One person with imagination and a mission, someone dedicated to creating a project that would bring delight to many, a person so inspired that three quarters of a century later his spirit lives on, that would be John Stewart – the founder of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre.
Today, in a year of lockdown and illness, the team at Pitlochry, under the guidance of the artistic director, Elizabeth Newman, have continued this determined spirit and brought together an online festival of new digital works called Shades of Tay
– drama, poetry and music – which can all be accessed up through November, and can be downloaded after each performance has been screened. There are also activities for children and a 'phone club' to connect the theatre to its supporters if anyone would like to chat. As Elizabeth says, 'we are not abandoning anybody'.
In 1944, John Stewart, who had a serious interest in theatre and had established the Park Theatre Club in Glasgow, envisioned a theatre in the countryside at Pitlochry. Because of post-war shortages, it first opened in a tent in 1951, backed by the Scottish Tourist Board, who could see the benefits to the people of Scotland and for tourism. In a move overseen by its then director, Dr Kenneth Ireland, The Port-na-Craig site became its permanent home in the 1970s, where the purpose-built 'theatre in the hills' has an 11-acre 'campus', and where plans to expand in 2021 would extend the reach of the theatre and its training facilities. Its mission statement, 'to create great performances that excite, engage and challenge' is as true today as it was when it was an idea in the imagination of John Stewart.
Shades of Tay
performances draw inspiration from the landscape and the Scottish environment, specifically the River Tay, used as background photography to several of the earlier offerings. It is one of the Munros, however, that inspired This is Not Schiehallion
, written by Ellie Stewart and performed in an entertaining dialogue on a split screen by Blythe Jandoo and Richard Colvin, on 15 August (and available to download).
One of Scotland's best known hills, Schiehallion has a broad ridge with a famous conical appearance, and is not difficult to climb. It stands at 1,083 metres, and, in a convincing performance of hill climbing, a pair of siblings James and Laura – each in their own house – are attempting to re-create the climb, using their sets of kitchen steps, to raise money for a charity and in memory of their mother, who one imagines is recently deceased.
'It's not about the summit, it's about the journey', James says, puffing slightly as he gets off the steps and takes off his hat. He declares that he really needs a drink, opening a small bottle. 'Is that Prosecco?!' Laura is shocked. His excuse? 'It was her favourite drink.' Then, perhaps to postpone this carry-on-climbing, he wants to know where they are exactly on the map, and, sure enough, the girl guide in Laura produces a map and works out the precise coordinates. They discuss what they might be able to see, and breathe deeply, 'feeling' the wind in their hair and the smell of the heather. 'Scotland!' they exclaim.
What is so engaging about this short piece is how two actors are able to create their own relationship and make the viewer laugh and want to urge them on. 'Only 725 more steps', says Laura, as James picks himself up and joins her, and they climb on energetically to K T Tunstall's Suddenly I See
. A delight.
Other offerings have included poetry, with beautiful photography of the flowing river, shadows of the leaves; a magical story for children about a trout. One comment on these tales, read by a narrator, is that using computer generated subtitles does not work well, with confused names and very often simply the wrong word.
The Pitlochry Festival Theatre has been very fortunate to have a work included by Timberlake Wertenbaker, The Birch Tree Speaks
, shown on 12 September, read by Jesse Fox, and available online. Wertenbaker is perhaps best known as a playwright, and for her enormous contribution to the theatre world of the UK, such as at the Royal Court. She is chair of playwriting at UEA. Her play, Our Country's Good,
won the 1988 Laurence Olivier Award. Her work often concerns conflict, quite regularly with political undertones, making use of ambiguities that challenge interpretation.
It was something of a surprise, therefore, to listen to The Birch Tree Speaks
, which is instead a poetic ode, a piece about the birch as 'the lady of the woods'. Wertenbaker has said that 'hope' is a word she uses, even when her work is bleak, or controversial. Here, the theme is about the strength of nature, the rootedness of life, of trees, the 'magic of the woods'. It tells how even after a disaster – such as flood or fire – there can be regeneration. As such, it is a piece for our times, indeed, telling us that 'hope means accepting grief'.
For more information on Pitlochry Festival Theatre's online venture,