By becoming Dundee Rep’s new artistic director, Andrew Panton is fulfilling a long-held ambition
Andrew Panton was about eight years old when, as a wee boy growing up in Burntisland, Fife, he first clapped eyes on Dundee Rep Theatre. His Mum had brought him to see a show, probably the Christmas one; and as they climbed into the car to head home, Andrew piped up with a key question. “Mum,” he said, “do you think I could run that theatre one day?” His mother said yes, maybe he could; because wee Andrew was already fascinated by music, drama and dance, to the point of rushing up to the desk to enrol himself in his sister’s Saturday ballet class when his Mum turned away to chat to another parent.
After school at Balwearie High in Kirkcaldy, and three years studying music theatre at Arts Educational in London – plus a promising career as a child actor, during which he met luminaries like John Gielgud and Brian Blessed – he did indeed begin to develop a stage career, which could have taken any one of a dozen directions. He acted, he wrote, he music-directed, he danced; he even became a member of a successful German-based boy band called Step Ahead.
Then in the late 1990s, he took up a teaching post in Scarborough, and became involved in the Stephen Joseph Theatre there, run by the great Alan Ayckbourn; and it was when Ayckbourn said that he felt he was a director by nature, rather than anything else, that Panton finally decided to pursue that path, becoming an assistant director at Perth Theatre, and then, in 2006, assistant to John Tiffany, on the world-famous National Theatre of Scotland production Black Watch.
His career continued to have many strands, though. In 2007 he became Head of Music Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, launching Scotland’s first ever BA in Music Theatre, and continued his occasional television and music-industry work, which includes directing the entertainment elements of Children In Need Scotland, and producing tracks for Simon Cowell’s record label. That led, in 2014, to Panton being asked to create the controversial “Scottish cliches” section of the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in Glasgow, complete with dancing Tunnock’s Teacakes. And when his dream job of artistic director at Dundee Rep came up for grabs, in 2012, he still felt, at 38, that he wasn’t quite ready.
“I think it was partly that the job was different then,” says Panton. “At that point, the director of the theatre ensemble at Dundee was also the chief executive of the whole Rep organisation, including Scottish Dance Theatre; and although I had watched James Brining and Hamish Glen do the job brilliantly, it wasn’t one I fancied – I had seen James almost dividing his brain in two to do it, and that’s tough.
“Now, though, the Rep has a triple leadership, with Nick Parr as chief executive, Fleur Darkin at Scottish Dance Theatre, and me as director of the Ensemble; and as soon as I heard it was open for applications, I thought, ‘this is the moment’. Every time I walk into Dundee Rep I just feel excited by the place, that sense of a creative engine-room at the heart of the city, with so many different things going on; and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be just now.”
Unlike some directors – who find the idea restricting – Panton is excited by the idea of working with Dundee Rep’s permanent ensemble of actors, some of whom have been with the company since it was launched by Hamish Glen in 1999, as the only permanent ensemble company in Scotland, and perhaps in the UK. Glen had come up with the idea after seeing the work of long-term ensemble companies in Russia and Lithuania as a young director; and 18 years on, Panton is thrilled by the idea of working with a group of actors who can be seen as fellow artists and co-creators, rather than precarious temporary employees.
“I think it’s a great resource for the city and for Scottish theatre,” says Panton, “and I’m determined both that it will be used more fully in Dundee – which is going through such an exciting time at the moment, opening up to the world – and that the ensemble’s great work will be seen more widely across Scotland, and beyond.”
Panton’s enthusiasm for the idea of the ensemble has also influenced his first year-long programme. Full details will be announced later this month, but he’s willing to reveal that the season will open in September with the Scottish premiere of August: Osage County, a fierce black comedy that first emerged from the Steppenwolf Ensemble in Chicago in 2007. Its author, Tracy Letts, is also a Tony-award winning actor and long-term member of Steppenwolf; and Panton feels that the whole story of August: Osage County captures something of what the Rep Ensemble is, and could be.
“It’s a great big rowdy family drama with a cast of 13 and a whole range of brilliant characters,” says Panton, “and it seems to me really important that it came from a writer who is also an actor. But that’s only the start of a season that also features our Christmas show, with the great Ann Louise Ross as a female Scrooge, as well as more Scottish premieres, and plenty of music theatre. If I had to say what’s at the heart of the programme I’ve put together, I’d say storytelling; great stories with great acting, great movement and design, and great live music. I hope our audiences will love it. And to anyone who hasn’t been to the theatre yet, I’d just like to say: ‘Come along here, to this great place; come along and give it a try.’”
Dundee Rep’s 2017-18 season opens in September with August: Osage County. Full programme details will be announced on 27 May.