There are few people who would have seen a bright side to Covid lockdowns. However, it did force us to think outside the box – and also think more about the outside.

When it came to theatre, the creative minds at Pitlochry Festival Theatre looked at its surroundings and realised it had the ideal location for outdoor performances. 
The artistic director at Pitlochry Festival Theatre is Elizabeth Newman and she recalls the reaction to the initial plan to build an outdoor theatre space.

“It was very clear to everyone that the pandemic wasn’t going away quickly and we would be in this situation for a while. At first, to some people, it seemed a bit mad. How could you possibly build an outdoor theatre in Pitlochry?” In that great spirit of “if you build it, they will come”, construction began on the amphitheatre, which now sits on the banks of the river in the Explorers Garden. Having this unique outside space means that certain productions take on more resonance and so it was with the first outdoor production of Wind In The Willows in 2021.

It has been a case of triumph over adversity. The theatre listens to its loyal audience very carefully and it was clear that this additional experience was something they wanted to continue. “The audiences have absolutely loved coming to the amphitheatre,” says Elizabeth. “It’s been quite magical. While initially it felt like it was just making the best of a bad situation, it has become a great addition to what Pitlochry can offer.”

This year sees the return of The Secret Garden. The adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic of children’s literature by Elizabeth and directed by Ben Occhipinti is the perfect blend of creativity and context. “We believe in the magic of the outdoors and the healing power of being together under one sky,” she says. “There’s so much healing in The Secret Garden.”

The story, which was published in 1911, begins when the orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors – a house full of secrets. She finds a key that leads to a garden, which has been abandoned for years.
“The children bring the garden back to life,” explains Elizabeth, “and in many ways they bring themselves back to life through that. It’s a story of healing through nature.”

The typical Scottish summer can bring its meteorological challenges, however, but along with the theatrical contingencies, there is a great belief in the power of the Scottish psyche. “The really great thing about Scottish audiences is that they’re sensible and they’re hardy. They know that they might have to bring a mac or an umbrella. “There have to be many different weather contingencies and the biggest problem can be the heat, especially for the actors. In that first season when we did our big production of Wind In The Willows, the actors obviously had quite elaborate costumes and they were racing around on some really hot days.”

So, in traditional Scottish summertime tradition, there should be an umbrella, a hat and sun cream in a bag. “The one that did make me laugh was during that first season,” says Elizabeth. “There was an installation that involved walking around the garden and, even though it was summer, we needed to have a contingency for snow and ice. We have the best audiences who will deal with anything – they will enjoy a story, whatever the weather.”

The open air setting and the productions that are particularly relevant to that environment are also family-friendly. Being out in the open air – even when some of the productions stretch into the evening under moonlight – is much more soothing for children. “They will be much more comfortable with this for their first theatrical experience, rather than the lights going off and being in the dark, which is not something for everyone’s thing anyway. It teaches them the joys of the outdoors along with experiencing a beautiful story.” 

The Secret Garden runs from July 12 to August 22.