Blog: Elizabeth Newman

The artistic director of Bolton's Octagon Theatre on working with her hero, Timberlake Wertenbaker, on a new play – Winter Hill

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A few years ago, the Octagon devised and delivered an MA in playwriting with Salford University, the Royal Exchange Theatre and Liverpool Everyman Playhouse. It was an innovative course that everyone was proud to be a part of. We felt it was important that we put our efforts into the endeavour to ensure the future generation of playwrights in the north were supported by regional theatres. At this time I was the Octagon’s associate director. I’d set up the theatre’s new writing department, managing our relationships with writers. I loved this part of my role. My passion continues to lie in sharing the stories that writers create. The Octagon has always been a writers’ theatre – we are at our best when great writers are given a voice by phenomenal actors in our auditorium. We care about bringing to life important ideas that dramatists instinctively know need to be interrogated and explored by audiences.

I had been managing the entire provision for a number of years when this partnership became a possibility. I was eager to lead the first year. Part of being the lead organisation for the MA meant we secured the senior playwright attached to the course. The senior playwright would co-deliver masterclasses with the lead organisation and be commissioned to write a play to be produced at the theatre. When we spoke about the writers we’d love to work with, and subsequently commission as part of the role, I said Timberlake Wertenbaker.

I’d loved Timberlake’s writing for over a decade, since the first moment I discovered plays. She’s fiercely political, but explores the struggles and complexities of our world through characters. She writes with an abundance of humanity – never in judgement. Her extraordinary characters, who she thrusts into extraordinary situations, offer us great insight due to the metaphors that she generates for audiences. She is the ultimate dramatist. She sensitively conducts empathy in the audience that moves them towards rigorous thought and emotional understanding. All of this I knew about Timberlake before I met her – it’s in her words. Then I came to know her. It’s been an honour to meet someone with her kind of humility, generosity and love of life. Jump to the moment where I picked up the phone to Timberlake’s agent. I wasn’t laughed off the call, which offered the first of many sighs of relief since getting to know Timberlake.

It means a lot to us in Bolton that Timberlake has written this play for the theatre. Not just for the Octagon but for everyone in the town. She is highlighting the great work that so many women (especially in difficult circumstances in local government) have been doing for decades to bring about change. But what she does – brilliantly – is make the challenges these extraordinary women face very clear. We still live in a world where men are often seen as the forces of action and change – in contrast to the women. It can be assumed that we are the facilitators or small game changers or, worse, we are the decoration for a man’s self-congratulatory statue that he builds in his own image, and we should be content to stand and watch him cut the ribbon. Timberlake explores friendship and loyalty and how these two important aspects of how we live our lives as women develop, especially as we become more experienced people navigating a world obsessed with youth.

I asked Timberlake to write the play she wanted to write, and that is what she’s done. There’s no denying she asked me what I was interested in. I said two things – Bolton and women over the age of 40. The theatre canon is rather limited in many respects for experienced women to play great parts and, as a woman, I am interested in how women are trying to change the world for the better and struggling with the complexities of being alive. Timberlake understood this and my desire for a play that would explore and connect with Bolton and our culture. Winter Hill was born of a lot of research, passion and a deep desire to offer important questions to an audience about the global climate they find themselves in. Timberlake is an incredible woman and great playwright. Every day when I am leading the rehearsals with the company or guiding a production meeting or galvanising the creative team, I know the stimulation of everyone’s imagination is a shared belief in Timberlake’s words.

We want to produce great new plays in Bolton. It is the kernel of our artistic policy. Timberlake has written an important new play that not only sings for all the souls in Bolton trying to make sense of the world but she’s also written a play to express the challenges that face our nations. It’s a privilege to direct her play.

Winter Hill is at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, 11 May-3 June. For more info and tickets visit Photo: Ray Jefferson, Bolton

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