Feature interview: Lu Kemp, artistic director, Perth Theatre

Letting the light in

Perth Theatre’s artistic director Lu Kemp talks to Mark Brown about her plan to illuminate the revamped playhouse with a bold new programme

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Jessica Hardwick and Michael Moreland rehearsing Knives in Hens. Photo: Pam Dochard

If you approach Perth Theatre from Mill Street these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that the famous playhouse has not so much been redeveloped as demolished and rebuilt from scratch. What was previously the unremarkable back of the playhouse is now the highly-modern facade of the newly renovated theatre, complete with sliding doors and a huge screen advertising coming attractions.

Inside, the playhouse, which reopened in November following a four-year, £16.6 million overhaul, is transformed utterly. Natural light floods into the building from various angles and splendid cafes spread across two floors.

The main auditorium retains its Victorian splendour, complete with proscenium arch stage, but has been lovingly restored, right down to the comfortable new seating. However, the grand old lady now has bright, young offspring. The expansion of the building in many directions has enabled the addition of a well-proportioned and versatile studio theatre space on the second floor.

The artistic director who has inherited the splendidly restyled theatre is Lu Kemp. Appointed director in 2016, in the midst of the redevelopment work, she is a woman with a strong grounding in Scottish culture.

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Lu Kemp. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Hailing from Watford, she was a trainee director at TAG Theatre in Glasgow between 2000 and 2002, and a BBC Scotland radio director from 2002 to 2007. There followed training at the movement laboratory of the famous Jacques Lecoq school in Paris and the Saratoga International Theater Institute in New York.

Kemp’s breakthrough production on the Scottish stage was Abigail Docherty’s beautiful children’s show One Thousand Paper Cranes in 2009, which entranced young audiences at the Imaginate International Children’s Festival in Edinburgh, among other places. She also made a lasting impression with her visually stunning presentation of Sue Glover’s Bondagers at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh in 2014.

Now installed in the redeveloped Perth Theatre, which she reopened with her bold and raucous pantomime Aladdin, Kemp is about to embark upon her first full season of work. Including famous singer-songwriter Karine Polwart’s celebrated theatre piece Wind Resistance, as well as work by new associate artists, including acclaimed theatremaker Kieran Hurley and dance theatre company Curious Seed, it is an impressively ambitious programme.

The most significant markers to be laid down, however, are in Kemp’s choices of the headline plays, which she will direct herself. Scottish playwright David Harrower’s modern classic Knives In Hens (February 1-17) and Shakespeare’s tale of vaulting ambition Richard III (March 17-31) are suitably exciting dramas for the director’s inaugural season in the Fair City’s renewed playhouse.

“I wanted to do the great Scottish work”, Kemp tells me when we meet at her theatre.

Harrower’s play, she continues, has resonated with her ever since she saw it at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh (where she ushered while a student at Edinburgh University) in 1997.

“It got me somewhere [inside]”, she remembers. “It got me on a guttural level and I had a fascination with it that is not necessarily logical.”

Anyone who knows Harrower’s extraordinary play (for my money, one of the finest ever written by a Scottish dramatist) will know exactly what the director means. The piece, which is set in an unspecified, pre-industrial society in which an unnamed Young Woman comes to an intellectual, emotional and sexual awakening with a literate miller, is a thing of sparsely poetic, mysterious beauty. Like all of the most truly profound stage dramas, it leaves one feeling more than one understands.

The paradox of Knives In Hens is that, whilst it is recognised as a modern classic of Scottish theatre by critics and scholars, it is still not a play with which the majority of Perth Theatre patrons will be familiar. Kemp is seeking, she says, to find “doorways”, points of identification which will draw local people into her theatre.

“Although Knives In Hens is set in a mythic world, it’s a rural world”, the director comments. “I’m really interested in Perth Theatre being local and celebrating the fact that we are a rural community.”

Whether it be Harrower’s play, Polwart’s delightful piece (which, in many ways, is a paean to the Scottish countryside) or Hurley’s planned first work for her (a ceilidh-theatre show based upon his interviews with farmers and other local people), Kemp cannot stand accused of neglecting Perth Theatre’s place within a broader, rural community.

Encouragingly, however, she is not seeking an easy or populist route to audience development. The director likes the model of the V&A museum in London, which she describes as “a really great cafe with brilliant art around it.”

She wants something similar for Perth Theatre. “If we can make this space as welcoming and inclusive as possible, I think people will go with us.”

Kemp is confident that the revamped building itself will help her in her quest to bring in a wide and socially diverse audience, often to see theatre works with which they are not familiar.

She hopes that patrons will share her love of the new building’s openness to the light outside. “It pours into the space”, she says, “and it also brings the air in.

“We live in a strip here, from Perth up to Dundee, that is all about light. The light changes all the time here, and it blows me away.

“It just seems appropriate that, in a place that is about changing skies and light, the building should be so responsive to the light outside.”

For details of the Perth Theatre programme, visit: horsecross.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 21, 2018

© Mark Brown

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