Elizabeth Newman, Artistic Director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, talks to Luke Prowse Baldwin about Light Hope Joy, a social media series ranging from poetry readings to music tutorials as well as 25 new plays, and the theatre’s welfare going forward.
Of course it’s a troubling time for the world at the moment, and the theatre sphere is no exception, so a massive thank you for speaking to us, Elizabeth. It’s incredible to see you guys up in Pitlochry soldiering on with your online series Light Hope Joy which you’ve been running for nearly a month now. For anyone that’s not had the pleasure of it yet, how would you describe it? I think what became clear as soon as the pandemic started to hit the UK was that what people were in need of was Light Hope Joy, so that’s where the idea for the series came from. Also, we really wanted to make sure that the audience had almost three meals a day from us; hence the series provides content at ten o’clock, one o’clock and six o’clock. It’s content for all different ages. It felt really important that we would be supporting people to care for their children at home because lots of people were highlighting anxiety about caring for their children. The schools weren’t going to be open, so we felt like we could do something to help. It’s really interesting that when most theatrical organisations have put their efforts into streaming over the past few weeks, you’re exploring a route through your social media that fosters more of a personal relationship between the artist and the viewer at home. What’s the reasoning behind that? I think more than anything people right now want contact. They want connection. We can’t compete with Netflix. As much as I love watching theatre shows online, I do think things are made for their form, so that’s why we’ve decided to generate content from scratch. We wanted it to be appropriate for the form we we’re producing. I imagine that interaction is lovely for your followers that live alone. Exactly. You’ve spoken about poetry as a key feature of the series when you could argue for other solo pieces like monologues which go much more hand in hand with theatre. Why so much emphasis on poetry? Poetry is the greatest form that was designed to help us explore the human experience, and I think right now that’s what we’re endeavouring to do. It does it through metaphor and distillation, which I think we’re in need of. It’s easy to forget how theatrical poetry can be as well; Shakespeare loved it! How much are you and your artists enjoying creating the videos? We’re really enjoying it because we know from the feedback that it’s really helping people, so we know there’s a point to it. That’s felt very important. It’s very tricky right now because none of us know how long this is going to go on. We’re all just trying to do the best we can, and I think it’s different for different artists. I think some artists are really up for making work right now, and other artists need not be. It’s not right for them in this climate. I think it’s about people doing what they feel they need to do and not feeling any pressure to do anything. Absolutely. Let’s talk about the 25 plays you’ve commissioned as part of the series, all by different playwrights. When you announced these you said they would first be performed by your current ensemble with plans to stage them once the theatre reopens. Right from the initial stages of writing to the eventual on stage performances, what further detail can you give about how the process will work? Well, the writers are already submitting work, and we will begin rehearsals with the ensemble, and then they will be recorded. Some are being written for adults. Some are being written for children. There’s going to be a real diversity to the content. We’ll start to release them most likely at the beginning of May, and we’ll track through until potentially the end of the year. As we find out more about the situation we find ourselves in, that will govern how we release this material. You’re well on track then! There are big-name writers on the list, notably Timberlake Wertenbaker, famous for creating the six-time Tony-nominated Our Country’s Good. How excited are you to have her on board? Really excited! I find her really inspiring, and I absolutely love working with her. I think she’s so intelligent, witty, warm and is so in tune with the world and what is going on around her. She’s very savvy. The arts find itself in a position presently akin to that when Wertenbaker wrote Our Country’s Good, used to showcase the sector’s knack of bringing people together. What’s the likelihood of your commission spotlighting a similar message? Well, I hope it does highlight to people that we need to be producing new work still. It’s really hard, but I do think that at this moment in time the voices that are living today have to be heard and recorded. You’re on to a winner if Our Country’s Good is anything to go by. How optimistic are you of the theatre’s wellbeing over the next six months? It’s really hard to say, and we just have to take each day at a time. What I have said to our board of trustees is “I will work tirelessly, as will Chris (who I run the theatre with) to make sure we survive and if necessary, literally carry the organisation on my back — so will Chris”. I think it is about knowing it’s going to be really hard, but the only way we are going to survive is if everybody puts their weight behind the solution and accepts this is also about being sensitive to the needs of the population. Inherently, we run organisations that are about socialising, and right now people don’t want to be and shouldn’t be doing that, so we need to be respectful of what is happening. It’s important to stay positive. Out of everything you’ve done over the past few weeks, what would you say you’re most proud of? I’m most proud of everybody I work with. I feel really blessed and really privileged to work with the people I work with, and I think that everybody has come at it with tenacity and kindness. I’m really in awe at everyone really. I’m most proud of being part of an organisation that’s trying really hard. Everything you’re doing is superb in my opinion. I find it remarkable that it was 19th March when you started Light Hope Joy, and the theatre’s social accounts have posted brand-new videos every day since, including weekends. Elizabeth, thank you again for finding the time to chat. Take good care! Follow #PFTLightHopeJoy on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or YouTube to find out more, explore the current content and keep up to date with daily uploads.