A Swan song, Fred Penner and much more coming to this year’s Ottawa Children’s Festival

Skeleton Key Theatre will premiere Swan River at the Ottawa Children's Festival starting on May 11. Photo: Susie Shapiro Photography

Yes, it’s true, agrees Kate Smith: In school, children learn about the natural world and the importance of protecting it.

“But there’s theoretical education sitting in a classroom and then there’s practical, immersive education, and I don’t think that can be replaced by reading about stewardship,” says the co-founder of Ottawa’s Skeleton Key Theatre company. “It’s important to go out and have learning experiences in the landscape. It’s cool to be out in the world and exploring.”

Getting audiences out into the natural world is what Swan River, a mystery play that Skeleton Key is debuting at the upcoming Ottawa Children’s Festival, is intended to do.

The show about a seven-year-old girl named Pen and her older brother, Cob, takes place at Remic Rapids Park on the Ottawa River about four kilometres from Parliament Hill. The park is where artist John Felice Ceprano builds his gorgeous balanced rock sculptures in the water every year.

“There’s critters there, herons, Canada geese,” says Smith. There are also trees and other natural features, and when Smith and company built their site-specific show they let the venue help dictate design, acting and other creative choices.

Those choices include having the audience “walk into” the play and serve as townspeople in the story, says Smith.

“I don’t want to give anything away, but by the end the audience is fully integrated into the story. They become complicit in what’s happening because they’re moving and exploring.”

The festival’s artistic producer Catherine O’Grady says she would like to see the premiere of Ottawa shows like this become a regular feature of the Children’s Festival, which was established in 1985. “It’s a nice way to be in touch with the right audience for a local work.”

As she’s done in the past, O’Grady has scheduled a mix of Canadian and international performers at the festival site in LeBreton Flats Park (there’s a shuttle bus for Swan River). The artists include children’s musician Fred Penner – a Canadian performer who’s enjoyed a major resurgence in recent years – as well as shows from Australia, Denmark and elsewhere.

Her enticing lineup notwithstanding, O’Grady has to compete with the myriad other attractions calling to children, from sports to the glow of computer screens.

She contends that, like soccer or basketball, children need to engage early with the arts to fully develop the muscles of imagination and creativity.

And when they do, their powers of observation and understanding flourish, something O’Grady spots in those children who return to the festival year after year: “Their ability to talk about the shows and how it affects them and what they are taking away is infinitely superior to others who are coming for the first time.”

Children also learn to trust their own responses to art, she says, “to know they have permission to engage imaginatively in the experience, that it’s their own experience and they don’t need to have it be the same as their teachers or the person next door. That’s a really important part of creative development, to be developing that independence.”

Not that the festival is some kind of TED Talk for the younger set. With the range of shows and other activities – rock climbing, a Mad Hatter tea party, T-shirt design using car parts — there’s traditionally too much fun at the festival for engagement with it to ever become weighty.

That engagement includes seeing shows like The Secret Life of Suitcases from Scotland. The puppet show – and what kid can resist puppets? – is about an office drone named Larry who encounters a fantastical flying suitcase that spirits him away to worlds he’s never dared dream of.

“Puppets and the animation of objects can visually take the characters in the story to any place and by any means,” says the show’s co-creator and puppeteer Ailie Cohen. “The possibilities are endless.”

Echoing Smith and O’Grady, Cohen says the show is meant to remind us of the rich experiences that escape our notice if we ignore what is happening around us all the time.

“We would like our audience to feel uplifted by the experience of seeing our show. It’s a nod to taking notice of the little things that can open our eyes to the really big things.”

This year’s shows include:

Fred Penner, Canada, all ages.

The Secret Life of Suitcases, Scotland. Age 6+

Jam Side Up, Québec. Identical twins in a puppet/circus show. Ages 5-12

Machine de Cirque, Québec. Physical theatre/circus. All ages

Boxy George, Denmark. Return of a gentle, irresistible puppet show that played the festival in 2009. Ages 6+

New Owner, Australia. A dog’s journey in puppetry, live action and animation. All ages

Plastic, Montréal. Plastic bags come to life. Ages 5+

Swan River, ages 7+

The Ottawa Children’s Festival runs May 11- 15 at LeBreton Flats Park, with one show at Remic Rapids. Information and tickets: 613-241-0999, ottawachildrensfestival.ca

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.