Ottawa Children’s Festival biggest ever, organizer says

A scene from The Man Who Planted Trees by the U.K.’s Puppet State Theatre Company.

Zip lines, multi-media and a button-eyed puppet named DOG: if you needed proof that performing arts for children is evolving while still celebrating its traditions, search no further than this year’s Ottawa Children’s Festival.

Now in its 32nd year, the festival runs May 10-14 at LeBreton Flats Park and other venues. It includes theatre, dance and music for young and older audiences alike. Some shows are in English, some are bilingual, and some are charmingly non-verbal.

With nine shows from Canada and abroad, the labyrinth of colour and light known as Kateena Luminarium, and a cavalcade of on-site activities from rock climbing to workshops in theatre and circus arts, this year’s festival is “the biggest we’ve ever undertaken in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday,” says festival director Catherine O’Grady.

It’s also both new and old-school in its programming. Multimedia technology (and those zip lines) are at the core of the visually sophisticated, acrobatically-based Wanted from Italy. At the same time, old-fashioned storytelling – along with puppets of both the human and canine variety – underpins many of the shows.

Wanted is a cartoon world of video projections. From Italy’s events Verticali.

O’Grady says the use of multimedia is among the big changes in children’s shows she seen during her 17 years at the festival’s helm. That, and a recent uptick in shows for very, very young audiences – in the case of this fest, for little ones 18 months and up who can soak up the gentle, magical story of Waves: All That Glows Sees.

Work for the very young is increasingly popular in Europe and is expanding in North America, says O’Grady. “Parents are becoming more sophisticated in recognizing that curiosity is not language-based. So it’s a natural extension to bring little ones and theatre together.”

What doesn’t alter over the years is children’s “sense of exploration,” she says. “That lively sense of creative curiosity never changes.”

Here’s a taste of shows at this year’s festival.

Tetris. Inspired by the 1980s video game of the same name, this dance-based show from the Netherlands demands extraordinary physical dexterity of its performers as it scopes out how we connect with each other. Ages 6 and up.

Laurianne Brabant, Hugues Sarra-Bournet, AndrŽanne Joubert in I on the Sky, from Montreal’s DynamO Théâtre.

I on the Sky. Montreal’s DynamO Théâtre explores exile and how we can grow as a result. The non-verbal show takes place around a park bench, and was inspired by writer/director Yves Simard’s habit while touring internationally of finding park benches to observe his new surroundings while looking at the sky he still shares with his family back home. He says he hopes that, having seen the show, audiences will be more “open to others even if they’re strangers. That’s very important these days.” Ages 10 and up.

Wanted. A cartoon world of video projections, a vertical stage, and a comic cops and robbers scenario define what O’Grady calls the most complicated show the festival has ever mounted. By eVenti Verticali from Italy. All ages.

Ashley MacIsaac. One-time bad boy and Canadian fiddling sensation, MacIsaac blends Celtic music, rock, pop and pretty much anything else that catches his fancy. All ages.

The Man Who Planted Trees. The U.K.’s Puppet State Theatre Company adapts Jean Giono’s environmental classic about a shepherd who reforests a barren landscape with his pal DOG. The show was a hit when it played the festival in 2012. Co-creator Richard Medrington says young audiences have posed some great questions in post-show talkbacks. He recalls one youngster asking how old the Man was. “I answered, ‘He was 89 when he died.’ The questioner responded, ‘Yes, but how old was he before he died?’” Medrington is still trying to work that one out. Ages 7 and up.

Waves: All That Glows Sees. Puppetry, magic and music for the very young set, from Quebec’s Le Théâtre des Confettis. O’Grady says the show “helps little kids identify what the senses are and how to use them.” Ages 18 months to 4 years.

Ottawa Children’s Festival is at LeBreton Flats Park and La Nouvelle Scène (Ottawa) / Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau) May 10-14. For tickets and more information: 613-241-0999,

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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.