“I’m not a workaholic… I just want to share PFT with the world”
Mark Brown talks to Elizabeth Newman, artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, about her first season at the “theatre in the hills”
It’s been a whirlwind nine months for Elizabeth Newman. The new artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre (PFT) only took up her post (vacated by her long-serving predecessor John Durnin) in September of last year.
Since then, the acclaimed former director of the Octagon Theatre, Bolton has been busy shaping the 2019 summer season, as well as programming the output of the “theatre in the hills” through to next spring.
When I meet Newman at her playhouse in highland Perthshire she is a woman very much at home. She is directing, she tells me, “two-and-a-half” of the shows in PFT’s six-play summer season; the “half” being the feelgood musical Summer Holiday, based on the famous 1963 film starring Cliff Richard, which she has co-directed with longstanding collaborator Ben Occhipinti.
Newman is also directing Arthur Miller’s great, allegorical tragedy The Crucible and an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel North and South. The PFT summer programme is completed by productions of Noel Coward’s evergreen comedy Blithe Spirit (directed by Gemma Fairlie), Alan Plater’s wartime musical comedy The Blonde Bombshells of 1943 (directed by Occhipinti) and Nicola McCartney’s Irish migration drama Heritage (staged by Richard Baron).
Common wisdom would assume that the move from the very urban environment of Bolton to the decidedly rural one of Pitlochry would have required a major gear shift on Newman’s part. Has that, I ask the director, been the case?
“Yes and no”, she says. In some ways, she explains, the Octagon and PFT are “not that dissimilar”.
Both theatres, she continues, are very much about storytelling. “What Pitlochry audiences have in common with Bolton audiences is that they love a good story.
“They won’t be fooled into thinking something’s a good story because of who’s written it… They are the arbiters of quality drama.”
The major difference between the two theatres is not, Newman suggests, between the urban and the rural, but between the Englishness of the Octagon and the Scottishness of PFT. “We [at PFT] are a Scottish theatre, and 80 percent of our audiences are from across Scotland. The other 20 percent come from all over the world.
“The people that come here from across Scotland have a real sense of the complexity of our national identity and the elements of that identity that they want to explore.”
What that means in practice is that her production of The Crucible, for example, will not be performed in American accents (whatever those might have been in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century). Rather, Newman explains, “we’re setting it in Pitlochry. The stage is awash with accents from across the UK, which is like Pitlochry itself.”
Likewise, the staging of Summer Holiday begins, not in London, but in the theatre’s picturesque Perthshire hometown.
The director revels in the diversity of her inaugural programme. It’s quite a jump from Summer Holiday to The Crucible, but one which, she insists, is entirely in-keeping with PFT’s traditions.
“I think there’s been a slight misinformation about what our audiences have actually been coming to see and want to see”, she comments. She notes that, from its earliest days, playing in a tented theatre in the 1950s, PFT was a playhouse which presented works by such diverse authors as Shakespeare and J.M. Barrie.
“All I’ve been doing is plugging back into our source. That, for me, is a lot of what being an artistic director is.
“It’s not just about looking to the future. I’m not an artistic director who thinks of plays I’d like to do and then programmes them.
“I’m someone who’s interested in plugging into the life source of an organisation and then articulating that. That, for me, is what artistic policy should be.”
No sooner will the PFT summer season be over (with the final performance of Summer Holiday on October 5) than the theatre’s autumn production (Newman’s staging of Faith Healer, by the great Irish dramatist Brian Friel) will be underway (with previews in mid-October).
Then, following the theatre’s festive offering (Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, staged by Occhipinti), Newman’s back in the directorial saddle in the spring, with a production of American playwright Neil Simon’s romantic comedy Barefoot in the Park.
With such a heavy, self-imposed schedule, does the director consider herself a workaholic? “I’m not a workaholic”, she insists, “but I am completely committed to the mission. That means unbolting every window and every door to ensure that we’re sharing PFT with the world.”
For details of the PFT summer season, visit: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com
This feature was originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on June 9, 2019
© Mark Brown