Perth Theatre

WHEN the doors of Perth Theatre reopen in November following a £15m makeover of the category B listed building, it will be reflecting on its past as much as forging towards a bold new future. Today, as exclusively revealed to The Herald, new artistic director Lu Kemp, appointed in 2016, announces her first season of in-house stage productions.

With a pantomime, a Shakespeare play and a contemporary Scottish classic all confirmed, there is much to whet the appetite of Perth audiences old and new. Beyond Kemp's three productions, a tour of rural venues aims to reclaim a circuit which previously spread its net right across the Perthshire region. There will also be a season of children's work in the theatre's new 200 seater state of art studio space, while an array of renowned theatre practitioners have been drafted in as associate artists.

As for the building itself, “It's beautiful,” says Kemp of the transformation, overseen by Richard Murphy Architects. “Over the last few weeks, suddenly seeing it come into being and realising the place it's going to be, it's just unbelievably gorgeous. The Studio theatre is a beautiful meld between a black box space and something that would work for conferences. There are new community rooms, the rehearsal rooms are lovely, and it suddenly feels like there's so much light flooding in. My sense of the old Perth Theatre was of quite a dark place, but there's been a beautiful job done of bringing light into the building. It's amazing.”

Perth audiences will be able to get a taster of such delights on a preview day, when they will also be able to take part in a historical sound tour of the building devised by writer/actor Ros Sidney and composer Danny Krass.

“I think we really need to honour the building,” says Kemp, “because there are so many people who have such ownership over it, and we have to take that with us, as well as open it up to audiences. The sound tour honours all that, and stems from this amazing collective of volunteers called the Memory Collective. They've archived all these incredible stories from the past. We now have a list of every single play that has ever passed across Perth Theatre's stage, and who was in them. It's an unbelievable amount of work. We've picked up a whole load of stories from that, about how the actress, Valerie Lush, lived in the theatre, and how, before the war, they had actors and stage managers sleeping in the dress circle. and they're going to feature in the tour.”

Such fun and games sounds like a perfect pre-cursor to Kemp's first production, which embraces the festive season with with a similarly transformative look at the magic of Aladdin.

“There's something really joyous about it,” says Kemp of a version of the story by Joel Horwood reimagined by Frances Poet for a Perthshire audience. “It's a bit like a party onstage.”

For the first preview, an invitation has gone out to several generations of 'panto kids', members of the public who as children all appeared onstage in a Perth pantomime.

“There's this whole network of panto kids who are mainly in their forties or fifties, and who keep in touch through Facebook,” says a delighted Kemp. “It's extraordinary.”

In February, Kemp will direct a production of Knives in Hens, Edinburgh born writer David Harrower's strange and remarkable debut play, which was first seen at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in 1995. Since then, the play has been performed all over the world.

“I'm completely absorbed by the play,” Kemp says. “ I want to do classic Scottish work, which this play has become, and it's a play that feels appropriate for a rural community. There's something about the way that the characters think that I think the audience will connect to. It's also a piece about a young woman who locks onto a thought, and she moves forward without stopping, and is entirely able to live within her own mind.”

Kemp's third main-stage production will be Richard III, Shakespeare's tragi-comic Machiavellian history play.

“It's a total riot,” Kemp says of the play, which hasn't been seen in Perth for 100 years. “It's a total romp, from the moment he steps through the doorway, to the road-crash it becomes towards the end. It's funny, it's a thriller, and it's very House of Cards. We know what Richard is doing, and the line between him and the audience is so taut in a way that feels intensely theatrical. It's also a play about theatre, and how we take on roles.”

With these three main-house productions going on in the foreground, beyond them are plans for a

rural tour of a new verbatim piece by Kieran Hurley, based on interviews with Perthshire farmers. Following Perth Theatre's tour of Bea Roberts' play, And Then Come the Nightjars, in 2016, the tour helps reinstate a strand of Perth Theatre's work that saw it become the first theatre company to regularly tour the Highlands as far back as the 1940s.

“We want to build on the tours year on year,” says Kemp, wielding a map clustered with dots highlighting all the places Perth Theatre used to regularly visit. “I think we'll take a while to get there, but this year we'll go to nine places rather seven.”

Hurley is one of Perth Theatre's new team of associate artists. Others include Greg Sinclair, who is working with six year olds in Perthshire primary schools to create a new show, Animals, which will tour the region next Spring. Clare Duffy is developing computer-based play, The Big Data Show, with senior schools pupils in Perth, while dance theatre company Curious Seed take up residence to develop Teenage Trilogy, based on conversations across generations at home and abroad.

The new Studio space will feature a mixed programme of music, dance, theatre and young people's work, as well as hosting productions by acclaimed amateur companies in the area. A Children and

Families season will feature already acclaimed work by internationally renowned children's and young people's theatre companies.

Given that Kemp's early directing career in Scotland was with TAG, the Citizens Theatre based young people's touring theatre company, this seems appropriate. Since TAG, Kemp has worked with companies including the Traverse, Stellar Quines and the National Theatre of Scotland, and has directed more than sixty radio plays. More recently, Kemp directed a critically acclaimed revival of Sue Glover's rural-set play, Bondagers, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, and Rapunzel for the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow.

Kemp has also worked with artists on developing projects in their formative stages. Whether this will provide any kind of focus for her tenure in Perth remains to be seen, though one would hope the theatre's new facilities would be able to accommodate such forward-thinking initiatives. Either way, Kemp's plans for Perth Theatre over the next few years are ambitious.

“I'd like to put rural touring properly on the map,” she says. “and I'd like there to be a right old mix of people coming through the door, seeing things happening that they might not have expected. I'd like the theatre to be really busy, and to build on the profile that we've got, and to increase our reach. But it's not just about what happens onstage. I hope Perth Theatre becomes a useable community space in a way that everyone can feel it belongs to them.”

Tickets for the new season at Perth Theatre are on sale from today.