Bright Sparks – Leicester’s Spark Arts for Children Festival 2014

spark14Clutching a bag of partially melted Revels, a little girl sits on the edge of her seat, unable to take her eyes off the performers on stage as they sing, dance and magic her away to Ancient Egypt – a world of which she has no experience but which now feels very real. A love of theatre, performance, music and make believe begins.

Unfortunately, many children don’t get opportunities to enjoy such experiences and this is one of the main drivers behind Leicester’s Spark Arts for Children festival. Now in its twelfth year, the Spark has worked with over 135,000 children and their families and is a much-anticipated and enjoyed festival in the city. So what sparked The Spark? Adel Al-Salloum, Director of the festival said:

“The Spark began in 2003 in response to a need for live performance arts for children in the region and has grown to become the largest independent arts festival especially for children and young people in England and Wales.”

Every year, just in time for the late Spring half term, the Spark brings international and national artists to Leicester with performances and activities developed for babies all the way up to thirteen year olds. In 2013 over 18,500 people attended, this year there are over one hundred performances at eighteen venues including arts venues, schools and neighbourhood centres. Some events are free and give children the chance to get their hands dirty – literally – creating and experimenting with art and culture in a safe environment.

Exposing children and young people to the arts in its many forms is widely acknowledged to be of great benefit: enriching their experiences and learning, providing an outlet for fun and escapism and fuelling already inquisitive and imaginative minds. And, who knows, maybe some amongst them will be inspired to go on and become artists themselves? But, as with many artistic endeavours, barriers come in the form of costs and cuts. As well as the festival’s status as a National Portfolio client together with a small grant from Leicester City Council, Adel and her small team work closely and creatively with a large range of stakeholders, such as parks, museums, libraries and schools increases buy-in and thus resilience and sustainability.

“We work exceptionally hard to cultivate interest in what we do with local businesses, trusts and foundations and this support can be in kind or cash. It’s hard work as many budgets are reduced but we are tenacious and believe very strongly in our vision. The future is bright because it would be counterproductive to imagine a city that lost its Spark.”

Theatres and performance venues can be an intimidating place for many adults, never mind children, but one of the great things about the Spark is that performances also come to the children at school, this year with shows such as Yummm!, Frog and the Princess and I, Peaseblossom. Adel commented on the moments that, for her, make the festival worthwhile:
“Every year I stand in a school hall with 120 engaged children smiling, laughing, thinking … I feel very humbled and know this is why we do it! Our school programme is incredibly special and remains at the heart of the festival. For me, the arts are vital to childhood.”

It is clear the organisers of Spark have an indomitable urge to share diverse art forms with children, to engage and entertain and get them thinking. 2014’s programme includes the sensory, the science and the silly: Italian company La Baracca – Testoni Ragazzi presents The Boat and The Moon where song, puppetry and movement tell the story of a boat who leaves the sea and sails to the Moon. Explosions, fires and rockets abound with Science Museum Live’s The Energy Show and silly fun with Christian Lee’s Pop! A Magical Comedy Show. The Spark also co-produce a special performance each year, this time with Bamboozle Theatre and Jack and the FlumFlum Tree from the book by Julia Donaldson, and which will tour special schools in Leicestershire before a regional tour. For older children, workshops including DJing and Turntablism, Urban Art and Animation Nation address the desire for ‘cool not baby stuff’.

So, if you’re free this half term and fancy experimenting with dance, digital arts or even getting down at a baby disco then the Spark Arts for Children festival is where it’s all at.

And the girl at the start of this article? That was me in the early 1970s, watching one of the very first performances of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in Leicester before it transferred to the West End. It was a performance I have never forgotten and provided the initial spark of a lifelong love of and now participation in the arts.

The Spark Arts for Children is at a number of different venues around Leicester from 19 May to 1 June 2014.

Tickets available from different venues, or see the full programme and purchase tickets online www.sparkfestival.co.uk

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