Come out of the main entrance of Perth Concert Hall, turn right along Mill Street, walk a couple of hundred yards; and there, in less than a fortnight now – at the heart of what’s becoming Perth’s “cultural quarter” – you’ll find a welcoming new entrance to Perth Theatre, set to reopen after almost four years of loving and imaginative redevelopment. The beautiful, jewel-like Edwardian auditorium is still there, carefully restored to all its 1901 glory with the help of craftsmen from the Perth area, as is its lovely canopied entrance from the High Street; and in December, the theatre will play host in time-honoured style to the annual Perth Christmas pantomime, a no-holds-barred version of Aladdin starring inimitable dame Barrie Hunter.
Now, though, people returning to the building after it reopens its doors on 13 November will find that gorgeous old space wrapped around with brand new restaurants, bars and studios, all designed to make the restored theatre an even more vital part of the city’s daily life; and Perth Theatre’s artistic director Lu Kemp can’t wait for the chance to start using the new building to develop the kind of relationship with Perth audiences she wants to explore over the coming years.
“We don’t have a huge budget for producing shows,” says Kemp. “Not compared with theatres like the Lyceum or Dundee Rep. But what we can do is to become a development hub for artists, and a co-producer with all sorts of organisations. We can provide space for training and support, and help develop the work of multiple companies, through the facilities we’ll have; and my ambition is to see Perth Theatre become a real creative centre in our cultural landscape.”
Kemp grew up in Watford, but after a degree at Edinburgh University in the late 1990s – and time spent working as a student in the Traverse box office – she settled in Scotland, working with TAG Theatre Company and with Patrick Rayner at BBC Radio Scotland Drama, and gradually developing her skills as a dramaturg and director, particularly in children’s theatre. In 2013, after a period of retraining at Anne Bogart’s SITI institute in New York, she directed the National Theatre of Scotland’s successful version of The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish; and she feels that both BBC drama and the Scottish children’s theatre scene have provided her with important models for the job she’s now taking on.
“At the BBC, there was this constant sense of needing to work holistically, across many different strands of audience,” she says, “and also of the need to think in multi-platform ways. And without Imaginate, Scotland’s international children’s theatre festival, I just wouldn’t be where I am today. I can’t overstate the importance of the framework they provide and the opportunities they give, in helping artists to develop their work, and that’s an inspiration to me.”
The result, in Kemp’s first Perth programme, is a winter season that sets out to build a powerful relationship between the theatre and the community it serves. After that traditional panto opening in December – a vital part of the Perth year, continued at the Concert Hall while the theatre was closed – Kemp will move on, in February, to direct a new production of David Harrower’s brilliant 1995 play Knives In Hens, now regularly performed across the world, but rarely seen here in Scotland. Kemp feels that Harrowers’s spare but magnificent play, set in a village where the ploughman’s wife becomes obsessed with the world of books represented by the restless, self-educated local miller, will have plenty to say to a city still intimately linked to the farming communities around it.
The season will end with a visit from the singer and writer Karine Polwart’s beautiful 2016 solo show Wind Resistance, acclaimed at both the Edinburgh and Dublin International festivals, which also explores the relationship between the modern world and older agricultural communities. Throughout the winter, associate artists Kieran Hurley, Greg Sinclair, Clare Duffy and Catherine Devaney (of dance company Curious Seed) will be working on new productions for 2018; Hurley, for example, creating a ceilidh-style touring show based on conversations with Perthshire farmers.
And in March, Kemp will direct a full-scale Perth production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which she sees as a House of Cards drama with powerful resonances for our own time, in terms of the debate about the abuse of power, and about the kind of personality that seeks power for its own sake. In fact, Kemp’s interest in challenging traditional macho models of power, in the arts and elsewhere, has been one of the shaping forces behind her career; when we speak, she is co-hosting the first ever Scottish edition of the South Bank Women Of The World festival, WOW, which took place at Perth Concert Hall last weekend, to a delighted response.
“What I want to do,” says Kemp, “is to flip the process a bit, when it comes to running and programming a theatre; so that instead of audience engagement being something that you add on after you’ve created the work, it becomes absolutely integral to the process of curating the theatre and shaping its programme. I think Perth is a great place to try working in that way, because it is a strong community with its own history and priorities, and now it has this brilliant new theatre at its heart. I’ve already had the most fascinating year here, since I was appointed, setting things up and trying to put all the systems in place; and now I just can’t wait to move back into theatre, and get the show on the road.”■
*Perth Theatre reopens to the public on 13 November. For full programme details see www.horsecross.co.uk/whats-on/drama