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Paines Plough's James Grieve and George Perrin: 'We strive to be a truly national theatre of new plays'

As Paines Plough turns 40, its joint artistic directors tell WhatsOnStage how they're celebrating with the company's biggest season yet

Birthday boys: James Grieve and George Perrin

It's a great honour to be the custodians of the company as it reaches this milestone. The anniversary has given us an excuse to properly delve into the archives at The V&A and it's been thrilling to find sepia photos of Joe Marcell and Harriet Walter and Eric Richard performing in early Paines Plough productions in the 70s; photos of Andy Serkis and Peter Capaldi and Ben Whishaw.

We found this incredible portrait of Ian Hart taken by the legendary rock ‘n' roll photographer Kevin Cummins in 1986, so we got in touch with Kevin and amazingly he remembered the shoot, remembered Paines Plough and agreed to come and photograph our production of Mike Bartlett's An Intervention as part of our 40th. He took an astonishing portrait of Rachael Stirling which someone will unearth in 40 years time. Some of the great actors of the past four decades have worked with Paines Plough.

But it is the roll call of playwrights that really articulates what 40 years of PP has meant for British theatre. The company was founded by a playwright, David Pownall, and a director, John Adams in 1974. Initially the company produced David's plays which John directed, but in the early 80s the company started producing the work of Stephen Jeffreys, and the debut play by an aspiring writer called Terry Johnson. Since then it has been Paines Plough's raison d'être to discover brilliant young writers, produce their early work, and send them off to write for the National Theatre and Hollywood, and win Oliviers and BAFTAs. Tony Marchant, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Dennis Kelly, Abi Morgan, Jack Thorne – it's an illustrious alumni.

And so we see turning 40 as a chance to celebrate those extraordinary writers whose work has shaped theatre and television and film, and to secure the legacy of PP for another 40 years by producing great new talent like Tom Wells and Kate Tempest.

Did you know? Paines Plough was conceived by David Pownall and John Adams in 1974 at The Plough pub in Bolnhurst, Bedfordshire. They were drinking pints of Paines Bitter at the time.

We started the anniversary year by hosting a party for everyone who's ever worked for the company at The Young Vic. Our founders David and John were guests of honour, and actors from the very first company swapped stories with the cast of Jumpers for Goalposts.

The National Theatre invited us to stage a Platform event at which Fiona Victory, Harriet Walter, Stephen Jeffreys and John Tiffany told amazing tales from their time on tour with PP through the ages. Then we held an industry symposium in Manchester titled The Future Of Small Scale Touring to try to energise the debate around touring new plays.

But mostly we're just doing what the company has always done – producing great new plays and touring them. Programme 2014 is our biggest ever, with 12 productions touring to 50 places nationwide. We're producing the work of Olivier award winners and debutants, in proscenium arch playhouses and student union bars, at music festivals and in village halls.

At the heart of our anniversary programme is the launch of the Roundabout Auditorium – our new pop-up theatre. Roundabout is a 170 seat in-the-round auditorium that flat packs into a lorry and can be erected anywhere from theatres to school halls, sports centres to warehouses. It means that we can tour new plays to more places than ever before, and introduce a whole new audience to our best playwrights.

Paines Plough has always existed to produce the best new plays and tour them far and wide. We strive to be a truly national theatre of new plays, by travelling to every corner of the country to give as many people as possible the chance to see the best of British new writing.

If you live in London, you're spoilt for choice. On any one night you can choose from more than 50 productions ranging from Shakespeare, to Sondheim, to a new play by a first time writer. But if you live in Frome or Folkestone or Falkirk, your menu is rather more limited. And even if the odd King Lear comes to town, very few of the nation's best new plays are ever seen outside major cities. You've got more chance of seeing the best of British new plays if you live in New York, than if you live in York.

We believe everyone should have the opportunity to see the best new plays. So we try to be the national touring theatre showcasing the best of British new plays far and wide, from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight.

PP has premiered many plays that were ahead of the curve and changed the landscape. Plays like Crave and Mercury Fur. But its impact resonates beyond its own programmes, in the work of the playwrights Paines Plough championed at the start of their careers, who go on to be world-beaters. Abi Morgan's films Shame and The Iron Lady have been seen by cinema audiences worldwide. Dennis Kelly's Matilda: The Musical has taken the West End and Broadway by storm. Writers like Jack Thorne, Nick Payne, Penelope Skinner and Tom Wells came through our Future Perfect playwright attachment programme. Vicky Featherstone now runs the Royal Court, John Tiffany is the toast of Broadway. PP has launched the careers of some of our nation's greatest artists.

A scene from Sam Burns' Not the Worst Place, currently playing at Sherman Cymru

We look for writers who tell stories about the world we live in now. Who throw new light on our society, our communities, our families and friendships and relationships. Who tell stories that are just as relevant in Middlesbrough as Marylebone. And we look for writers who challenge theatrical form to tell stories in new ways. Mike Bartlett, Duncan Macmillan and James Graham all play with form to pack real punch in their work. Kate Tempest is a strikingly original and compelling voice. Tom Wells tells stories with unrivalled warmth and heart. And we are truly excited to be premiering a beautiful debut play, Not the Worst Place, by Swansea writer Sam Burns who we think is a major new talent destined for great things.

There's lots of great provision for playwrights starting out. But once you've had your first play on, the support drops away a little. It's assumed you've made it. Playwrights said to us that the time they most needed support was after their first play, or even after their second, when they were no longer considered ‘new' but nor were they established. So we set up the Big Room to support those playwrights, on their terms, with a menu of resources from which they can choose what they need, when they need it. The Big Room provides office space, rehearsal space, actors, directors, brokerage, mentoring, workshops, residencies and pretty much anything else a playwright asks us for. It's not a programme, or a scheme. It's just an offer of support to writers we think are brilliant.

To aspiring playwrights, our advice is see as much theatre as you possibly can. Read plays obsessively. Learn from everything. Keep practising. Nobody's first play is actually their first play, it's just the first one they've shown people. It takes graft, and many drafts.

Forty years from now we want Paines Plough to be still thriving, still integral to the health of British theatre, still discovering the most exciting new voices, and still hitting the road and touring to every corner of the British Isles.

For more information on Paines Plough's 40th anniversary season, visit www.painesplough.com