Outside the window of Panton's office, an industrial cherry-picker was already at work, with those inside the vehicle taking down the lettering on the wall beside the entrance to the theatre. By now, a new set of letters will have been unveiled as a symbolic pre-cursor to Saturday's announcement that marks a new chapter in Dundee Rep's history.
“It's suddenly made everything feel very real,” says Fife-born Panton, as each letter is removed while the sun shines. “There's going to be a whole new branding, and a new logo, so the whole theatre will look and feel a little bit different. Watching the old branding being taken down is making all of that sink in.”
For the last eighteen months, Joe Douglas has helmed Dundee Rep as an associate director following outgoing artistic director Jemima Levick's departure to run the Stellar Quines company. Douglas' final show of his tenure, a community tour of Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, opens this week.
Panton's new programme that follows isn't so much a new broom as a continuum. Given that it features seven new productions, with the 2018 community tour still to be announced, it is also a full one. This is the case even without taking into account the programme from resident company Scottish Dance Theatre and assorted youth and community initiatives. Panton alone will be directing four of the main stage shows.
Nowhere is the continuum more evident than in the pre Edinburgh Festival Fringe run of The Last Queen of Scotland, which sees Levick return with a new show for Stellar Quines with support from both Dundee Rep and the National Theatre of Scotland. Written by Dundee-based playwright Jaimini Jethwa, the play focuses on a Dundee woman's return to Uganda, a country she has never known, but which is where her family and others were expelled from in 1972 by its ruler, Idi Amin.
“With all those Dundee connections it's a lovely way to start,” says Panton, “and with Jemima directing, it feels very much like things coming full circle.”
Autumn begins with Panton directing the Scottish premiere of Tracey Letts' Pulitzer Prize winning 2008 play, August: Osage County. While best known in the UK from a film version starring Meryl Streep and Ewan McGregor, it was the Chicago-based Steppenwolf company who first made Letts' tale of family dysfunction it a hit.
“I've wanted to direct it for years,” Panton says of the play. “It's great story-telling, and that's what I want Dundee Rep to be about. We want to use as many different ways to tell stories as we can. For me, for theatre to use music, dance and story-telling is when it becomes really exciting.”
The choice of the next production was inspired by the presence of Dundee Rep's permanent ensemble of actors. This unique set-up was introduced by then artistic director Hamish Glen almost twenty years ago, and is something Panton wishes to capitalise on for The Maids, Martin Crimp's version of Jean Genet's brutal treatise on power which features meaty roles for three female actors.
“The acting ensemble are the heart and soul and the engine room of what we do,” says Panton, “and I feel privileged that the Rep has such an amazing resource of all these remarkable actors. Emily Winter, Irene Macdougall and Ann Louise Ross have been with it from the start, but chatting to them we realised that they'd never really done something all together, and The Maids was the first thing that came to mind.”
The Maids will be directed by Eve Jamieson, former artistic director of Winged Horse theatre company, and who also has strong Dundee connections from when she was director of the School of Theatre at The Space, the innovative performance training centre based at Dundee and Angus College.
Taking the Rep up until the end of the year will be Panton's second stint as director, when he takes charge of A Christmas Carol, which will be the theatre's already announced Christmas show this year. While he previously directed Neil Duffield's adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, this time out Panton will add a new twist by casting Ann Louise Ross to play Ebeneezer Scrooge as a woman.
2018 begins with a production of Deathtrap, Ira Levin's classic pot-boiler, which currently holds the record for being the longest running thriller on Broadway. Dundee audiences will also have the tantalising prospect of it being overseen by director Johnny McKnight and designer Kenny Miller.
Panton will then direct two productions back to back. The first marks an ambitious collaboration between Dundee Rep and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's musical version of Frank Wedekind's play, Spring Awakening. Panton will then present a new production of Stephen Greenhorn's road movie for the stage, Passing Places. Greenhorn will forever be linked with Dundee Rep after it presented the original production of his Proclaimers sound-tracked musical, Sunshine on Leith. The partnership with the RCS will see the Rep stage a musical theatre production on an annual basis, and will provide a showcase for emerging talent to work alongside the Ensemble.
With Panton retaining his post as artistic director of musical theatre at the RCS, this allows him to combine these two worlds in a way that his career has been building towards through a diverse array of work. As well as working as a music and movement director, Panton has spent five years as choir director with the BBC's Children in Need initiative, vocal coach of Susan Boyle, as well as other TV work on shows such as The Voice.
“It was about getting as many experiences as possible,” he says, “whether that was in music, theatre or TV, it was about trying to gather everything up until I could be at the point I'm at now and feel equipped to do this. This is the right time for me, , and for some reason it's always been Dundee Rep that I've wanted to run. I don't know why, but I've always found it the most exciting place to see shows.”
With Dundee in the midst of a transformation that includes the forthcoming opening of the new V&A Museum of Design on the waterfront and a bid to become European Capital of Culture 2023, Panton's arrival at the Rep is timely.
“Dundee Rep has a long legacy of fantastic work,” he says, “and while our local audiences are the bedrock of what we do, we want more people to see it in more places. We're planning co-productions and collaborations nationally and internationally with artists who have the same ethos as us, and with them we want to find out what stories we want to tell. Dundee right now feels very much a city that is reaching out to the world, and we want to be part of that.”
Tickets for the new season at Dundee Rep are on sale now.
The Herald, May 30th 2017