WHERE has 30 years gone? The TakeOff Festival, of course, will always be in its infancy because the whole aim of the North-East-based event is to showcase the best in world children’s theatre.

“The world has changed a lot since 1987 and I’ve been looking back at the archive and it started in the Riverside Studios, in Hammersmith, and was born out of the theatre education movement when companies were put under pressure to prove their worth,” says Miranda Thain, the artistic director of Darlington’s Theatre Hullabaloo.

“The whole idea was to bring these theatre-makers together and be inspired by shows from abroad. London was the place to meet at that time, but TakeOff then moved to the local authority where it was most wanted. There were a couple of years in Sheffield, a year in Leeds and then in 1997 Paul Harman, the previous artistic director of CTC on Teesside, decided the festival would be ideal for the North-East.

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“There were 16 delegates in a small B&B in Seaton Carew with some very ‘out there’ European companies and a few offerings from each other to talk about. They viewed theatre in schools around Hartlepool and then sat in a pub and talked about them,” says Thain.

In 2012, the festival found a permanent home in Durham, where the festival will run from October 16 to 22.

This was part of the toughest time for Theatre Hullabaloo, renamed from CTC, because its Darlington Arts Centre home had closed, taking with it rehearsals rooms and TakeOff’s main theatre space.

“Now, from those few delegates in Seaton Carew, we’re looking at more than 150 theatre professionals interested in young audiences from around the world. It’s our biggest ever international offering with companies from Mexico, the Netherlands, Italy, Iceland and Spain,” says Thain.

The essential financial support is coming from the Arts Council, Durham County Council and the County Durham community Foundation. This means 10,000 children will be able to attend shows at subsidised rates, including smaller schools from corners of Teesdale. “It’s fantastic to bring a whole school of about 20 pupils over to Durham City. When you’re going back to poverty of opportunity, going to Durham City for a theatre show is pretty exotic,” jokes Thain.

TakeOff shows are also touring out to places like Stanhope and Pelton Community Centre where Theatre Hullabaloo aim to retain those magical moments when school theatre can inspire young audiences.

“TakeOff is now England’s leading festival of theatre for children and young people. It is the biggest event of its type and the place where professionals come to share work and ideas and allows us to stage a fantastic programme of shows for children and families,” she says.

Theatre Hullaloo are currently discussing the impact of TakeOff because it has a reputation gained outside London. “People blink at you when you say that the national centre is London, but that we are based in Darlington. That’s quite radical and it’s good for England that the centre of children’s theatre is based in the North-East. It’s something we’re quite proud of. You shouldn’t just be able to access experiences like this in Wimbledon.”

The festival ends with a big family day in Durham on Saturday, October 21, where there will be lots of street theatre, face painting, a fairytale trail, a bubbleologist and performances for every age range from babies to teenagers.

In this day and age, to hear that seven days of region-wide family theatre appeal costs £100,000 sounds almost as thrifty as the Eighties. “We take our responsibility for spending public money very seriously and we want to make sure it’s spent to the benefit of children and young people. People do need to place a value on our work, but if you can see a TakeOff show for £6.50 and look at even regional theatre ticket prices – I couldn’t get an adult ticket for under £22 the other day – you start to wonder if all subsidised theatre is available to all.”

Thain is thrilled that audiences today are those who fondly remember CTC from schooldays and are bringing their own children to Theatre Hullabaloo’s TakeOff, which is also preparing to open its new venue next to Darlington’s Hippodrome later this year. “Hopefully we’ll be sitting here in 20 years time talking about grandparents bringing children and grandchildren to Theatre Hullabaloo,” says Thain.

She also points out that children’s theatre is becoming more important because there are fewer and fewer times when people come together to share occasions. “I sound like an old fuddy-duddy but I really miss those occasions when you sit down together as a family and watch event television. Going to the theatre is sharing experiences, ideas and stories and the responses I see on social media after one of our shows is that the family are still talking about it and still playing the ideas months later,” says Thain.

This year, she’s really thrilled that Teatro al Vacio from Mexico are bringing the charming dance-based piece called Close to Durham’s Town Hall on October 18 and also running workshops. Another she’s particularly looking forward to is BonteHond from The Netherlands staging iPet, involving balloon animals, magic tricks and the audience interacting on iPads, at Durham’s Gala theatre on October 19.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Theatre Hullabaloo is not staging its own production this time. “I know, but we’ve got quite a lot going on this year. It’s the first time in a long time and it’s really because three weeks after we finish the festival we’ve got to move into our theatre in Darlington and we will be entering rehearsals for Bear & Butterfly, which is our opening show.”

  • For more details and book go to takeofffestival.org.uk. School bookings: 01325-352-004