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InFocus: Julie Ellen

Since 11 February, 2024, Julie Ellen has served as the director of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews. Founded in 1933, the Byre continues to serve as an important centre of the arts for students and community members alike. The Saint sat down with Julie Ellen to discuss her background, new position, and love of performance art. 

Return to square one: Ms Ellen actually started her career at the Byre. She debuted as an actor during a year when the Open Golf Championship was being played, where she starred in Scottish playwright Stephen Greenhorn’s first commission, The Comeback. Funnily enough, she said, “it was about stories about the ghost of Tom Morris and fighting their gendered political arguments through golf.” 


Ms Ellen eventually moved to London for a short while where she completed a postgraduate degree in Arts Management. She then joined the Scottish theatre scene and became the producer for Suspect Culture alongside playwright and director David Greig. Afterwards, Ms Ellen moved on and became the founding director of Playwrights’ Studio Scotland where she remained until taking on her current position at the Byre. 


Although Ms Ellen has only been here for a short time, she stated, “I feel like I’ve already witnessed the scope and breadth of people I’m getting to meet already.” From student shows with the St Andrews Musical Society to the On the Rocks festival and the St Andrews poetry festival, Stanza, she has been very active. She is currently working on Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Ragnarok, a project that she has been involved with since before the COVID-19 pandemic.  

 

When asked what her typical day-to-day looks like, Ms Ellen told me that it can be quite the hybrid between a more managerial and a more artistic role. She is not only a leader — managing finance and human resources, building connections with stakeholders, and partners providing support, but also a writer of reports. At one moment she can be found writing a report, at the next, you can find her supporting an actor or playwright needing feedback. Marketing is also a big responsibility she has to undertake daily. She said, “It is important to use the right wording for policy — is it still up to date? It’s a constant process of learning. Could we have done that better, could it have been smoother?” Ms Ellen emphasised that the most important thing is ensuring that the mixture of people’s efforts is valued constantly. 

 

According to Ms Ellen, this focus in particular is what will make the upcoming Sands International Film Festival, taking place from 19-21 April, stand out. It will feature prominent figures in the entertainment industry such as Debra Zane, Joe Russo, and Alan Silvestri. 


Ms Ellen said, “One of the glorious things about Sands is that it is about emerging filmmakers [...]. St Andrews is a place where that can happen.” 


She added that Sands will be unique as we do not get regular access to the voices and experiences of emerging directors. We are not really conscious when we are watching a film of the amount of effort put into it by the production team. “Going to get the right actor in the right part is really challenging,” Ms Ellen said. “In the arts, there are many layers of things that work together to make things happen. Namely, the quality of selection based upon the quality of support and that is what I am trying to mediate.”


Ms Ellen heavily emphasised that the festival is open to all students. She said, “Come on! We want you! More students, the better.”  

 

When asked what in her personal journey has been the most beautiful thing about performance art and cinematography — her thunderbolt, her moment of falling in love with theatre — she responded with a memorable anecdote, “I was in primary school, and I have this striking memory of me singing alongside ‘Anything You Can Do (I Can do Better)’ in a gingham skirt and feeling the excitement of people laughing and enjoying in this little extract that we did — and I thought it is quite fun. Then on, when I was a teenager, around 15 or 16, I saw the performances at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) in Stratford and a whole new world of potential opened up to me — I just fell in love with theatre completely.”

 

In terms of what advice Ms Ellen would give to younger people interested in making a career out of their passion for the performing arts, she said, “I would go see things by a range of companies, many different styles — that is a piece of advice that my coworker, David Greig, an amazing artist and director of the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, gave to me. The Fringe festival is a good example of the different ways people can approach, tackle something. That is why I encourage the student companies — Mermaids, People You Know — to use our building as freely and as much as they wish.” 


Ms Ellen stressed how buildings, and the Byre in particular, play a huge role in creation. The Byre is a social study, a teaching space, and a place where professionals and amateur artists from around the world exchange ideas. 


“I’m particularly passionate about facilitating the works of artists and providing extra roles because of the nature of my particular career profile,” Ms Ellen said. She wants to encourage more mutual circles of thought and explanation, a sort of directors panel, where there would be no pressure, only art for art’s sake. “Some people just want to turn up and have fun, others just want to sit down and talk! The Byre is a sort of metatheatre in itself – an intricately designed stage where different profiles and artistic interests merge to form this wider network of productions.  

 

Ms Ellen explained she feels that the Byre contributes significantly to the student experience here in St Andrews beyond the study spaces, the café, or just watching a show. “There is such a range of possibilities at the Byre, [...] in every piece of work exists an opportunity.” 


She added, “There’s so much on at the Byre that just makes life a bit richer! I think that there exists deep thematics in every piece of performance that's made — and there is a political, cultural attitude that draws them together.” 

Image by Julie Ellen

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