As Perth Theatre celebrates its 120th anniversary on Sunday, Gayle Ritchie takes a trip down memory lane and recalls how a series of Hollywood stars learned their craft there.
It’s the Perth institution that has seen actors ranging from Ewan McGregor to Edward Woodward and Donald Sutherland tread its boards.
But as Perth Theatre celebrates its 120th anniversary on Sunday, it remains rooted in the community and continues to bring people together – even in the midst of the Covid crisis.
Described as a “theatrical gem” when it opened on September 6 1900, the theatre’s hidden doorway led to an elaborate 800-seater auditorium which, designed by William Alexander, astounded Victorian audiences.
With its ornate gold-leaf gilding, rich red walls and plush velvet seats, it was a luxurious venue – the people of Perth were completely blown away.
The theatre’s first production – the opera Maritana – went down a storm with the Perthshire Advertiser describing the opening evening as a “brilliant gathering”.
A report stated: “If the interior was beautiful by day, it was absolutely gorgeous by night with the full glare of the gas setting off every hole and corner, every arch featuring to the best possible advantage.
“A theatrical gem of its kind. Much praise to William Alexander of Dundee.”
At one point, the theatre, like many others, hosted not just famous actors, but animals such as elephants, polar bears, lions and tigers.
Lu Kemp, artistic director for Perth Theatre, says she wishes she had been around to witness such bizarre displays, although she admits the “contemporary Lu” isn’t a fan of zoos or captivity.
Digging back into the archives of the Perthshire Advertiser from March 1934, there’s a preview of a show titled the Great Continental Zoo-Circus.
Underneath a picture of a woman with a bear, a caption proclaims: “Miss Evelyn, the only lady bear trainer in the world, and her group of polar bears, will be one of the attractions at Perth Theatre next week, when the Great Continental Zoo-Circus should provide an unusual type of entertainment. Tigers, lions, trained horses and ponies, a boxing kangaroo, elephants, dancers, wire walkers, trapeze artists and clowns also appear in what should be an attractive programme”.
The grey lady
Wild animals aside, the theatre is haunted by a “grey lady” – the ghost of a former barmaid who is now said to reside in the “gods”.
In 2017, front-of-house assistant Alex Tosh captured a ghostly apparition peering down from the upper circle on camera.
He had been photographing renovation work (the theatre was nearing the end of a £16.6 million refurbishment programme) and only noticed the spooky image when he was studying his pictures in detail later.
The spine-tingling snap seems to show a grey, faceless figure peering down from a balcony.
The photo prompted Scots TV star Colin McCredie to reveal that he had had his own ghostly experience while working at the theatre in the mid-1980s.
He said: “I did the followspot (a powerful stage lighting instrument) on my own on for four or five shows around then.
“It was always terrifying. A strange aura for sure.”
Throughout its history, a string of star acts have performed at Perth Theatre, including Walter Carr, Alec Guinness, Bessie Love, Una McLean, Donald Sutherland, Donald Pleasance, Kevin Whateley, Rikki Fulton, Roy Kinnear, Karen Dunbar and Liza Goddard.
Crieff’s own Ewan McGregor, who was an ambassador of the Transform Perth Theatre project in 2016, also began his acting career at the theatre.
McGregor first took to the stage in Perth aged 16 back in 1987, before going on to roles in Trainspotting, the Star Wars prequels and Moulin Rouge.
The actor, who had been dogged by lingering bouts of depression, said his life “changed the first day he walked into Perth Theatre” and credits his time there, first as a stagehand, with setting him on the road to stardom.
“It was the best thing that happened to me. It set me on my way,” he said.
“The week I decided to leave school the theatre needed extras for A Passage to India, so I was in. I donned a turban…and shouted: ‘Asiskerjay! Asiskerjay!’ I can’t remember what it means but it involved running around the audience.”
He recalled: “My life went into widescreen. I had a ball and the depression lifted. I stayed after that production and became a member of the stage crew. Occasionally I’d get a few lines to say and that was when I started learning stuff.”
Other actors to have tread Perth’s boards include Jason Connery, Andy Gray, Denis Lawson, Mark Cox, Richard Johnson, John Gregson, Russell Hunter, Stephanie Bidmead, Gordon Jackson, Don Gallagher, Philip Lowrie and Colin McCredie, although there are many, many more.
A strange time
Lu reckons September 2020 is a “strange time” to be marking an 120th anniversary, thanks to Covid.
“Part of what is interesting about cultural institutions is that they inevitably reflect the time we live in,” she says.
“The Covid-19 crisis has been very hard on the theatre sector as a whole, and on our team.
“This moment, though, does force some necessary reflection and, we hope, change – it gives us the opportunity to look really closely at how we serve the community, and how we can do that better.”
Rooted in community
Much has changed since the foundation stone of Perth Theatre and Opera House, as it was originally known, was laid along with a time capsule on October 6 1899.
It’s been altered cosmetically, with the demolition of a rather grim 1980s extensions beginning in 2016, and a huge restoration project to transform the Edwardian auditorium to its former glory being completed with a grand reopening in December 2017.
And, of course, the theatre no longer includes wild animals as part of its performances.
But what role does it play in the community now, in 2020?
“Theatre at its best has always been the centre-point of a community’s conversation, a place of diversion and entertainment and a place to explore how we think about the world,” says Lu.
“When it’s functioning well, the theatre brings people together in lots of different ways.
“Perth Theatre is rooted in the community.
“Its history is what makes it so unique – it’s been around longer than many working theatres. But theatre isn’t the building, it’s the community that inhabit it and ours is particular to Perthshire – to our landscape and to the different communities that live and work here.”
Bringing people together in a crisis
While Perth Theatre is closed for the moment – thanks to Covid – it’s moved a lot of its work online, creating online versions of its Virtual Voices singing group and Little Stars creative play sessions.
Young people have thrown themselves into Company Three’s Coronavirus Time Capsule project, recording weekly videos to document the extraordinary period of history we’re all living through.
“We’re planning a season of online workshops and rehearsals leading to streamed performances for our Youth Theatre groups,” says Lu.
“We’ve launched Keep Going Together, a daily blog where we share moments of culture and community to brighten people’s day.
“All of this shows that the people who love Perth Theatre are still out there, still looking to connect with us and each other.”
At the moment, when the theatre is unable to make any income, it’s able to invest all its energies into extending the work it takes out to the community.
And that’s thanks to grants from Creative Scotland, The Gannochy Trust and The National Lottery Heritage Emergency Fund.
“This will help us create a programme of theatre, music and other activities to deliver in different settings to new audiences while the theatre remains closed,” explains Lu.
“We’re at the early stages of launching this, but this will include some innovative approaches to getting our work out there, small-scale tours and connections with different local organisations.”
The theatre is set to be the springboard for a Perthshire-wide engagement with Fun Palaces, a yearly festival which recognises that everyone is an artist and asks you what you can share with someone else.
“We hope that the theatre, when it returns, will properly embed as a community hub and that we can partner widely with third sector organisations across Perth so that everybody recognises this as a space they can use,” adds Lu.
“It’s an honour to be a part of the history of this great Scottish institution.
“The whole team takes this privilege very seriously and it’s our continued objective to do the theatre and the people of Perth proud with what we do while it’s in our hands.
“Theatre is essentially about storytelling in a shared space, and bringing people together.
“We have always found new ways to have that conversation. Covid won’t stop that happening; we’ll just have to find new ways to do it.”
Perth Theatre facts
- Extensive restoration was required following a fire in 1924, and sadly the blaze destroyed many props and promotional material produced between 1900 and 1924.
- In 1935 Perth Theatre became home to Scotland’s first repertory theatre company, making Perth Theatre Company one of the oldest in Scotland.
- The theatre has its own craft workshop, paint shop and wardrobe department.
- It boasts an archive and collection of artefacts, materials and costumes stretching back to 1935 including period wardrobe items, vintage items, painted cloths from musicals and pantos, props and furniture.
- In 1935, the theatre was sold to Marjorie Dence. Marjorie, along with her partner David Steuart, produced, directed and appeared in productions for the next 30 years.
- During the Second World War, the theatre’s staff and company pulled together to keep the cherished venue open. A rota of work was devised and divided, and friends of the theatre gave their time voluntarily to support the theatre through this difficult period. Living conditions were not easy and financial reward was minimal but there was a great sense of comradeship. There were 58 productions in 1936, 55 productions in 1937, 42 productions in 1938, 44 in 1939 and 53 in 1940.
- The theatre hosted the first Scottish Theatre Festival in 1939 and was one of the first companies to tour in the Highlands in the 1940s.
- Perth Theatre was in private hands until 1966, when it passed to the Scottish Arts Council. Two years later it was purchased by Perth Town Council. Today, the building is still owned by the council but is managed and run by Horsecross Arts.
- Joan Knight was appointed as artistic director in 1968 and was a tour de force until her last season in 1996.
- The “gods” seating had to be removed in the 1960s due to the introduction of health, safety and fire regulations. However, they were reintroduced in 2017, complying with all of today’s regulations.
- The theatre “went dark” in January 2014 for a £16.6 million refurbishment and extension.
- It reopened in December 2017 with a production of Aladdin – with panto dame Barrie Hunter taking on the starring role. The B-listed Edwardian auditorium was restored to its former glory and a new 200 seat studio theatre – the Joan Knight Studio – was created. The transformed venue increased workshop spaces for creative learning and community projects, including the thriving Perth Youth Theatre, as well as improved access and facilities for audiences and visitors.