WHEN Andrew Panton opens Dundee Rep’s autumn season next week with his production of Tay Bridge, Peter Arnott’s new play about the disaster in 1879 that saw the then longest rail bridge of its kind in the world collapse, it will mark a lot more than the start of his third season as artistic director.

By happy coincidence, the new programme coincides with the eightieth anniversary of Dundee Rep itself after it was founded by touring theatre manager Robert Thornely, who forged an alliance between his professional company and the amateur Dundee Dramatic Society.

The latter had purchased a disused jute mill which was used as its premises, with the new Dundee Rep company moving to Foresters’ Hall before the building burnt down in 1963. After a brief nomadic existence, the Rep eventually re-opened in the former Dudhope Church. The purpose-built theatre the Rep now occupies first opened its doors in 1982, with Robert Robertson as artistic director.

If the Rep’s eightieth birthday wasn’t cause enough for celebration, Panton’s anniversary season also marks twenty years of Dundee Rep Ensemble. The theatre’s permanent company of actors was set up in 1999 by Hamish Glen, who had taken over from Robertson as artistic director five years earlier. While the ranks have ebbed and flowed over the years, the core aim of having a resident team in place throughout the season has remained the same, with actors Irene Macdougall, Ann Louise Ross and Emily Winter having been with the company since day one.

“The Rep and the Ensemble are such a part of Dundee’s cultural life now,” says Panton, “and I think it’s important to celebrate how that’s developed, both over the last eighty years and the last twenty. When people come to the Rep, it’s not just about seeing a show. They want to have conversations with you about casting, and if I get it wrong then I know I’m in trouble, but I don’t know of another theatre where you’d get that, and the actors get stopped on the street as well.

“In terms of having an ensemble, working with the same actors over several years you develop a language with each other, and it becomes a genuinely collaborative process. There’s a lot of skills development that goes on as well, so it’s not just about me telling people what to do. It’s very much a two-way street.”

As if to illustrate this, members of the Ensemble are much in evidence not just on stage this season, but also in the director’s chair. While Panton takes the helm for both Tay Bridge and a new musical version of Oor Wullie, brought to the stage by the internationally renowned Noisemaker company, aka Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, the rest of the season is overseen by Rep Ensemble members and associates.

First up after Tay Bridge is A-Z of Dundee, John and Gerry Kielty’s irreverent take on local history originally seen earlier this year on the Rep’s annual tour of community venues. Now on the theatre’s main stage, the production is again directed by Ewan Donald, familiar to Dundee audiences from numerous productions, including Gagarin Way, All My Sons and Sunshine on Leith.

While the co-production with Sell A Door of Oor Wullie reunites Panton with Noisemaker following last year’s production of The Snow Queen, younger audiences will be able to see

Emily Mouse’s Christmas Tales, which sees songs, rhymes and some specially written stories by children’s author performed by long-standing Ensemble member Emily Winter. Winter’s appearances at the Rep include The Yellow on the Broom, Passing Places and Deathtrap, while early outings with the company include Cabaret and the title role of Flora the Red Menace.

Looking further ahead, Smile is a new play by Philip Differ about the life of Dundee United’s former manager Jim McLean, which will be directed by Sally Reid. While not an Ensemble member, Reid has appeared in Dundee in Beauty and the Beast and Time and the Conways. Finally, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure will be directed by Irene Macdougall, who, as well as making numerous appearances in the likes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Death of A Salesman and The Tempest, has also directed Rep productions of The 39 Steps, Much Ado About Nothing and Whisky Galore among others.

The season also sees Joan Cleville begin her tenure as artistic head of the Rep-based Scottish Dance Theatre, with three SDT shows, a double bill of Process Day and The Circle, Great Big Dance Show: Acts One and Two and Sputnik feature as part of the programme.

With Dundee itself in the midst of architectural upheaval, which has included the opening of the V&A Dundee, Panton is embracing the changes in the city fabric, and is very much looking to the future.

“When I first started at the Rep, the V&A still hadn’t opened,” he says. “Once it did open, it felt like the beginning of a new chapter for Dundee, and Dundee Rep is very much part of that. It’s about looking out, both nationally and internationally, developing partnerships, taking shows out, and seeing Dundee as being part of a bigger world.

“I think the important thing about this season, both for the Rep after eighty years and the Ensemble after twenty, is that it’s full of stories for and from Dundee that have a universality to them. What’s lovely now as well after having been here for a couple of years is I’ve had time to work out who our audience are, and they in turn can see their community represented onstage. That’s why the season is so diverse, and that’s everything I want Dundee Rep to be.”

Dundee Rep’s 80th anniversary season opens with Tay Bridge, which runs August 27-September 21. Full details of the season can be found at www.dundeerep.co.uk.