The sun is shining on the day the new artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre arrives in Perthshire to meet her new team. Elizabeth Newman, who was announced last week as the successor to John Durnin, won’t be taking up her post until September. You get the impression, however, that work has already begun for the 32-year old, who joins PFT after running Bolton Octagon Theatre for the last three years, where she previously spent six years as an associate director.
While she’s on what is effectively a reconnaissance expedition, Newman will also be taking in a performance of Quality Street, PFT’s production of J.M. Barrie’s neglected classic, which forms part of the Perthshire theatre’s six-play summer season. As a possible taste of things to come, it may or may not be telling about Newman’s yet to be announced 2019 programme and beyond. Whatever happens, moving from a theatre in a northern English urban town to the rural expanse of Pitlochry looks like quite a leap. Newman sees it differently.
“I describe myself as a vicar,” says Newman, sitting in what will soon be her office for her first interview since her new post was announced. “I love working in places where I get to know the people who who work in the theatre and the audience who visit it. It’s like with what happened with the Octagon. I was only supposed to be in Bolton for a year when I got on the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme, but I ended up staying for nearly ten, and that was because of the relationships I had with the place and with the people. So when I got the call from Pitlochry, I thought I might have found a new vicarage.”
Newman’s emphasis on pastoral care for those in and around her theatrical constituency sound particularly pertinent to PFT, which operates with a repertory system, with a resident ensemble cast of seventeen actors working across all six plays. Such a system makes it unique, not just in Scotland, but in the UK’s wider theatre infrastructure. This is something else Newman intends to utilise into her plans.
“I’d been to Pitlochry several times before, because I had friends who were acting in shows here,” she says, “but when I first came up to have a look at how things worked beyond that, I could see that the company here was a family. The people who work at Pitlochry Festival Theatre are like explorers exploring stories. Not only that, but I could see that Pitlochry was a great place for family audiences, and I’m keen to reach out to new audiences in a way that makes Pitlochry Festival Theatre even more exciting than it already is. That’s the essence of what theatre is about.”
Arriving in Pitlochry as PFT moves into its second phase of a plan to improve the theatre’s technical infrastructure as well as increase local audiences beyond the influx of tourists who regularly flock to the self-styled ‘Theatre in the Hills’, Newman’s enthusiasm is timely.
“I want Pitlochry Festival Theatre to be a place for everyone,” she says. “I think the purpose of the theatre here is to do as much high quality work as possible, and to build on the legacy it already has in that respect, but to bring in new work as well.”
While Croydon-born Newman hasn’t worked in Scotland before, half of her family are from here.
“I’m a big fan of other Scottish theatres,” she says. “I love what goes on at the Citizens and the Traverse, and I’m really excited to be able to go out and about to all the other theatres, and to see the work there, and how Pitlochry might be able to connect up with that in some way.”
When Newman became artistic director of the Octagon aged 29, her appointment made her the youngest artistic director of a theatre since Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami were put in charge of the Gate Theatre in London. As precocious as this might sound, it isn’t unprecedented. Back in the mid 1980s, Jenny Killick became artistic director of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh aged 26. This is nothing, however, to Newman’s tenure at Southwark Playhouse, when she became acting artistic director aged 22. This was after she’d set up her own company, Shared Property, aged 19, working on the London fringe.
While in Bolton, Newman’s programmes featured modern classics such as Look Back in Anger, a strand of work for toddlers and a new musical staged in the local chip shop. A sign of the sort of thing Newman might be planning may be gleaned from her just opened Bolton production of Summer Holiday.
Based on the swinging Cliff Richard movie, though not to be confused with the current commercial touring version, Newman’s production put its audience on half a dozen buses which proceeded to drive around the city, with the action taking place at various stopping off points along the way. As a metaphor for taking theatre to the community, it speaks volumes. Newman herself is a product of being encouraged to engage with the performing arts from an early age.
“My family didn’t really go to the theatre,” she says, “because it was quite expensive, but we watched TV, and I loved dancing in the living room, so my mum signed me up to join the dancing school in the local church hall, and was a child actor and dancer.”
Newman’s parents have supported her in this way in all her endeavours, artistic or otherwise.
“Anytime I showed an interest anything my family was always there for me,’ she says. “I went through a phase when I was probably about age eight of wanting to be a potter. Then I went through a phase of writing to John Major every week,” Newman says, referring to the former UK Prime Minister, “because I thought he wasn’t fixing things because he didn’t know about them.”
While such direct action had clearly held Newman in good stead as a director, her original plans to become a dancer while studying at the Royal Academy were thwarted in her early teens when she was affected by a neurological condition that left her wheelchair-bound for a period after being told she would never walk again. She worked through her illness with a determination that saw her direct her first play aged sixteen.
Another sixteen years on, as the new ‘vicar’ of Pitlochry Festival Theatre prepares to take up her parish, Newman is relishing the prospect of running a building which requires military precision just to arrange a rehearsal schedule.
“I’ve always been excited by being an artistic director as much as directing plays,” she says, “and again, part of that is about working with people. One of the thongs I’m passionate about is creating opportunities for other people, so if someone has a good idea, whether that’s in the rehearsal room or elsewhere, then you can let people try them out, and that’s all about supporting your staff at every level.”
Newman’s plans for PFT may be ambitious, but no matter how big it gets, she clearly intends to continue it as a family affair.
“The ultimate goal is to create great work and to reach out to more people,” she says, “and to do more work than we already do, whether that’s in the garden, by the river or in community centres. I also want us to be able to take work out, not just in Scotland, but abroad as well, and to make sure that Pitlochry Festival Theatre is on the map in every way.”
Tickets for Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s summer season are available from www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com
The Herald, June 14th 2018