concert in The Clore Ballroom by the Young Orchestra for London, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
Have a go strings with In Harmony Lambeth, drop-in session for kids to try their hand at playing the violin, viola, cello or double base under expert guidance
Cowboy Max, a free family theatre performance packed with adventures, from trick roping, whip and joke cracking to magic and song
– The chance to challenge the Queen of Hearts to a game of Flamingo Croquet on the Festival Terrace

And for fidgety bums there’s a host of dance activities such as Move and Shake and the grand Animal Parade, as well as nearby Jubilee Gardens; a great place to burn-off excess energy whilst watching some of the Southbank’s best street performers.

Most of the popular shows started booking out before Christmas, so if you haven’t already, get booking. Alternatively, you could just take a flight of fancy on the day, mosey on down and see what’s what.

One thing is for sure, it’s exciting, it’s noisy, it’s mayhem, but it is enlightening and absolutely always memorable. If you have been looking for the right opportunity to dip your toe into the children’s arts scene, then this annual spectacular is the perfect place to start.

Imagine Children’s Festival is on at the Southbank Centre from 9th – 22nd February 2015.

To receive updates on the Southbank Centre’s year-round programme of arts-based family activities, sign up to their email newsletter.