Elizabeth Newman is in love. This is the impression the dynamic new artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre gives on the eve of her inaugural season opening with her production of Summer Holiday. As opening statements go, the musical stage version of the classic teen travelogue Brit-flick will undoubtedly be a feel-good extravaganza. Coming at a time when international travel looks set to be restricted, the show’s depiction of carefree youth in transit has other underlying resonances.
“Summer Holiday is a story about young people falling in love and being able to go wherever they want,” says Newman. “It’s a story about how wonderful it is to be connected. With everything that’s going on in the world just now, all of that is becoming harder, and this show is celebrating how joyful it is to be able to be that carefree.”
Newman and her team currently have four of PFT’s summer season of six shows in rehearsal, utilising an ensemble of seventeen actors. The plays include Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Blonde Bombshells of 1943, by Alan Plater. Most intriguing of these is a new look at Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, which resets Miller’s tale of witch-hunts and hysteria from Salem to Pitlochry itself.
“When I moved to Pitlochry, I was struck by how similar it is to Salem, which had a nomadic immigrant community,” Newman observes.
The summer season is completed by an overdue revival of Nicola McCartney’s play, Heritage, and a staging of Elizabeth Gaskell’s nineteenth century novel, North and South. This is far from the full story. Since arriving in Pitlochry last September after a decade in charge of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, Newman has moved through the theatrical landscape like the warmest of whirlwinds, redrawing the boundaries of what Pitlochry Festival Theatre can be.
In terms of programming, this means an autumn production of Brian Friel’s play, Faith Healer, starring George Costigan taking the lead role. It also means commissioning writer and actress Isobel McArthur to pen a new version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This comes following the announcement that McArthur’s irreverent reinvention of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with the Blood of the Young company looks set to be revived as part of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh’s new season.
Just announced as well is PFT’s first ever spring show, a production of Neil Simon’s New York-set 1960s rom-com, Barefoot in the Park. This will be in co-production with the Lyceum, bringing PFT squarely into the fold of Scotland’s wider theatrical community.
The latter is something Newman sees as vital, and she reckons she’s travelled some 8,000 miles since taking up her new post, making sure PFT isn’t seen as some remote outpost. At the same time, she is also connecting with communities on her own doorstep in an attempt to put PFT at the heart of her local community. After her first winter in post, Newman has made herself very much at home.
“I’m so glad I came,” she says. “I love Pitlochry, and I love Scotland. I had a love affair with Bolton for ten years, but I’m falling in love with all these different parts of Scotland. The cities are great, but so are the towns and the smaller places, and theatre itself in Scotland is a wonderful place to be. For me, it’s important to have collaborations with other Scottish theatres and theatres elsewhere, and through that to produce new work that speaks about Scotland now.”
Other initiatives set up by Newman include a writer’s room, which offers space for playwrights to work in convivial surroundings, while she is already thinking about PFT’s seventieth anniversary season next year.
“Scottish theatre has been really generous since I arrived,” says Newman. “In February we got all the artistic directors up to Pitlochry for a day, and talked about how we could work together, and develop some kind of vision for or Pitlochry which includes everybody.”
That vision also includes taking on board the influence of the natural world around her.
“The landscape in Scotland is extraordinary,” she says. “The only place that compares is Big Sur. Pitlochry has a very particular biorhythm, which very much responds to the seasons. I arrived at the end of the summer, and there’s definitely been a change since then. The winter wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Someone said I brought a nicer climate with me, because it’s apparently never been this warm.”
With Newman in charge, this looks set to be the case on several levels.
“I’ve probably fallen in love with the place,” she says again. “I can’t see myself going anywhere soon. There’s so much potential for doing lots of new work, and there’s so many inspiring people here as well, both in the theatre community and the wider cultural community, and so many wonderful stories to be told.
“Coming to a place you’ve never been to before, you maybe see things that are obvious, but which are maybe not always so apparent to people already here. My task is to hold onto my clear sight. I am fortunate that I have a particular kind of energy, which comes from the knowledge that we’re not here very long. I have to give more than I take, and make sure that Pitlochry is a place that thrives and becomes an artistic beacon for Scotland, and stays artistically free. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s summer season opens with Summer Holiday on May 24 and runs until October 5. Full details can be found at www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com
The Herald, May 17th 2019