Theatre interview: Pitlochry's new artistic director Elizabeth Newman plans to take the whole community along for the ride

If you want a clue about the incoming artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre you'll find it in William Blake. On her first visit to the theatre in the hills, Elizabeth Newman kept thinking of a line by the poet. 'To the eyes of the man of imagination,' wrote the 20-year-old Blake, 'nature is imagination itself.'

Pitlochry Festival Theatre's new artistic director Elizabeth Newman
Pitlochry Festival Theatre's new artistic director Elizabeth Newman

For Newman, about to move to a theatre embedded in nature, inspiration lies in the landscape. From the salmon ladder and the distilleries to Explorers, the Scottish plant hunters’ garden, she is rooting herself in the environment.

“I walked through the Himalayas a couple of weeks ago and I’ve never been to the Himalayas,” she laughs, after touring the garden with manager Julia Corden. “Pitlochry is full of explorers. The people that work there love exploring drama and nature and they also attract explorers. That’s been my portal into beginning to dig. Artistic direction is about digging in the place, because it’s all there, you just have to unearth it and discover the potential, which is there in abundance at Pitlochry.”

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Just before the announcement of her Pitlochry appointment, I happened to meet Newman in Bolton where she has been running the Octagon Theatre since 2015 (before that she was an associate director for five years). Her production of Summer Holiday, which began with a real bus journey and a scene on the town hall steps before going into the theatre, had been made possible only by her getting everyone on side, from the manager of the local chip shop to the owner of an independent bus company.

“If you say, ‘We really want it to be your theatre,’ unless you give them the ownership and voice to say, ‘This is how I feel about it,’ then it doesn’t count for much,” she says. “That’s what I endeavoured to cultivate within the organisation and also

how we connected out of the building.”

Nor did she stop there. When a gang of teenage girls started shouting “Bus wankers” during the outdoor part of the performance, Newman suggested to them that instead of watching the same scene every night, they should come and see the whole thing. Not only did all seven of them agree, they’re now taking part in the community show (her swansong production of Gulliver’s Travels).

“They got on brilliantly and stayed for the whole thing,” says Newman, who was brought up in Croydon. “They’ve since told their mates to come down and see the weird blonde woman because it means you can join in at the theatre. Whether it’s Pitlochry Festival Theatre or the Octagon, it’s our responsibility to offer people choice and to remove the barriers.”

Post-industrial Bolton is not the same as pretty Perthshire, of course, but Newman’s philosophy is consistent. “All communities are different,” she says, pointing to the variety of audiences she has played to in north-west England. “To be in that Pitlochry environment to create work for the place is going to be an incredible privilege.”

It’s too soon to give specific details of her inaugural programme next year, but she promises to build on the foundation laid down by John Durnin who ran the theatre for 15 years until last December.

“It’s about evolution,” she says, hoping to keep an annual musical in the mix. “There is so much good in Pitlochry already. It’s taken me ten years to really understand Bolton; I’m sure it will take me ten years to understand Pitlochry.”

Having run mini-repertory seasons in Bolton, she is looking forward to working with the full-scale Pitlochry ensemble. “The thing I’ve loved is watching an actor one month playing Jane Eyre and the next month playing Ophelia. To watch an actor grapple with those different psychologies is so wonderful. Audiences love watching somebody morph – it’s like watching a friend go through an extraordinary experience, like childbirth. The rep system is an extreme version of metamorphosis for actors.”

With the company’s Vision 2021 redevelopment plans in mind, Newman is aiming to make connections with the whole population. That would mean taking the work beyond the theatre walls. “It’s art for and with everyone,” she says. “And at every opportunity, we want to be creating opportunities for people. I believe regional theatres are for a lifetime and you can come into contact with them at any point in your life and find something there for you. Pitlochry can offer that service to the community as well as being able to take the work around Scotland and beyond.”

For her model, she’s thinking big – the South Bank of the Thames, no less: “You should expect the National Theatre of Pitlochry: a diverse diet that ensures people will always find something for them and, hopefully diverse enough that they would want to come and see all six pieces. That’s what the National Theatre does so brilliantly.”