Cross country endurance

Elizabeth Newman entertained audiences in Bolton as artistic director of the Octagon. Now she's in Scotland with a resourceful response to the coronavirus pandemic at Pitlochry Festival Theatre

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23 July was due to be a big day for Pitlochry Festival Theatre. The venue in the heart of Scotland was all set to debut Adventures with the Painted People, a major new play by David Grieg. The production has now been postponed until next year, but the piece has now had an extra lease of life on radio. Indeed, under artistic director Elizabeth Newman, PFT is doing everything it can to keep putting work out there while staying afloat.

Newman makes no bones about how dire the theatre’s financial situation is.

“We earn 85 per cent of our income in Pitlochry and if we can’t have people coming in for ticket sales then we can’t survive. If we don’t do something quite drastic now, we’ll go bankrupt in November.”

In common with arts venues across the country – most notably Manchester’s Royal Exchange – PFT is faced with making tough decisions about staff redundancies, but Newman is determined that it shouldn’t go under without a fight.

“We’re going to carry on offering as much artistic and social provision as we can. During social distancing we’re going to try and do outdoor work and mount as much as possible. But where we are is, if we don’t shrink then we’ll have no way of regrowing, because we’ll be insolvent.”

During quarantine PFT staff and associates have established a telephone club, calling isolated members of the local community for a catch-up chat. They’ve also been sharing daily poems, stories and children’s activities online under the hashtag #PFTLightHopeJoy.

“Every day people write in telling us to keep going,” Newman says. “When lockdown was announced, I sat staring at a wall. I thought, right, what is it that people need? And I think they need light and hope and joy – that belief that things are going to get better, that we are going to be able to come back together to experience unity again. The absence has made us yearn for it, because we took it for granted. I think that the pandemic has brought on a rather extraordinary existential crisis for the world in lots of ways. We’re realising how social we really are, how much we rely on the physical presence of others to make sense of ourselves.”

Recording Adventures with the Painted People as a BBC Radio 3 drama involved Newman, formerly artistic director of Bolton Octagon for almost a decade, directing remotely with a team of northern collaborators.

“Radio 3 put us in touch with an amazing audio production company based in Manchester called Naked Productions. A big part of my heart still lives in Bolton and it was great to work with them on the show. The majority of us were recording from Scotland. One of the actors was in the South West and so was the sound designer. The sound engineer was in Manchester, the producer was in Hebden. It felt like we were traversing the UK to make a drama.”

As the whole world reels from the impact of Covid-19, what exactly is it that theatre can offer us?

“Well, there’s the economic argument, which is that for every pound of public money that PFT gets, we put over £30 back into our local economy, but then there are the emotional and social reasons. I think theatre’s the safe space where we can have dangerous conversations which release feelings and ideas, hopes and fears – the full gamut. And it’s one of the safest places to go and laugh and feel better. Ultimately theatre is a school where people can come together to make sense of the world and if ever there was a time that we needed to do that, it’s now.”

When she was a teenager, Newman contracted a neurological condition due to an infection and was told she’d never walk again. In time she managed to overcome it and that same sense of determination is coming to the fore now.

“I actually said to our board, the beginning of the pandemic felt to me like the moment when I woke up and I couldn’t move. A couple of months down the line you stop fighting it in the same way and you start to pace your fight. I think it is important to not see this current situation as a sprint. This is absolutely a test of unrelenting, long-distance, cross-country endurance. Now is the time to keep going.”

Adventures with the Painted People is available at bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000jt6d. Visit PFTheatre for more on the PFT Online Series and information about Shades of Tay new writing commissions 

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