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Changing of the Guard: Paines Plough's James Grieve & George Perrin

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The latest interview in our occasional series on Theatreland's new artistic directors is with George Perrin and James Grieve, who have just this week announced their first season as the new artistic directors of leading new writing touring company Paines Plough.

Perrin and Grieve have been working together since 2001, when they founded their own company nabokov. Their work with nabokov included the world premieres of Mike Bartlett’s Artefacts and Jack Thorne's 2nd May 1997 at the Bush, as well as Edmund White's Terre Haute at the Edinburgh Fringe and the West End’s Trafalgar Studios (which, like Artefacts, subsequently transferred to New York).

At Paines Plough, they have taken over from Roxana Silbert. In the years since it was founded in 1974, Paines Plough has won numerous awards and premiered the work of writers including Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Dennis Kelly, David Grieg, Enda Walsh and Bola Agbaje.

What’s the first ever Paines Plough production you ever saw?
What impact did it have on you?

George Perrin: I saw Tiny Dynamite by Abi Morgan at the Contact Theatre in Manchester where I grew up and it astonished me. I had seen lots of work at the Royal Exchange (which at the time didn’t programme as much new work as it does now) and at the Library Theatre, but this was a completely different idea of what theatre could be in form and content. Not only that, but it was touring – the romance of that idea has stayed with me ever since.

James Grieve: The Straits by Gregory Burke. I loved everything about it. The writing was sharp and irreverent and humane. The acting was terrific. It was flawlessly directed by John Tiffany and beautifully lit by Natasha Chivers on a striking Neil Warmington set. It raised the bar for me.

Why did you want the job of artistic directors of the company?

Perrin: There’s a genuine harmony between what we’re passionate about doing as theatre makers and producers and the raison d’etre of Paines Plough (PP) - to tour new plays and support playwrights. After ten years of running our own company together (nabokov – now led by artistic director Joe Murphy) we felt it was the right time to move on – just as the Paines Plough job was advertised.

Grieve: Paines Plough has been a great influence on us both. As we were building Nabokov, we went to watch the company’s work and it inspired and galvanised us. Most importantly, Paines Plough is one of the few companies with a genuine commitment to touring new plays. We both grew up outside London with limited access to new writing, so this job offers us a fantastic opportunity to ensure audiences everywhere get to see great new work. We want Paines Plough to be a truly national theatre of new plays.

How would you rate your predecessor Roxana Silbert’s tenure in this position?

Perrin: I had the great honour of learning most of what I know about working with playwrights on new plays from Roxana - initially as assistant director and then as trainee associate director during her tenure at Paines Plough. She is an extraordinary playwright collaborator and director of new plays. She brought playwrights such as Dennis Kelly to prominence. She kept lifting the scale of production the company was capable of delivering. And she built on Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany’s extraordinary swansong This Other England by vastly increasing the volume of work the company was able to produce.

Grieve: Roxana has left us a legacy of financial health, high esteem within the playwriting community and strong relationships with theatres across the country. We couldn’t really ask for much more.

James Grieve and George Perrin. Photos by Geraint Lewis

What are you most immediate challenges/rewards?

Perrin: The rewards are simple – if we can fulfil our vision to make exceptional work by extraordinary playwrights available to as many people throughout the UK as possible we’ll be very happy. The challenges are more complicated - touring is expensive, audiences for drama outside a few major cities are hard to find, and increasingly theatres have their own new work to programme at the expense of visiting work. Add to that mix the looming threat of funding cuts, better television drama and large amounts of mediocre theatre work flooding the marketplace and the challenge intensifies.

Grieve: The challenge is to make new plays available and affordable to the widest number of people across the UK on as regular a basis as possible. The reward is sharing what we’re most passionate about with all those people. Theatre as a whole faces a huge challenge to maintain its place in the nation’s cultural diet amidst ever stiffer competition from film, television, comedy, music, gaming and digital media.

How do you measure success in achieving this?

Grieve: In our first year we want to produce ten new plays, we want them to be seen in over 30 different cities, towns and villages through over 50 weeks of touring, and we want to make genuine investments in the artistic development of a clutch of our best playwrights.

Perrin: If we can pull that off we’ll be delighted, and knackered.

What are your plans for your first season? And beyond?

Grieve: Our first programme of work will run for 12 months from May. We’re starting with a big project called Come to Where I’m From through which we’re co-commissioning almost 70 playwrights with 14 different theatres across the UK to each write a short play about the town or city they grew up in. The playwrights will then perform the plays themselves at their local theatres. We’ve got a huge range of amazing writers taking part from David Edgar to Alia Bano.

We’re also co-commissioning and co-producing new plays by Mike Bartlett, David Harrower, Marie Jones and Linda MacLean with the Drum Theatre Plymouth, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Oran Mor in Glasgow, amongst others. We’re introducing a bespoke playwright support space called The Big Room and supporting independent productions of plays by David Watson and Arinze Kene through our new associate company scheme. Playwrights are firmly at the centre of the company from our Pearson writer-in-residence Lydia Adetunji, to our Fenton Arts Trust Associate Playwright Mike Bartlett up to leading playwright Simon Stephens, who is on our board.

Perrin: Beyond that we have an idea to make a piece of work that tours the UK using the inland waterways system, we have exceptional writers under commission including Bola Agbage, Sam Holcroft, Matthew Dunster and Phil Davies and we plan to make a return to international touring.

What would you say to entice first-time visitors to Paines Plough?

Perrin: Bet small, win big. We’re trying to take the risk out of attending our work to make it viable as a regular cultural choice. So we’re aiming to make varied, local, affordable work that doesn’t involve a huge investment of time or finance but that is nonetheless an extraordinary artistic experience.

What made you want to be theatre directors in the first place?
How did you first come to work together?

Perrin: I was acting for a very short while in Sheffield University’s drama society where students would direct the plays. Up until then I had no idea directors existed. I was being directed in A View from the Bridge by a history student making it up as he went along, and I thought, “I can probably do that”. Little did I realise that ‘making it up as you go along’ is the cornerstone of the job. We started working together when we persuaded Michael Grandage to let us have the Crucible Studio to put on a new play. That was the beginning of ten years of nabokov.

Grieve: I started directing simply because nobody was putting on the plays I wanted to see. So I did it myself. I was conscious that most of my friends never went to the theatre – they thought it wasn’t for them, but actually they just weren’t being catered for. My friends have always been my constituency. I like to think that I make work for them, and people like them. Michael Grandage was a huge influence on me. He took over the Crucible in Sheffield when I was at university there and transformed the place. Suddenly theatre was cheap, accessible, and absolutely thrilling.

What’s the secret to joint artistic direction in general? And for your partnership specifically, what do you most value in each other?

Perrin: It’s hard to talk about joint artistic directorships in general as we only know our own experience, but more than anything you ultimately do it for the other person, which particularly in tough times, is a lot easier than doing it for yourself. It also means you can continue to drive future plans forward whilst exacting previously made plans in the present. We work much like an artistic director and associate director, with one of us running the company at all times and the other in rehearsals – with the difference that we alternate these roles. We have a completely shared taste, aesthetic, set of theatrical values and (currently) ambition, which means we can be confident we’ll always make the same decisions. We both think the other is a great director which helps.

What are your greatest professional achievements to date?

Perrin: I’m incredibly proud to have been involved with the Bush’s production of Sea Wall by Simon Stephens. Whilst it had very little to do with me (and a lot to do with Simon and actor Andrew Scott) I was honoured to be involved with its creation. Building nabokov from scratch and knowing it now thrives as an in-demand entity feels like an achievement.

Grieve: Seeing big crowds of people who don’t attend theatre regularly enjoying nabokov’s work at places like Latitude and The nabokov Arts Club is the biggest buzz. I was hugely proud to be a part of Josie Rourke’s reinvention of the Bush as her associate director for the past two years. And watching the European Cup Final in a bar on 3rd Avenue with Mike Bartlett then walking to the opening night of Artefacts in New York remains a surreal and intoxicating memory.

Why is theatre important in modern Britain?

Perrin: I think because more palpably than any other artistic medium theatre is about only one thing – people. I think at their best, stories told in the theatre show how difficult life is and how, even when we do terrible things, there’s always hope we can be better.

Grieve: Free speech and robust debate are the cornerstones of any progressive society and theatre provides a crucible for that debate. Playwrights are generally dissidents in some way, so it’s important their voices are heard to challenge the status quo. Some of the most important stories of our lives and times are told in the theatre, and I genuinely believe seeing a good play is an enriching experience. But we’re also an entertainment industry. Theatre is important as entertainment. And let’s not forget theatre’s economic value. Our industry puts far more into the Exchequer than it takes out through subsidy. The West End is vital to tourism; airlines, hotels, restaurants, shops, even taxi drivers rely on West End shows to drive trade.

How do you view the current state of theatre? Any advice you’d give
the government in terms of arts policy?

Perrin: It seems there are lots of good things happening in London certainly – the Royal Court rightly seems to be selling every ticket, there are brilliant plays in the West End, the Bush and the Lyric are programming some exceptional work and the Arcola and Oval House are championing a huge range of new writers and young practitioners. Meanwhile, there’s great enthusiasm and success in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Plymouth, Edinburgh and across the board lots of talk of strong audiences for new writing and more ‘new’ writers than ever before. The arts policy should embrace these successes and make more brilliant work available to more of the country more of the time. The annual arts budget is currently £0.44bn which is less than 0.01% of the total annual budget.

Grieve: More new writing than ever is being produced, but not enough of it tours. As an industry, working in collaboration with Arts Council England, we need to evolve new models for touring new plays to all corners of the UK. Touring is by definition sustainable – it takes the product to the audience rather than the audience having to travel to the product – and with some serious investment of mind and money we can make touring viable again for the very best new work. I think there should be more concentrated and longer-term investment in fewer playwrights than there is currently. Resource can sometimes be spread too thinly to the benefit of nobody. In terms of arts policy, I’d urge the treasury to look at the 0.01% the arts receive and measure the value it receives. We don’t want handouts – as an industry we provide genuine return on investment (ROI) for the British economy. Any argument that theatre subsidy should be cut makes no economic sense whatsoever.


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