AS aesthetically pleasing as many theatre buildings are, they only exist in any meaningful way once there are people in the seats and performers on stage. Dundee Rep is one of Scotland ’s great examples of a theatre created by and for its people.

In its 80th anniversary year, and with its widely lauded ensemble company celebrating its 20th year, it maintains the egalitarian stance of a theatre that reflects the city it serves. The ensemble productions during the celebratory season also reflect that, telling stories of Dundee, both real and imagined.

READ MORE: Brian Cox: ‘I owe Dundee Rep everything. It formed and shaped me’

This 80th year was something that artistic director Andrew Panton considered carefully when taking over the role in 2017. “I knew the anniversary would happen in my third season, and that it would also mark 20 years of the Dundee Rep Ensemble, so there was a conscious decision to make this season different. There were so many ideas, but we needed stories that weren’t local for the sake of being local – they needed to travel.

“First, we had the epic story of Tay Bridge. This wasn’t a disaster movie on stage. It looked at the characters on the train and asks the questions about what might they have achieved if that disaster hadn’t happened?

“Then we have Smile, which is the story of Jim McLean. He isn’t a Dundonian by birth but definitely a favourite adopted son, as manager of Dundee United, particularly during a run of massive success for the club. Smile is just two actors and as well as the football, the play looks at his family and his life, including his relationship with the club. The writer Philip Differ and the theatre have had a lot of input from Jim’s family.

“Then in the middle and very much in our minds at the moment, we have Oor Wullie, putting Scotland’s most iconic comic strip character on stage. Everyone will be wondering what he will be like in person. What does he sound like and what accent does he have? We’ve only seen him in this 2D world and we’ve all heard his voice in our heads. So that’s a real responsibility.

“Actually, I think that’s what I feel about this season. It’s a responsibility. Telling these stories that really mean something. Tay Bridge was a wonderful start and we were overwhelmed by the reaction.”

The second show, The A To Z Of Dundee, had been on tour in community halls around the city and came back home to the Rep to tell the myths and legends in a suitable riotous way – but it has to be right.

The National: The cast of The A To Z Of DundeeThe cast of The A To Z Of Dundee

And of course when it comes to the Christmas production, we all know that Oor Wullie is Your Wullie and Abody’s Wullie.

Panton is of the generation who, as a child, would travel with his family from Burntisland in Fife to the latest incarnation of the Rep, which opened in Tay Square in 1982. The new building replaced its temporary base (for 18 years!) in Dudhope Church on Lochee Road. That was sourced in 1963 during a short peripatetic spell following the devastating fire at the Nicoll Street theatre, where the Dundee Repertory Company had its beginnings in 1939.

THROUGHOUT those moves Dundee Rep was seen by actors as a place where they wanted to work. Maureen Beattie graduated in 1974 and was delighted to join TRYP (The Rep for Young People).

“We travelled around community centres and schools,” she recalls. “One show was largely mime, clowning for very young children, and the other was called the Fiery Cross Of The Clan! This was the struggle of the Highlanders during the Clearances – extremely romantic and epic ... well, as epic as you can be with four people in a school hall. Gregor Fisher was another of the four. It was a history lesson as well as entertainment – but of course the pupils don’t know it’s a lesson and that’s why it’s important to take shows like this out to schools. It fires their imagination. They were transported from their school hall to the Highlands.”

Beattie admits that the work could be draining. The shows were performed throughout the term and also involved evening performances at community centres.

“I was also in charge of costumes. We all moved scenery and someone drove the van. We all had multiple jobs on a punishing schedule. At the end I was so tired I gave up acting.”

The Rep gave Beattie the encouragement to come back, however, when then artistic director Stephen MacDonald tracked her down to her job answering phones in her mother’s office.

“He asked if I would come and play Rosalind in As You Like It. In fact, he offered me a whole season with the ensemble and that’s when it all really began for me.”

Beattie is passionate about the idea of the ensemble and pays tribute to former artistic director Hamish Glen for reinstating the Rep Ensemble in 1999. There are three original members still in the ensemble: Ann Louise Ross, Emily Winter and Irene MacDougall.

“There is so much talent within that company,” adds Beattie. “Look at the great Ann Louise Ross who has been at the National, the other National Theatre in London that is, showing everybody how to act in Peter Gynt. She honed her talent in Scotland and has just got better and better.”

Despite Beattie and TRYP’s best efforts, the Rep in the 1970s didn’t reach a young Gary Robertson, living out in Fintry and with his head more in football and punk than Shakespeare and Wilde.

However, Robertson has now written three plays that have been staged at Dundee Rep, all of which talk to Dundonians in their own voice and reflect their lives back from the stage.

“My mum was a cleaner at the Rep but that was as close as I got,” he says. “The first theatre I saw was on a London school trip, but it was Jesus Christ Superstar and the teacher kept poking us in the back for muckin’ aboot… we were punks. What was this?!”

He started writing during the filming of the SAS: Are You Tough Enough? in 2002, which he went on to win. The diary he kept became a self-published book and led to his involvement with Tribal Tongues, who performed street poetry to drinkers in housing scheme pubs in full-strength “oary” Dundonian. There were several books on Dundee subjects and then, to his surprise, a play.

The Berries told the story of a day picking raspberries in the Angus berry fields, something that most working-class Dundonians had experienced. His submission to the Rep of the first 20 pages was rejected, but undeterred Gary, with help from his wife and friends, staged the show to a sold-out Bonar Hall in 2009 and 2010.

“By this time I was working on the bins and I’d be fielding calls about tickets while lugging a bin on my back.”

The Rep’s ears pricked up and in 2013, the berry pickers were invited to share the same stage as Ibsen and Chekhov.

“I’ve had a great relationship with the Rep ever since,” says Robertson. “It was the place to get into for me. I wasn’t interested in taking anything to the Edinburgh Fringe. I wanted people in Dundee to have a laugh, recognising themselves and situations that they could relate to. The feedback we got from the Rep was that this was a different crowd, so it was bringing people through the doors – and people that came back. And I think the bar takings were good.

The Rep then staged The Scaffies, a play about Dundee binmen in the late 1970s, and then heading for the hills as he does most weekends, Robertson wrote his third play for the Rep, The Middle O’ Nowhere – A Bothy Haunting.

“Now that I’m older I wish I had seen some of the stuff that the Rep put on in the 80s, things like They Fairly Mak Yi Work. I had no clue at the time that they were putting on plays that I would have related to. But then again, it was the Rock’n’Roll Swindle for me then…”

The National: The cast of They Fairly Mak Yi Work at Dundee Rep in 1986The cast of They Fairly Mak Yi Work at Dundee Rep in 1986

They Fairly Mak Yi Work was seen as a ground-breaking production for Dundee Rep in 1986. Written by Billy Kay, it came to the attention of a young director from London who had been staging ambitious and unconventional work there.

Alan Lyddiard and his then wife had escaped Thatcher’s England and at the invitation of choreographer Royston Muldoon arrived in Auchtermuchty. Lyddiard’s friend, theatre designer Neil Murray, was working at Dundee Rep and made the introduction.

“Neil persuaded the artistic director at the time, Robert Robertson, to give me a chance,” says Lyddiard. “When I read They Fairly Mak Yi Work, which was about the jute mill workers and Mary Brooksbank in particular, I thought it was extraordinary and I thought it was the right play for that time. Dundee was quite a dark place in some ways then… there was a lot of unemployment and a lot of anger. So, here I was, a Londoner, coming up to Dundee and directing a piece that was so important to the city. It could be pretty patronising if I wasn’t careful – so I got in touch with Michael Marra.”

THIS was Michael Marra’s first toe in the theatrical waters, but it proved to be a graceful dive in at the deep end. Not only did he write songs, he was musical director and performed. According to Lyddiard, however, Marra was also his guide into a world he knew nothing about.

“He changed my life. He introduced me to that world and made it come alive. He made me appreciate the depth of culture as well as the enthusiasm for creativity in Dundee.

“We made sure that people who had never been into the theatre before had an opportunity to see it, by reducing prices and taking it out to the community. It was so popular that they staged it a couple of months later and it sold out again. This wasn’t a standard rep company doing Blithe Spirit. I’m not in any way criticising that, but this was theatre most definitely for the people and we established a different set of rules.”

Also during this time, in 1986, Royston Muldoon created the Dundee Rep dance company, which developed into the Scottish Dance Theatre, still based at the theatre and now led by artistic director Joan Cleville.

It was a time when creativity seemed to fly, with a participatory arts movement growing out of workshops that were hosted in the schemes. The Cat’s Oot The Bag Theatre Company was a success story of community theatre and produced professional actors such as the late Peter Grimes and jazz singer Alison Burns. “I was working full-time at BT, but also beginning something of a jazz singing career,” says Burns. “I went along to Cat’s Oot The Bag because I was interested in a different kind of performing. Lyddiard recognised the talent that came from the company and Cat’s Oot The Bag became an important part of Witch’s Blood, perhaps the most ambitious community production staged in Scotland.”

Adapted by John Harvey from William Blain’s novel, it involved 500 performers across six sites over a rainy weekend in 1987. They were watched by thousands of spectators who travelled between sites on a fleet of 12 double-decker buses.

“Again, Michael Marra was involved in all aspects,” adds Lyddiard. “We needed the energy that was there at the time to embrace the craziness of it. These 12 double-deckers had to arrive at Dudhope Castle simultaneously for an interval. That in itself was a magical moment.

“I would say that Witch’s Blood was the culmination of the most exciting years of my working life.

‘‘I love Dundee and I miss it. I did consider coming back but sometimes it’s best to move on and I’m doing exciting work in Leeds now, but still with the idea that came to me at the Rep that there is no artistic difference between community and professional theatre.”

From community acting, Alison Burns was offered a professional role by Lyddiard and thankfully had enough work under her belt to qualify for an Equity card. “Being involved in Witch’s Blood gave a lot of Dundonians much-needed confidence at the time. There was a real pride in what had been achieved,” she says.

“Then being offered a professional role was phenomenal for me. It was a crossroads and I decided to take the performing road, but it was such a supportive group of people, particularly Alan Lyddiard.”

It’s clear that the success of the theatre over 80 years has been down to a succession of people who have shared the values of inclusivity, long before it was fashionable.

“I think the importance to the city is that it’s simply known as the Rep,” says Andrew Panton. “No-one calls it Dundee Rep here. Whether they come to see a show or just come in to have a coffee, something to eat or drink, there’s a sense of ownership. That’s a rare quality for a theatre.”

Oor Wullie runs from November 23 to January 5. For information on the 19/20 season visit