An inspiring 70 year journey
Who would have thought that a dream, scribbled on a piece of paper during the turbulent times of WW2 and hidden by the River Tummel, would grow to become a thriving centre of artistic excellence? Our journey of over 70 years has had its ups and downs but, through the vision of John Stewart, and the support of an equally dedicated group of enthusiasts, Pitlochry Festival Theatre has taken its place in the hearts and minds of theatregoers from Scotland and abroad.
“When staying in Pitlochry during the early part of the war, I chanced to see a stately house with a fairly large garden, quite close to the town. I at once realised that here my dream theatre might well be established in this fashionable resort right in the heart of Scotland.”
John Stewart, Founder (from the 1951 programme)
When, in 1944, John Stewart visited Pitlochry, who could tell what the next 70 years would bring and how his vision would be achieved and subsequently developed?
Stewart at that time was a director of the then well-known commercial college, Skerry’s, but he also had a strong interest in theatre which stemmed from his association with the amateur Curtain Theatre – a group that had encouraged such talents as Duncan Macrae and Robert McLellan. This interest led him to establish the Park Theatre Club in Glasgow’s West End in 1941. Dubbed ‘Glasgow’s First Little Theatre’, it grew in stature to the point of having a fully professional cast by the time it closed in 1949, when, at the height of its success but with no prospect of a larger theatre being built in Glasgow, Stewart reluctantly ‘shut the doors’.
Stewart declared somewhat obliquely in his final curtain speech that ‘Glasgow’s loss will be Scotland’s gain’. It was again to Pitlochry that he looked, the romantic in him having concealed a slip of paper in a wayside post on this side of the River Tummel during the war: ‘When peace is declared I shall return to this spot to give thanks to God and to establish my Festival’. On VE day, Stewart recovered that same slip of paper, spoke his silent prayer of thanks beneath the open sky and vowed again to fulfil his promise.
1949 – 1951
A site at Knockendarroch beckoned. But, in 1949, the rationing of all building materials meant that licences were needed from the Ministry of Works, who would issue them for essential building purposes only. So it was that the fledgling theatre company had to submit an application. Despite a vigorous press campaign justifying their requirements on the grounds that tourism would benefit, dollars would be earned, the theatre would be an asset to Scotland, and that, in any case, the money to be spent was John Stewart’s, the request was refused.
With this setback, Stewart turned to the idea of a tent theatre, visiting the wet weather tent in London’s Regent Park and Birmingham’s Arena Theatre for inspiration and advice.
Both companies had bought their tents from the same maker in Walsall, from whom (after consultation on design) Stewart also made his purchase. With the support of Tom Johnston, Chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board, the Ministry of Works finally capitulated and permission was given for a little steel and a little timber, so that the tent theatre could be completed. And so finally, on 19 May 1951, Pitlochry Festival Theatre opened with the British première of Maxwell Anderson’s Mary of Scotland, with Joss Ackland as Darnley.
In his opening address, Johnston said, ‘This theatre is a monument to one man’s courage, one man’s persistence, and one man’s great faith.’
1952 – 1953
1952 brought unexpected trouble. A storm broke in August which ripped the tent canvas right to the top of one of the king poles, thus compounding the theatre’s financial plight. The loss for the first season had been £12,000 and £5,000 for the second, causing Stewart’s accountant to warn him of possible bankruptcy if things continued on their present course.
After due consideration, solace and advice was sought from an old friend, James Shaw Grant, editor of the Stornoway Gazette and later to be the Theatre’s Chairman of the Board of Governors.
Today, the solution to John Stewart’s problem seems obvious. But then it required adaptability and considerable self-sacrifice. He decided to form a non-profit-distributing Festival Society, along the same lines as the Scottish National Orchestra Society.
In so doing, he handed over his house, grounds, workshops and what was left of the tent theatre as a gift to the Society. In return he was appointed Festival Director, with the right to live in what had been his own home. His General Manager, Kenneth Ireland, with whom he had visited Pitlochry on that original visit of 1944, was appointed Company Secretary.
Support from the Arts Council to the tune of £250 for each of two plays – The Rivals and The Importance Of Being Earnest – helped the Theatre to end the 1953 season with a surplus of £1,000 and a new feeling of confidence. It was during the early part of that year work began on a new, much modified and improved theatre – the result of a special building appeal.
As had been the case so often in the past, the path was not to be an easy one. James Shaw Grant at the 1975 AGM of the Society is minuted as saying, ‘I cannot gloss over Pitlochry’s fundamental problem which, regrettably, still remains the replacement of its now superannuated theatre building – however charming it may still look. All I can say today is that the Governors have waited as long as they dared to secure a site offered to them but for which planning clearance is subject to a decision being made on the line of the proposed Pitlochry by-pass. We have now waited for three years, time has run out and inflation has torn into our carefully prepared plans.’
In fact, some 14 sites had either been considered or looked at out of desperation before a start was made on this site at Port-na-Craig, where our foundation stone was laid in September 1979 by Lord Home of the Hirsel. The new Theatre’s opening performance of Storm in a Teacup was given on 19 May 1981, the 30th anniversary of the very first performance in John Stewart’s tent.
After Dr Kenneth Ireland’s lengthy tenure as Festival Director from 1957 to 1983, during which time the current theatre on the banks of the River Tummel was designed, built and opened, and we bade farewell to our roots in the tent, the leadership of the organisation was to change three times during the following thirty years. Sue Wilson was appointed Festival Director for the 1984, 1985 and 1986 seasons, before she was succeeded by Clive Perry, who held the post until his retiral in 2002. John Durnin became the Theatre’s Artistic Director in 2003 and has combined this role with that of Chief Executive since 2007.
2009 – present
2009: Expansion challenges economic downturn
Pitlochry Festival Theatre completed the purchase of part of the former Hydro Board premises on the historic Port-na-Craig House Estate adjacent to the theatre, and embarked on a capital programme of conversion and development. The project cost in excess of £1.25m in total and was fully funded through a highly successful fundraising campaign. Significant contributions were made by the Theatre’s own audiences and supporters, while very generous donations to the campaign were also made by The Gannochy Trust, Dunard Fund and The Robertson Trust.
2009: World première of Whisky Galore – A Musical!
The first musical in the Theatre’s history opened. “We knew from the audience reaction at the opening night back in May that we had a bit of a hit on our hands – the whole auditorium was up on its feet, cheering in appreciation,” said Chief Executive & Artistic Director, John Durnin. “The subsequent scale of the show’s popularity was truly staggering”.
2010: Pitlochry Festival Theatre stages its first ever Christmas show
As part of a plan to embark upon a period of expansion, we produced our first ever Christmas show, Cinderella. This was followed by a further pantomime before we switched to presenting a series of hugely successful feel-good musicals: White Christmas (2012), It’s a Wonderful Life (2013), Miracle on 34th Street (2014), a remount of White Christmas (2015) and Scrooge! (2016).
2011: Pitlochry Festival Theatre celebrates its 60th anniversary and introduces an autumn production
2011 marked 60 years since John Stewart realised his dream and opened the first summer season at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. The occasion was marked by a variety of events including a gala dinner and fundraising auction held on the Theatre stage. That season’s musical, My Fair Lady, became the best-selling show in the Theatre’s history. On 21 October, we made history by opening our first ever Autumn production: a revival of Whisky Galore – A Musical!
2014: Pitlochry Festival Theatre launches VISION 2021
Since our birth as the Theatre in a Tent in 1951, the Theatre has evolved continuously to suit the changing needs of its patrons and the times. Following an independent feasibility study (commissioned by Creative Scotland, Perth & Kinross Council and Scottish Enterprise) of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s plans to expand upon and further develop John Stewart’s legacy, we launched VISION 21 – a new plan for Scotland’s renowned Theatre in the Hills. This ambitious undertaking would see the expansion of the Theatre to include a new Studio space for more intimate productions, and an enhanced Front of House area.
2020: Covid-19 presents an unprecedented challenge
In March 2020, Scotland joined the rest of the world in responding to the threat of a world-wide pandemic. Overnight, our Theatre was darkened, with shows cancelled and staff sent to work from home. It would be wrong to think, however, that this was the beginning of a period of inactivity: lovers of the arts are not so easily deterred. We took the time to develop the Theatre’s outside spaces and online stages, refurbishing the Amphitheatre and building a Bandstand within our extraordinary campus. Online events became a lifeline for our housebound community, along with a telephone club for the lonely and vulnerable, daily digital outputs from actors and performers, Adventures with the Painted People transformed from stage to radio and broadcast to over 3,000,000 listeners, and Sound Stage giving online theatrical experiences to audiences at home, every month. Winter Words, our annual festival of all things literary, also lent itself perfectly to the new world of Zooming and streaming, and was an instant success.
In the summer of 2021, outdoor events became possible, with a riverside production of The Wind in the Willows delighting audiences who had not seen live theatre in over a year.
2022 and onwards
After the delays caused by the pandemic, VISION 21 is back on track. The Theatre’s new Studio space is ready to host its first production in June 2022, with patrons also able to experience the new Front of House area. With plans to significantly increase community engagement, reduce our carbon footprint, and strengthen our financial sustainability, our team is set for a busy time, with a bright future beckoning for our audience.