Interview: Deborah Newman to take centre stage at Playhouse

Deborah Newman, the new General Manager of the Edinburgh Playhouse. Picture: Julie Howden

Deborah Newman, the new General Manager of the Edinburgh Playhouse. Picture: Julie Howden

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THE Newman in charge of The Playhouse is called Deborah . . . Deborah Newman, the first female general manager in the history of the iconic venue and, perhaps surprisingly, one with no previous theatre experience to her name.

That’s not to say that the 40-year-old’s CV doesn’t make dramatic reading: The London Eye, Edinburgh Castle, Dover Castle, the Houses of Parliament and Edinburgh Zoo are just five of the UK attractions to have benefited from her expertise over the last 15 years. Now it’s the turn of the Greenside Place venue.

“Someone told me I was the first female general manager of the Playhouse, which I was surprised about,” Newman admits, as we chat in her office, “I feel quite privileged. It’s exciting. I suppose the fact I’m also not from a theatre background shows a bit of a step-change, although I don’t know what that means for the venue per se,” she laughs.

If Newman’s past record is anything to go by, expect the profile of the the Playhouse to soar. As head of visitor experience at Westminster, Newman was charged with turning the Houses of Parliament into an attraction to rival the best in London.

“Parliament was going through a change. They recognised the need to be more accessible to the public, particularly the tax-payer, and that it had to start paying for itself,” she explains.

Developing a new brand, “Visit Parliament”, Newman proved that by understanding the Palace of Westminster as a visitor attraction, significant funds could be raised for the upkeep of the building.

If that sounds impressive, before the her time at Westminster, the South Londoner was actually based in Edinburgh, delivering another high-profile initiative, the Edinburgh Castle Visitor Reception Project.

“I was admissions and event manager at the Castle. It was new role at the time,” she recalls. “This all harks back to the days when there was a trailer on the Esplanade that sold tickets – a very unglamourous caravan.

“The Edinburgh Castle Visitor Reception Project was big, and several millions of pounds later, there was a new ticket office inside the Castle walls, and the phasing out of parking on the Esplanade. I was brought in to deliver that.”

It was from another landmark attraction that Historic Scotland recruited Newman for the Castle revamp, the London Eye, where she started here career nearly 15 years ago. Prior to that, her plan had been to become an English teacher.

“I always loved art but was one of those people who didn’t want to be pushed into things by others. So, when I got a report that said: ‘A career as an artist or illustrator awaits...’ I was like, ‘You’re not going to tell me what to do.’ So I didn’t even go on to do it at college.”

Art remains a passion for Newman, who paints and draws as a hobby, and who now calls Scotland home. “I fell in love with Scotland when I was 18 years old and came on holiday here with my mum. I instantly felt so at home,” she says.

Now based in South Queensferry, where she lives with her partner and their excitable yellow Labrador Hamish, she adds, with a laugh, “I love living by the coast and am obsessed with the Rail Bridge – I’m a bridge fanatic.”

But what of her dreams of being an English teacher?

“I really enjoyed English and found my English teachers really inspirational so decided that was what I wanted to do, but after I graduated I got an office with with the local council in Croydon, before taking time out to travel around South East Asia with a friend.

“When I got back I found myself wandering around London, wanting to work somewhere I’d get to talk to people – I love people, love leading people, being part of a team, supporting and developing people.

I wanted a job that would be fun and offer variety. I saw the London Eye and literally went in and asked if they had any jobs. They give me an application form . . . and that is how it started.”

Newman was appointed the London Eye’s commercial operations manager, Edinburgh Castle followed. Next she worked as head of visitor operations at Dover Castle, developing the Secret Wartime Tunnels as an attraction before heading to the Houses of Parliament.

However, it was at Edinburgh Zoo, where she oversaw the recent Dinosaurs Return! exhibition, that Newman really got to know the Capital.

So, having admitted that theatre “has never been a huge passion” yet with such an impressive track record to live up to, what are Newman’s plan for the Playhouse?

“My first priority is to raise the profile of the venue,” she says.

“I know when I Google the Playhouse on Trip Adviser for things to do in Edinburgh, it is number 60-something. I want it to be in the Top 10, and that’s isn’t just about the show.

“It’s about reestablishing the venue as a destination in its own right; come along for a day, go for a tour, have lunch or dinner, then see the matinee or evening performance.”

Her previous experience will be vital in achieving her goal she believes.

“The last thing I saw at the Playhouse was Jersey Boys, it was fantastic. It was a really positive experience, but I can see that, as we are such a big venue, when we are at capacity, the customer facilities can struggle.

“That will be a focus for me, making sure the visitor facilities are up to the standard of the shows and the auditorium.”

She continues, “I believe, whether you work in a zoo, a castle, or a theatre, it’s all about giving patrons the best possible time, about how you treat them from the moment they step through the door. About, putting packages together that offer good value for money, because if you offer people a fantastic experience, they don’t mind paying a little bit more.”

Not that Newman will be neglecting what’s on stage. Bringing West End smashes back to the Playhouse is a priority.

“I would love the big classics like Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis to come back, but we are also hosting the Scottish premieres of both Billy Elliot and The Kinks’ musical Sunny Afternoon, and Mamma Mia is back at Christmas.

“And Wonderland, has its UK premiere here early next year, in the largest seated theatre in the UK, if not Europe, and that’s phenomenal.”