During 2002, Paul Iles worked with RGA Consulting on a Scottish Arts Council ‘advancement’ programme at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Perthshire. We conducted external reviews of artistic policy and programming, fundraising, and possible merger or partnership with the Perth Theatre. The 2002 season was the last under Festival Director Clive Perry OBE (1936-2006) who had led the ‘Theatre in the Hills’ since 1987. Clive was an inspirational champion of regional theatre, having previously been artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, Edinburgh and Birmingham Repertory Theatre. At Pitlochry he directed a repertory company in the truest sense – stay six days, see six plays with eighteen actors. Perry, who was concurrently Professor of Drama at Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh was a delight to work with, as was Ian Grieve, then his Director of Productions, General Manager Nikki Axford and all members of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre and the Board of Governors. The Festival has continued to be successfully run by Artistic Director John Durnin.
The 2002 review may be summarised as follows:
- The artistic value of Pitlochry Festival Theatre is often underrated: its future vision lies in the continuation and development of the ‘festival’ ethos: a fantastic geographical location, new ideas for the forward-looking interpretation of old plays and occasional new drama but, foremost, the defining feature of the resident acting ensemble.
- The Festival Theatre’s history gives it a special position in Scottish theatre: an uplifting and idyllic setting where the art of the theatre and nature are integrated through a ‘festival’ environment. This offers the public and artists a dimension for the intellect, for words, ideas and reflection as well as for razzamatazz. The feature of established well-made plays should be positioned alongside ambitious production.
- Some people in the arts establishment believe that Pitlochry Festival Theatre is out of touch with metropolitan habits and contemporary drama, that it is inclined to be cautious because it entertains a senior audience who are supposedly resistant to ‘challenging’ plays. The reality is that Pitlochry cannot radically lower the average age of the audience because there is no urban population.
- Any negative connotations can be reversed and turned again to positive advantage. Underlying them is the need for the company to reaffirm the stronger, redeeming attributes: the excellent stage and the refurbished buildings, the origins of the theatre and the continuity of tradition, the employment of 18-plus actors performing in nightly repertoire, the first-rate craft skills in design, stage management, production and workshops. Free from vanity, the company has been self-effacing in spreading the word. It talent-spots well; senior theatre-makers work alongside young actors for mutual benefit.
- The need to maintain annual sales of 60-70,000 for the festival season, alongside the fear of alienating the senior audience, will always produce a heightened sense of caution in play selection. However, with societal changes, middle-aged theatregoers may well be the next ‘in thing’.
- Through stand-by pricing, better discounts and an education policy it can attract some younger theatregoers; a backpacker-market is in the town but often ignores the Festival Theatre.
- The key is how the plays are staged and by which directors – and how the anticipation of excitement is conveyed to the public, the funding bodies and the media. The ‘library’ of play-choice is immense; the ambition and excitement can be increased, especially by having something new to say about supposedly ‘middle-of-the-road texts’ from the treasury of neglected ‘boulevard’ drama.
- With Clive Perry’s retirement from Pitlochry at the end of the 2002 season, an interregnum management leads Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Understandably, this, coupled with financial imperatives, has resulted in an irresolute leadership style. The precedence of well respected artistic credibility is in danger of being second to day-to-day operations. The future artistic vision for plays, including new interpretations and veracious revivals will depend on the appointment of a respected, entrepreneurial new artistic leader. The leader should be intimately concerned with all strategic artistic, managerial and marketing aspects of the Festival Theatre, including the development and integration of the new Garden. The confidence, knowledge and aspiration of a new leader would prove a strong attraction to new guest directors, the acting ensemble, the staffs and the stakeholders.
- The employment of a new leader should be made this year. The Festival Theatre should recruit someone who is able to articulate a renewed, long-range vision, without reinventing the wheel. The post needs to be advertised as soon as possible and the board should reinforce this by using a search-consultant; because of the planning horizon, preparation for 2004 begins in December 2002. [Later, John Durnin succeeded Clive Perry].
- There is presently no separable “education and outreach policy”, but the Festival Theatre should devise a strategy, for activities organised by a designated full-time community or education officer, but this must be valued, by the support of a realistic budget. However, because the theatre operates flat-out for six months (plus rehearsals) any increase in output during the festival season will most likely require a corresponding hike in staff. Some infrastructure is available in the off-season; but this ‘public service’ is not a money-maker, even though the theatre might avail its facilities for community use and thereby further good relations with the town.
The company’s main function is to be a cultivator of good theatre; this must not be downplayed. However, the company must follow government policy by developing a relationship to an existing ‘social inclusion partnership’ at Pitlochry or elsewhere in Perthshire; it might, for instance, work through the offices of the Theatre Chaplain, nearby special needs schools and other disadvantaged residents, to stimulate communication with them through workshops, expressive art classes and community activities, both outwith and within the building.
- All questions of artistic and education policy are entangled with ill-conceived, complicated and untested objectives for cooperation or merger with Perth Theatre and, from 2004, the new Perth Concert Hall (Horsecross). The relative artistic policies, seasonality, resident company ethos and location of the Festival Theatre are incompatible with combination, except in narrow circumstances.
- Opportunities for year-round programming (with low-risk visiting attractions, including amateur companies outwith the summer season) and educational activities are secondary to maintaining and fortifying the summer season, but they are important.
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The success of a theatre resides in the sum of the contexts in which it operates.
The theatre, like all other amusements, has its fashions and its prejudices; and when satiated with its excellence, mankind begins to mistake change for improvement.
- Oliver Goldsmith, 1772