Pitlochry Festival Theatre takes its summer season into the great outdoors

With social distancing regulations continuing to make indoor performances problematic, Pitlochry Festival Theatre is preparing to stage its summer season in a series of newly-created outdoor spaces, writes Joyce McMillan

Kirsty Stuart and Nicholas Karimi will star in Adventures With The Painted People

When the pandemic struck last year, Pitlochry Festival Theatre was the hardest hit of all Scotland’s producing theatres. With public funding covering only 15 per cent of its annual costs, the theatre was almost totally dependent on box office income, and on the successful operation of its beautiful restaurant and cafe bar overlooking the River Tummel; and when the theatre’s doors shut in March 2020, all of these income streams came to a full stop.

One year on, though, the strange twists and turns of these pandemic times are beginning to transform Pitlochry’s unique position – as a major tourist attraction as well as an arts venue, in what is possibly the most beautiful natural location of any theatre in Britain – into a possible advantage, as the theatre prepares for something of which most companies can only dream: a summer season staged in a series of new outdoor spaces created on the very doorstep of the theatre itself. On the beautiful lawn sloping down to the river, a new bandstand is being built, for outdoor music events and smaller platform performances; in the river itself, a boat-like wooden stage will provide another performance space.

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And most spectacularly, in the towering Explorers’ Garden woodland on the hillside behind the theatre, the Pitlochry company is building a new amphitheatre – facing east, with Ben Vrackie as a backdrop – that will accommodate an audience of 50 people even at 2.5 metres distance from each other, and will enable the theatre to start selling tickets for mainstage shows again, on however small a scale.

“The auditorium is completely uncovered and open to the elements,” says Pitlochry’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman, “and that helps us avoid the risk of further restrictions on covered spaces. So basically it is vulnerable to the weather – although the trees should provide some shelter – and we are telling people to wrap up warm and bring an umbrella. Yes, like everything else involved in the pandemic, it is a risk. But the more we learn about Covid-19, the more it seems that being out of doors, and properly distanced, is the key to staying safe; so fingers crossed that our season can open as planned, and continue through until September.”

When last year’s Pitlochry summer season was cancelled, the original plan was simply to reschedule it for 2021; but since that has not proved possible, the 2021 programme put together by Newman offers an interesting mix of shows planned for last year, brand new work, joyful family entertainment, and short classics designed to provide high-quality bite-sized theatre shows. The season opens with a single survivor of last year’s season, in David Greig’s latest play Adventures With The Painted People, exploring the relationship between a Roman soldier and a Pictish woman leader, who meet on the banks of the Tay perhaps 1,700 years ago. Already transformed, last summer, into a successful 90 minute BBC radio play, Adventures With The Painted People will be directed by Newman; and the leading role of Eithne will be played by Kirsty Stuart, best known to Pitlochry audiences for her unforgettable performance as Grace in Elizabeth Newman’s 2019 production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, and also perhaps for recent appearances in television series including Shetland and Call The Midwife.

The theatre season will continue with a version of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind In The Willows for all the family, running on and around the “riverboat” stage from July to September; brief weekend runs of short plays by Dostoevsky and Chekhov, appearing in July and August; a selection of pieces playing in repertoire from the theatre’s powerful online Shades Of Tay season; a new solo version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll And Hyde, written by Hannah Lavery; and in September, a special event called Requiem, created by playwright and performer Jo Clifford and theologian and activist Lesley Orr, designed to commemorate the many thousands of loved ones lost during this pandemic year, and to recognise what we have experienced.

Throughout the season, there will also be an Alice In Wonderland sound and visual installation in the Explorers’ Garden, available for family audiences in both Gaelic and English; and a range of spoken word and music events, including an Evening With Agatha Christie in late June, two events based on the Tay’s Gaelic Memoir project, and at least four concerts celebrating music from Mozart to West End musicals.

“Right from the start of the pandemic,” says Newman, “our aim has been first to make sure that we survive at all, as a theatre organisation here in Highland Perthshire, and then to rinse every possible opportunity out of what has sometimes been a very frightening crisis. We’ve had to go through a very difficult redundancy process, we’ve had to furlough most of our remaining staff, we’ve had support from the Scottish Government’s Performing Arts Venue Relief Fund which has been a lifeline, and we’re waiting and hoping to hear that there will be more support to get us through this next stage, when any box office income will be so much lower than usual.

“Yet we’ve also learned so much about how to use online work to stay in touch with our audiences; and now we’re on a huge learning curve about how to work out of doors, and use this wonderful space that surrounds the theatre. And always, in every situation, this is just the best place to make theatre; so beautiful, so inspiring, with such a great team, and with an audience that just can’t wait to get back to it, as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s 2021 Summer Season opens on 28 May with a platform performance of Kenneth Stevens’s poem Riversong, and on 10 June with David Greig’s Adventures With The Painted People. For tickets & details, see https://booking.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com/events/

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