Under the stewardship of Elizabeth Newman, Pitlochry Festival Theatre is making creative connections across Scotland, writes Joyce McMillan
Making connections – creative, theatrical, social and imaginative – is what Elizabeth Newman is all about; and to judge by her impact since she took over as artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre in 2018, she has something of a genius for it. Perched in its glorious setting overlooking the River Tummel – and famous for its six-play summer seasons of comedy, musicals and popular classics – the theatre has often, in its 68-year history, seemed to stand apart from the rest of Scottish theatre, relating as closely to the London theatre scene as to anything that might be happening closer to home.
No more, though; for as a glance through the theatre’s 2020 brochure shows, Pitlochry is now networked into Scotland’s creative scene more intensely than for many years. The season ranges from a co-production with the Lyceum in Edinburgh of Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park, with a cast that includes Clare Grogan and Jessica Hardwick, to next autumn’s co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland of Enough Of Him, a new play by May Sumbwanyambe about the life of the 18th century African-born Scottish slave Joseph Knight, who lived part of his life in Perthshire.
There’s also a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility by Glasgow writer Frances Poet, alongside classics including the musical Gypsy, Noel Coward’s Private Lives, the ballroom-based drama Kiss Me Quickstep, and Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which will star Kirsty Stuart, recently seen in The Duchess of Malfi, and in Newman’s own beautiful Pitlochry touring production of Faith Healer.
For Newman, though, the business of connection is not only about theatre; it runs much deeper than that, into society and politics, and the very fabric of the natural world we inhabit. Although she grew up in Croydon, and made her name as a director in Bolton, it was partly her lifelong love for the natural world and our connection to it that drew her towards Pitlochry; and now, her passionate interest in the landscape and its communities has found expression in a new project called Shades of Tay, which forms a vital part of next year’s programme, and is set to commission around 50 art works over three years, inspired by the life and history of the river and its vast catchment area, which stretches from near Oban in the west all the way to the North Sea. And the project’s first major event will be a new play by Lyceum director David Greig, Adventures With The Painted People, which will open at Pitlochry next July, allowing Greig to explore his own hill-runner’s fascination with the ancient Pictish people of Tayside, and the hill forts and other traces they left behind.
“One of the things I like to do, wherever I am, is to go for long, circling walks on my own, trying to get a feeling for the landscape,” explains Newman, “and this idea began one day when I was walking in Dunkeld and Birnam, just south of here on the Tay. It was raining very heavily, and I went into the shop at the Beatrix Potter garden there, and found a book of short stories which had the title 50 Shades of Tay. I just loved the “shades of Tay” idea; then I went on a trip to Dundee, and saw the sheer scale of the river there, and the idea of this project took shape. “I was talking to David Greig about various things, including our co-production of Barefoot In The Park and this project, and he said, well, I could write a play for you, about the river, and the Picts who lived around here. David hasn’t written a new play of his own for several years, since he became Artistic Director at the Lyceum, so we commissioned him, as our first artist on this project.”
As with two other projects she has launched since last year – the Pitlochry writers’ rooms project, which offers writers space to work, and the theatre’s new artist-in-residence project – Newman is keen to encourage open applications for Shades of Tay commissions across all art-forms; as far as possible, she will speak to and meet anyone who makes contact with a working proposal. “And of course, we’ve got to think about our own river, the Tummel,” says Newman, of the major Tay tributary that passes the theatre’s door. “Everyone in Pitlochry says, ‘Oh, will we have some Tummel Tales as part of this project?’ And we will.”
So how would Newman like people to react to next year’s programme, as the first she has been able to shape in every detail? “I’d like them to see that we’re beginning to mix new work with the classic drama and musicals in our programme,” says Newman, “and I’d like them to see that it’s often new work about our place, this place.
“I’ve also become more ever more aware of the amazing diversity of Scotland, and of the need for us, here in Pitlochry, to go north to Inverness and the Highlands, as well a south to the Central Belt. I loved co-producing our Highlands and Islands tour of Faith Healer with Eden Court in Inverness; and I get the feeling that there’s a lot more to be done there, connecting us not only to the Scottish Central Belt theatre scene, and not only along this great river that flows through our whole region, but also with those communities much further north and west, who – like everyone else – want and need to see theatre that speaks to them, and truly connects with their lives.”
Barefoot In The Park is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 12-29 March, and at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 3-25 April. The 2020 Pitlochry Summer Season runs from 22 May to 3 October. Enough Of Him opens at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in October.