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Q&A with Elizabeth Newman, Artistic Director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre

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We caught up with Elizabeth Newman, Artistic Director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre to talk about theatre closures, lockdown and spreading Light, Hope and Joy during this time.

What were you doing when the announcements were made for the theatres to close?

At the time when the announcements were made for the theatres to close, we were in the process of opening Barefoot In The Park, social distancing was announced first and then it moved into ‘please don’t go to the theatre’ which of course for us was very tricky, very hard.

What immediate affect did that have on your work?

Trying to ensure the theatre would remain solvent during a very challenging time because Pitlochry Festival Theatre makes 85% of its income, so when we’re not open and when we’re not putting shows on we’re not making money to pay people. So, unlike other organisations, unlike theatre charities in Scotland who receive far more subsidy we were hitting financial difficulty sooner than some other organisations. So, the immediate affect was needing to sort out cash flow and how to ensure that we could carry on paying people. We had to ensure that the organisation would be okay until the government implemented some plan which eventually they did, with the job retention scheme, the furlough scheme.

How did you and your colleagues at Pitlochry Festival Theatre process that together and what have you been up to since then?

Myself and Chris, the Executive Director at the theatre, spent 16 hours a day together (whilst socially distancing) for days and days, back to back until lockdown trying to work out how to get through it. Since then we have been sorting out the financial security of the organisation, postponing our season until next year, sorting out creative contracts and our employees status and ensuring that all of them still get paid. We have furloughed 95% of the staff, and are making sure that we continue to produce work for audiences online, via #PFTLightHopeJoy. It is almost like audiences get 3 nourishing meals a day of different activity or artistic content. We have brought forward commission’s from Shades of Tay, our 3 year artistic project, so we have just announced part of that which is 25 new commissions from 25 of the UK’s leading writers. Finally, we have launched a telephone club which enables us to ring people who are maybe lonely at home or experiencing isolation so we set all those things up pretty much immediately in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Also the BBC, through BBC Arts and BBC Radio 3, approached us about transforming Adventures with the Painted People that was meant to go on this summer into a radio drama.

How long have you been Artistic Director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and what is your favourite aspect of working there?

I’ve been Artistic Director since June 2018, and my favourite aspect of working there at the theatre is the people. I work with the most extraordinary people. The staff at the theatre are incredible and Covid-19 just highlighted how awesome they really are. Also, working with the most amazing artists and the audience. It’s all the people really that have made it brilliant.

Pitlochry Festival Theatre are releasing a series of digital works as part of Shades of Tay which you have called ‘our love letter to Scotland’ could you tell us a little bit more about that?

That for us is very much about us celebrating our landscape, celebrating our culture and our heritage. We were always planning to commission 50 pieces of art about the Tay – ranging from sculpture to pottery to poems to photography. We are continuing with that and bringing forward that activity. For us, it’s about having a different dialogue with the audience, its about engaging with more communities, its about making work in our communities as well as online and in the theatre.

Have you been taking part in any other creative activities been happening online, on social media etc?

Yes, I have been taking part in creative activities online and on social media. You will have seen our own activities through #PFTLightHopeJoy and also we are going to be participating in creating Scenes for Survival with the National Theatre of Scotland and supporting Perth Theatre to create An Actor’s Choice, their series online. I’ve enjoyed Zooming lots of friends and family and doing those sorts of things myself.

If you’ve seen any theatre shows or readings streamed online recently could you recommend one or two to our readers?

I would recommend tuning in to The Met Opera, for anyone who is interested in Opera. They’ve made lots of stuff available online for free. The National Theatre have as well. I would also recommend listening to Radio 4. I’ve been listening to Radio 4 today, and actually I’ve been turning to the radio for some good entertainment.

Do you think there is a particular importance around championing new writing and new works at this time?

I do think its important to be championing new writing and new works at this time because quite easily we could fall back on only producing the Canon because commissioning costs add another layer onto organisations budget lines especially when things are still in royalties. Contemporary plays and new plays cost more money to produce verses a Shakespeare or a Marlowe or a Wilde etc. I also think it’s really important because it’s about giving voice to artists in this moment. And although none of us want to be producing the Covid-19 plays, well certainly not yet anyway, it is important to be hearing and producing the writing that is being written in this moment, because an essence of this moment will be transported into the words definitely.

What advice can you give to students or recent graduates about to or entering into the arts industry at this time?

Read. Listen. Watch as much as possible. Imagine as much as possible. Watch the clouds, make up stories, have ideas and communicate with the people that you can communicate with. And don’t worry. A brilliant writer friend of mine and artist called Janice Chambers often says ‘this shall pass, and it will become the past’. She said that to me a few years ago when I was going through a very challenging time, and she is absolutely right and I’m sure she’s right about how that relates to this now.

What do you think about the help from the UK government to support self-employed people from the UK theatre industry?

I think the support is good, and I think the 80% furloughing for self employed people is good. It will support artists, but my concern is that it is not available until June and what that means for people until then. But I  think we’ve got to look at the impact on the industry that social distancing for a prolonged period of time is going to have. What we know from China is that when they reopened theatres in the last week or so, they are achieving 15% of the audience totals that they were receiving pre Covid-19. So that is a dramatically reduced audience, that is going to reduce income, and we need to rely on the UK government to support us through the bumps that are not just going to occur during lockdown but after lockdown which could last from 18 months – 2 years I reckon.

Anything else you would like to add?

The only thing I’d like to add is I think this is a time to really reflect, personally of course and take care of the people that we can take care of, and love the people that we can love. I think it is also a time for artists to make work who want to make work during this time. To support people, to comfort them, to help them process but very much to help bring a little bit of Light, Hope and Joy when we need it most.