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Elizabeth Newman: ‘For me, directing is about supporting other people to fly’

Elizabeth Newman, artistic director of Bolton's Octagon Theatre. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Over the summer Elizabeth Newman was running a workshop for young people at the Bolton Octagon. She began by asking the teenage participants at the workshop with the artistic director who they were expecting to meet. “They all started: ‘A bald, fat, white man with a moustache, a clipboard and a briefcase, who was strict and a bit boring, maybe a bit mad, too. Also, posh’.”

Newman is very few of those things. A petite, blonde 29-year-old with a south-east London accent that has survived six years in Bolton, she was announced as the Octagon’s new artistic director in March – the youngest artistic director since Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami began at the Gate – and officially took over in July.

Her predecessor, David Thacker, who ticked more (but by no means all) of those artistic director expectations, had been in the post for six years and, according to Newman, “reset the quality button for the Octagon” – in a good way. “Whether you think the work is contemporary or not is another question,” she adds, “but you could say it was quality. That’s what David did. Now, we’ve got to join everybody else in terms of innovation and reach. That’s what I’ve got to do.”

Expect big changes, in other words. Newman wants to create “an entirely holistic” Octagon. Where, previously, the primary focus was on producing work for the main stage, Newman’s Octagon will put everything – participation, education, community – on an equal footing. “We’ll work across three platforms – inside, outside and online – and we’ll be an organisation that is in service to its community.”

That has already meant an overhaul of the staffing structure: departments have been broken up and replaced with a single artistic team. “Like the Knights of the Round Table,” as Newman puts it. Everyone knows what everyone else is up to: the new writing associate knows about the youth theatre, the general manager is clued up on fundraising plans. The point is that everything is pushing to the same aim: “To inspire the creativity of the people who live in and visit a place”.


Q&A: Elizabeth Newman

What was your first job? Working in a nursery.
What is your next job? I haven’t been doing this one very long so who knows?
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? `It’s okay not to know – actually it’s really important to say ‘I don’t know’.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Mike Nichols (film and theatre director) and Simon McBurney (artistic director of Complicite).
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? Human rights lawyer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? Not really, but I suppose I never say good luck.

This is the theatre as a civic building, as an artistic hub for the community. Her 2016 season is “a varied diet” – one that mixes everything from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger to a new musical staged in the legendary local chippie, Olympus. There’s a new spin on Macbeth by Horrible Histories creator Terry Deary and a strand of work for toddlers. The theatre will be turned over to the community twice: for National Theatre Connections and for a showcase of amateur writing, The Best of Bolton.

Newman signs up to the idea that regional theatres are primarily local theatres. “The Octagon was built by the town,” she explains. “They paid 12 and a half pence per brick. It wasn’t about some person talking to some other agency, deciding that the town needed a theatre. The people of Bolton built it. I see my tenure as giving the theatre back to the people.”

The two of us are sitting in an old-fashioned pub in Manchester. It’s a rainy Thursday afternoon and, as work finishes, the place fills up with drinkers. Their pints put our cups of tea to shame, their noise near drowns us out. It’s not the sort of spot most artistic directors would choose to meet, but it speaks volumes about Newman. It’s not that she fits right in – she has a dormouse presence – but that she doesn’t think it unusual.

This, after all, is why she headed north in the first place: a sense of community and an itch to make a real difference. Born and raised in Croydon, she had started to have success on the London fringe in her early 20s. Her production company Shared Property – set up when she was 19 – had a string of small-scale successes, mostly at the Southwark Playhouse. When Southwark’s artistic director Ellie Jones went on sabbatical, Newman, still only 22, was invited to stand in.

“I was very young,” she says, looking back on that time, “and everyone was looking at me, mainly because I was so young.” Despite her success, she grew increasingly frustrated with London theatre, its insularity and its sense of a scene. “There’s a difference between being a career director and being a theatremaker, and I think I was on track to be a career director. That worried me. I started to wonder if I respected my own work.”

Elizabeth Newman with Clare Foster in rehearsals for Duet for One and Separation which were performed in repertoire at Bolton Octagon in 2014. Photo: Ray Jefferson/Bolton Camera Club
Elizabeth Newman with Clare Foster in rehearsals for Duet for One and Separation which were performed in repertoire at Bolton Octagon in 2014. Photo: Ray Jefferson/Bolton Camera Club

The following year, she applied for the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme and ended up working for Thacker in Bolton, finding in him a kindred spirit. They’re both doers, she says. “Complete alchemy.” She was given bigger shows, appointed associate director and, last year, received a Manchester Theatre Award nomination for a pair of Tom Kempinski plays, Separation and Duet for One.

Mostly, though, she found that the theatre mattered. “You watch the audience grow up.” They stick around after shows to say hello. Local teenagers measure their growth against her – “the back to back test”, she calls it. “It’s about being part of somebody’s life.”

There’s another factor behind Newman’s community-led approach. In her early teens, she experienced a serious neurological condition, one that left her using a wheelchair for a time. Her illness put an end to her hopes of performing. She had been a promising dancer, studying at the Royal Academy, but, after her time in hospital, she found herself directing instead. Even now, she rarely goes to watch dance.

“I thought I was going to have quite a physical life,” she says. “Dancing, for me, was like flying. It was being completely free. And I worked out at that point that I couldn’t fly, but I could help other people to fly – and that’s flying in a different way. That’s what directing is for me: supporting other people to fly.”

The Kempinski plays had special resonance for Newman, as they both centre on characters with long-standing degenerative illnesses. Her own experience of illness, she says, filters into her direction. “I don’t feel the need to sanitise things,” she explains. “Life’s really hard.”

Do other people feel that, I ask. “Theatre can be very heady, not very feely. Actually, when your world goes into chaos, truly into chaos, which all good drama should do, in that moment you aren’t thinking, you’re feeling. Yes, you can be coming out with articulate ideas and you’re able to argue and fight, but it’s coming from a place of feeling, not reason. You’re not in control. I guess I’m comfortable encouraging actors to go there, to lose control, because none of us is really in control, are we?” She pauses for a second. “I think it’s our responsibility as artists to take audiences to those places.”

CV: Elizabeth Newman

Born: 1986, Croydon
Training: Directing BA (Hons), Rose Bruford; Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme
Landmark productions: David Copperfield (2010), Duet for One (2014), Separation (2014), Love Story (2014) Awards: Writers’ Guild award for new writing encouragement, David Fraser/Andrea Wonfor Television Directors’ Bursary, Ogunte Make a Wave award for Women of Social Leadership Agent: None

The Bolton Octagon runs youth workshops and training throughout the year in term time. Look Back in Anger opens on April 7, 2016. Details at octogonbolton.co.uk

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