Elizabeth Newman has been brought in to connect rural Pitlochry Festival Theatre to the rest of Scotland and the globe. David Pollock speaks to Newman as she prepares to launch her first season as artistic director
No theatre occupies quite so unique a position in Scotland as Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Opened in 1951 by Glasgow amateur dramatics producer John Stewart, it was originally based on the wet-weather tented structure at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, before a permanent building arrived exactly three decades later.
In contrast to the thrusting new writing of Edinburgh’s Traverse or the high-impact and politically aware programming at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, PFT has borne a more traditional reputation over the years. With a punishing-to-perform summer repertory season and a big Christmas show, its centre of gravity isn’t the Edinburgh Festival, unlike much of the rest of Scottish theatre, but a long spread of warm summer afternoons and nights.
It is during this season that the predominantly local, older audience makes dedicated trips to the picture-postcard Perthshire town of Pitlochry to see well-chosen and powerfully executed rep theatre. This month, Elizabeth Newman launches her first season as artistic director at Pitlochry.
The last time she spoke to The Stage, in 2015, was ahead of her arrival as artistic director of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, when she said of her predecessor David Thacker’s programming: “Whether you think the work is contemporary or not is another question, but you could say it was quality.”
That statement could have been said about her new venue. “Pitlochry was looking for artistic directors who bring about change and it is interested in being more connected to places and people,” says Newman, who was found on PFT’s behalf by a headhunting company following John Durnin’s departure.
“The board was interested in somebody who was committed to equality and diversity and it has recently been awarded money by the Scottish government to do a capital project [for redevelopment], which I’ve done before. I just really love theatres to be successful.”
Newman continues: “My complete commitment is to great art for everyone, but it’s about doing that so the organisation can survive, otherwise you’re not building anything for the future. My job is to make the organisation sustainable and resilient, while opening every window and every door and letting everyone in, filling it with humans. Artists, poets, writers, gardeners, children, older humans… looking after people. I’m aware that’s not very fashionable, but I’m all right with that.” With a mother and sister who run a children’s nursery together, this sense of nurturing is clearly in Newman’s blood.
Raised in Croydon, Newman turned to directing as a teenager when illness curtailed her ambition to be a dancer. At 19, she co-founded her own theatre company, Shared Property, and by 22 she had been the acting artistic director of Southwark Playhouse, covering for sabbatical. Before she was 30, she had left the London goldfish bowl for Bolton and an apprenticeship, first as associate and then as artistic director.
Newman stayed there for so long, she says – nearly 10 years – because she loved the people and the place. So why did she leave? She describes it as a desire for “a new vicarage”.
She says: “I have a really clear picture of happiness in my mind at Pitlochry and when that picture is real it’ll be my time to go. I had it in Bolton and once I saw it become real I knew that was it, that I’d done what needed to happen for the next iteration to come. I think artistic directors have a shelf life: once they’ve delivered the thing they said they would, they have to go.”
As far removed as Bolton is from London, so is the semi-rural PFT from post-industrial Lancashire. So why this particular theatre? “My interest wasn’t about going to a new place where I would ‘just’ be the producer,” she says. “I love producing, don’t get me wrong, but I love being part of a making organisation, where the set’s built and the costumes are made and it’s rehearsed there and the work is powered by the people who live there, who work there, who visit there.
“In Scotland and in Pitlochry there’s a complete commitment to the local, but there’s also a commitment to the global. Scotland, as a country, wants to be part of the world and wants to be a country of citizens of the world. There’s this great friction and commitment and pull to the local and the global, and I’m up for that, that’s my bag. When I spoke to the board it was: ‘Pitlochry to the world and the world to Pitlochry’.”
In the past there has been the sense of insularity at PFT, a feeling that it’s happy to do its own isolated thing in its own way within Scotland’s theatrical landscape. Part of Newman’s mission – as she has set herself – is to forge links with Scotland’s wider theatrical community, to get out and embrace co-productions and possible touring opportunities.
PFT is setting up new writers’ rooms in its rehearsal space and writers from across Scotland will be informally invited. Newman hopes to add new productions for spring and autumn to the schedule and to possibly take them out on Scotland’s rural Highlands and Islands circuit.
She arrives at our interview in Edinburgh from the Royal Lyceum where she met artistic director David Greig – it has since been announced that both theatres will co-produce Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park in early 2020, directed by Newman. She is then off to Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop to discuss a possible artwork for a top secret but hugely ambitious project to be announced later this year.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in a nursery.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant director at Salisbury Playhouse.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it’s okay not to know; actually, it’s really important to say: “I don’t know.”
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The film and theatre director Mike Nichols and Simon McBurney of Complicité.
What’s your best advice?
Try to be kind to yourself.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
A human rights lawyer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really, but I suppose I never say good luck.
In her first season at PFT, meanwhile, Newman is announcing herself with a season of work that blurs the lines between the classic and the contemporary so finely that it’s impossible to notice, just as she did at Bolton. This month’s film adaptation opener Summer Holiday – which she also produced in Bolton – is a case in point.
“It’s my conversation with an audience about Brexit without doing a Brexit play, because I don’t think anyone wants to sit through that,” she says. “It enables me to speak to audiences through something they recognise and love about the goodness and positivity of young people being able to travel the world freely and not have any limits.
“Elsewhere in the season, Heritage [by Nicola McCartney] is a great Scottish play, it talks about being a migrant, being transient, trying to set up a new community – things we really need to be talking about at the moment. Blonde Bombshells of 1943 (by Alan Plater) is a link to us launching our dementia work through reminiscence, through taking people back there and linking to a story of women just getting it done.”
Blithe Spirit and The Crucible are also coming up, noted classics with a popularity that might offset the fact that PFT receives lower levels of subsidy than many Scottish theatres of a similar size. Their familiarity belies the breath of fresh air Newman is bringing to this much-loved theatre.
“The greatest risk is in not taking one, because you can’t grow,” she says of her approach. Then referencing the 11 acres of garden of PFT’s setting: “It’s like saying, ‘we’ll just turn the lights off and we won’t water anything’, then you wonder why the plants died. You have to grow it, to nourish it, to create the culture – that way you grow a theatre for a lifetime, for all ages.”
Born: 1986, Croydon
Training: Directing BA (hons) at Rose Bruford college; Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme
All at Bolton Octagon
• David Copperfield (2010)
• Duet for One (2014)
• Separation (2014)
• Love Story (2014)
• The Family Way (2015)
• Singin’ in the Rain (2016)
• To Kill a Mockingbird (2016)
• Educating Rita (2017)
• The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (2017)
• Jane Eyre (2018)
• Summer Holiday (2018)
• Best production at the Northern Awards (2018)
• Bolton’s Woman of the Year (2017)
• Writers’ Guild Award for new writing encouragement
• David Fraser/Andrea Wonfor television directors’ bursary
• Ogunte Make a Wave award for women of social leadership
• Finalist for the Young Achiever of the Year Award for arts
• Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bolton for outstanding contribution to the arts and Bolton
Go to pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com for more information on this summer’s season