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Feature: Paines Plough – “I don’t know how anyone can run a company on their own”

Posted on 16 April 2014 by Conori Bell-Bhuiyan

James Grieve and George Perrin, Artistic Directors of Plaines Plough. (c) Geraint Lewis.

James Grieve and George Perrin, Artistic Directors of Plaines Plough. (c) Geraint Lewis.

James Grieve and George Perrin have been working together since the were at university – they started their own company, Nabokov, and co-ran it together for 10 years. So when the job of Artistic Director (or directors) came up at leading new-writing company Paines Plough, they jumped at the opportunity. That was back in 2010, and now they’re leading the company through its fortieth anniversary. “So far I’ve loved it!” Perrin says, “…it’s been an honour to run Paines Plough, I’ve always been a big fan of their work and it’s great fun to be working with so many different writers.”

Running Paines Plough is a huge job, and for both its directors, having someone to share the workload with is an asset. The working relationship the pair have built in the 13 or 14 years since they first started out has set them up well for taking over a company as big as Paines Plough. “We’ve never know any different… I can’t imagine doing it any other way,” says Perrin, and Grieve describes those years starting out together as essential. “On a practical level it’s brilliant,” he explains. “Any time we’ve got any big decision to make, there’s two of us to make it. If I’m writing a fundraising application on a Sunday evening I can always call George and he’s there for moral support… I don’t know how anyone can run a company on their own frankly!”

“I think at the heart of the collaboration is the fact that we have a shared taste. We like the same writers and we feel the same things about theatre and what theatre should be.” Perrin uses the exact same words – a shared taste. “If you spend a lot of time disagreeing you will just end up wasting a lot of time,” he says. That’s not to say that there’s never any disagreement at all, but this is a collaboration that’s stood the test of time. “Certainly when we go and see shows we often disagree”, admits Grieve. “There are certain productions that I’ve loved and George hasn’t, and vice versa, but we don’t ever really disagree about the theatre we’re making… When we know we want to commission a writer and we believe in that writer then whatever happens along the way – and there’ll always be difficult moments along the way – we know that we believe in the project.” That’s not to say that there aren’t some moments of, quote, “rigorous conversation”, but Grieve can “honestly say we’ve never fallen out in 14 years of working together.”

Grieve and Perrin both agree that the best part of what they do is being able to work with so many talented and exciting new writers. “I’m currently directing a play by Mike Bartlett”, says Grieve, “who I think is a genius and one of the greatest playwrights in the world… to be directing the world premiere of his new show is a complete thrill and something I never thought I’d get the chance to do when I was starting out.” Perrin thinks Paines Plough has a “vital role in keeping new work at the heart of theatre, and taking those new plays out to everywhere in the country.” New writing is at the core of what Paines Plough does and he stresses that the company wants to be one that is within the reach of young writers. “We don’t want to be out of reach… we want the younger, newer writers to feel that we are someone who is contactable – obtainable.”

When it comes to the current overall state of new writing, Perrin definitely thinks the future is bright for all the aspiring playwrights out there; “opportunities for writers have increased in the last 20 years but the competition probably remains just as strong. There’s always been a strong scene in London but now it’s growing beyond the major cities as well.” Grieve is a little less optimistic – he’s worried about the impact cuts to the arts councils will have on theatre in the long run. “It’s certainly the most present, or prevalent, risk to new writing in the last couple of years. It’s the one that most people have been talking about… the long term damage of lack of funding could be huge, because it’s not just productions going on now but it’s the new generation of playwrights that will be writing plays in five or ten years time. I think we’ve got to, at all costs, make sure that there are still funds available and still opportunities for young writers at schools and colleges and universities all over the country to engage with playwriting as a potential career, in order to secure the legacy of British playwriting for years to come.” In that case, do either of them have any advice for the young people aspiring to make theatre in the years to come? Perrin votes for the ‘just go and do it’ approach. “I spent five years applying and writing applications, but it was going out and doing it that gained me a lot of really valuable experience. Get in a room with some actors and a writer and make some theatre. You’ll learn a lot more actually doing it than writing up applications.”

I ask them both if, out of all the writers they’ve worked with over the years, they have a favourite. “That’s like picking a favourite child!” replies Perrin. “We have such a broad range of writers and plays… Paines Plough has an amazing roll call!” Grieve picks out a few upcoming productions that he’s particularly looking forward to: “We’ve just done a second play by Kate Tempest… I’m really excited about Kate because she brings a completely different energy to writing for theatre. She does come from a music background so she writes in verse and she writes with incredible rhythm and real soul. Her shows are a bit like gigs.” Another rising star is Welsh writer Sam Burns, and her upcoming debut Not The Worst Place – a coming of age story about a teenage girl who runs away with her boyfriend to pitch a tent on a beach in Swansea. “It’s a really astounding debut”, says an enthusiastic Grieve, “an incredibly beautiful story…”

This year will see the biggest programme of work from Paines Plough yet – as a celebration of the company’s anniversary it’ll be producing a total of 12 or 13 shows and touring to 50 places around the country. Over the past 40 years, Paines Plough has provided a platform for some of the best young playwrights from across the country – writers like Dennis Kelly, Abbey Morgan, Simon Stephens. Perrin was right when he called it an amazing roll call. Moving forward, the plan is to just “keep on doing what we’re doing,” as Perrin puts it. “Our role is to be the best” he says. Grieve agrees: “We just want to continue to commission the best writers and produce the best new plays.” They also both agree that it’s important for them to be touring that work far and wide, and beyond the major cites, giving it the chance to be seen by people everywhere. Hence the new Roundabout project – a portable theatre space that the company will debut in Edinburgh this summer. “It will help us get to places in the country that we’ve never been able to access before”, explains Grieve, “now we don’t need to tour into a theatre – we can take our theatre with us!”

Visit Paines Plough’s website for more information on its current and upcoming shows. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conori Bell-Bhuiyan

Conori Bell-Bhuiyan

Conori Bell-Bhuiyan is a student and arts and culture blogger from Manchester. She wants to end up working as a journalist somewhere warm, and she loves anything artsy, off-beat or slightly wacky.

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Incoming preview: Tin Shed Theatre

Posted on 13 April 2014 by Lauren Mooney

Tin Shed – Frankenstein

Tin Shed Theatre Company is busy, busy, busy. I speak to Company Director Georgina Harris on a chance free day between school tours of An Inspector Calls and Of Mice and Men, educational work that is not so much the company’s “money-making thing” as its “bread and butter, to help us fund the more experimental, devised work – that we obviously would like to produce 24/7, but because we’re un-funded…”

This practical realism has enabled the company to make theatre its full-time work, which gives it a certain amount of freedom. When I chat to Harris, the trio are trying to organise a run at “the oldest horror theatre in San Francisco” to follow their slot at the San Diego Fringe in July – but before all that, they will be bringing Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow to Incoming Festival next month.

“I think the way that we chose to tell the story is very much how we take on any piece of theatre that we devise and adapt,” Harris says of Dr Frankenstein. “It’s very visual, there’s a balance of light and dark to it, and it’s quite loud.”

After graduating from their shared alma mater, the University of Newport, Harris and her co-collaborators Justin Cliffe and Antonio Rimola went their separate ways, working as actors, until they realised they missed the creative control they’d enjoyed at university. The trio began devising immersive and site-specific work together in and around Newport, but it is perhaps their literary adaptations for which they are now best known.

“We did the Brighton Fringe a couple of years ago for Hendricks gin,” Harris explains. “They had their own venue in Brighton which was an old Victorian carriage, it’s very much Victorian-themed, and they were looking for small performances to go on within the venue.”

Tin Shed pitched a work based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which eventually became Mr Edgar Allan Poe’s Terrifying Tales, and then “the year after they wanted us back to do something of the same sort of fashion”. The company narrowed it down to “three possibilities: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, and Dracula. We knew that we wanted it to be one of those three and for some reason Frankenstein for us really just shone out as this horrendously beautiful story.”

Adapting such a vast, weighty novel was a challenge for the company: “We all read it out loud, which was really important, to start, that helped us listen to the dialogue and be quite ruthless with it.” They also watched “probably every single version of the film that has ever been released”.

“Lots of them were pretty naff, especially the Kenneth Branagh one, which I’d watched as a child and then rewatched doing this, and had never realised how awful it was until I watched it again! The way they tell the story is really cliched, so I think if anything we took all those worst bits, all the mistakes people had made in telling this story and said ‘well that’s what we’re not going to do’.”

The result is a darkly funny, energetic, hugely idiosyncratic show in which a Victorian freakshow put on a production of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. The play-within-a-play structure gives depth and originality to an oft-told tale, and remains in keeping with the gothic aesthetic of the original. Tin Shed has since toured Dr Frankenstein across the country, including at the London Horror Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they performed in a “sweat box”.

“We nearly died,” says Harris. “We were so hot it was unbelievable. The show before us had a cast of about fifteen and you’ve only got a few minutes to get in; the heat would just smack you in the face.”

Original not only in its output, Tin Shed also breaks the mould of up-and-coming young companies in being based outside London, to which most aspiring theatre-makers inevitably drift. The logic behind remaining in Newport, Harris tells me, is partly artistic and partly practical: “Firstly it comes from being passionate about where we are in the country, wanting to give something directly to the people that are around us, and offer them culture and art in, essentially, a completely art-deprived area.” The urge to bring theatre, art and excitement to Newport and its residents, rather than being “just another blip” in a capital city “saturated” with culture, is clearly integral to how the company sees itself and what it sees as the purpose of its work.

In terms of practicalities, Harris also extolls the virtues of their local theatre, “as well as other local venues in Cardiff – everyone is incredibly supportive – the arts council here is very supportive, and comes and meets us whenever we need them to.” Outside London, the company is “able to stand alone and stand out”, which makes sense for it – but inevitably this means missing out on a lot of the work of their peers, who are largely elsewhere.

“I think that’s the downside to not being based somewhere culturally alive – we get to see some stuff but we have to travel to see that, either to Bristol or Cardiff, and we go to London a lot too… So to be surrounded by other companies doing the same thing as us,” she says of INCOMING, “is going to be great.”

Having experienced first-hand how hard it can be to start out, Harris is also passionate about INCOMING’s support of emergent theatre-makers. “I think for young companies to be able to get on their feet and start producing work is very difficult,” she says. “There’s not a lot of money out there, there’s not a lot of funding, you almost have to be established in your own right before anyone will even come and see your show, let alone think about funding it! So the fact that there’s a festival actually supporting that is great, and we’re just really honoured to be part of it – we’re all super excited.”

Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show will be at the New Diorama Theatre on 24 May as part of INCOMING Festival. For more information and to book £5 tickets, visit the NDT’s website.

Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney

Lauren graduated with an English degree from the University of Liverpool before moving to London. Aside from reviewing for AYT and her day job at Free Word, she also writes for Exeunt and TheatreGuide London, and helps make the London Horror Festival happen.

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Blog: An actor writes – A plea to film students and short filmmakers from the acting community

Posted on 08 April 2014 by Briony Rawle

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Dear film folk,

I’ve never studied filmmaking. I barely know which end of a camera to do a selfie into. But being an actor who is in need of footage for a showreel, I read A LOT of casting breakdowns online for short films, so I have a fairly good picture of the kinds of films that students and new directors are making at the moment – and I’d like to tell you, most of it makes for a pretty depressing imaginary montage. If I were making it, I’d put the Benny Hill music over it. Or the Funeral March.

So here are a few things that I see all the time that not only make for bad films, but also a lot of irritated actors who swear they’ll never do a short film again and, more widely, a film industry that’s saturated with damaging stereotypes and lazy clichés.

First of all, we need to talk about your women. If I were a Martian whose sole means of understanding the human race was the ‘Opportunities’ section on Casting Call Pro (now THERE’S a great film idea), I would assume that women are a different race from men, that they don’t really matter, and that they are mostly either strippers, prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, girlfriends, broken-hearted victims, mothers or receptionists. They also only exist in relation to men. Take a look at the last script you wrote, or film you directed. Do the women in it exist *fully* when the man isn’t in the picture? Are they just there to tell his story? Does it pass the Bechdel Test (two named female characters, who have a conversation at one point, that isn’t about a man)? I guarantee you that writing/directing properly rounded, complex, flawed female characters who aren’t entirely defined simply through love, sex or relationships, will immediately improve the quality of your films by a factor of Judi Dench.

In fact, why not consider writing a genderless script? That way, you avoid the unconscious draw of the gender clichés and focus instead on who that character really is. Then haul in a load of male and female actors for audition and just choose the one who fits the part best. There is a company who are already doing this called BOX Revolution company and it sounds super cool so keep an eye on it.

Now let’s get into the nitty gritty.

1. Sex scenes. Your film is seven minutes long. Is it absolutely imperative to the story that one of those seven minutes is spent leering over two actors who met each other that morning, pretending to bang with their pants on under the duvet? Do us a favour. See also: nudity. There aren’t many actresses who want footage of their own boobs for their showreels, and your tasteful and artistic might be someone else’s plain nasty.

2. Consider carefully before stipulating about the looks of your characters in the casting brief. Just because Jessica is thin and blonde in your head, and Michael is tall and willowy with round glasses and a rakish grin, do you really want to completely eliminate a brunette actress or a bulky actor who might totally own the role of Jessica or Michael if given the chance? Is Jessica’s hair colour imperative to the story? Does Michael need to be tall and willowy in order to fit through a small gap and then reach a high shelf on page 10 of the script? Do they need to be attractive? Do they need to be white? Don’t limit your film by limiting the types of actors who can apply.

3. If you are using professional actors, you should pay them wherever possible. You are paying for their time, their skills and their training, and if you want respect as a filmmaker, you should respect your actors equally. There are many ways to raise funds for films, so find a way. Student filmmakers will, however, still find professional, fully trained actors who will do films for nothing as long as their expenses are covered, if it promises good material for a showreel. Covering expenses is considered the bare minimum, so it’s as simple as don’t make a film until you can do this at the very least.

4. Wherever possible, avoid writing extras or incidental, one-line roles into your film if you can’t pay your actors. You will get very few applications, and the actor who is eventually cast as ‘Man In Cafe’ or ‘Passerby With Hat’ won’t get anything useful for their showreel, which is the only reason they’re doing the film for no pay. Not even an unemployed actor has time for that.

5. Finally, for the love of Hitchcock, check your spelling on the casting brief. No actor fancies putting their celluloid image in the hands of a filmmaker who can barely string a sentence together, so make sure you know your your from your you’re and have someone check it over before it goes out. You’ll get more applications and a better choice of actors.

You are the future of the film industry, so, on behalf of all actors (and people who watch films), please stop and think before you write that next script. If it’s a no-pay project about a man with a drug-addled, heart-broken stripper girlfriend, who MUST have one leg and a sad, faraway look in her eyes, go back and read this article again.

For more tips on how definitely not to write a film, go to the brilliant blog Casting Call Woe.

Photo by Flickr user Max Chang under a Creative Commons licence.

Briony Rawle

Briony Rawle

Briony studied English Literature at Warwick University, then an MA in acting at Drama Centre London. She is an actor currently living just outside London, and is a founding member of Threepenny Theatre.

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Feature: Stage One – Funding the future producers

Posted on 08 April 2014 by Harriet Stevens

Stage OneLast month, Stage One, a charity funding body that supports the work of emerging theatre producers, announced the latest recipients of its £50,000 and £25,000 Start-Up Investment Fund.

Stephen McGill and David Hutchinson were the winners (respectively), and these sums will be used for the upcoming productions of The Pyjama Game (West End transfer, co-produced by McGill) and Avenue Q (UK tour, co-produced by Hutchinson).

As, for me at least, the role of the producer is a little elusive, I wanted to find out more about the role in general, what drove McGill and Hutchinson towards a career in producing and how they got to where they are today.

McGill explains his perception of the role of the producer: “I suppose the general perception is of the cigar smoking, Dom-drinking West End Producer – who I follow on Twitter and is hilarious! – but in reality, the producer is responsible for most aspects of a production, from the administrative side (which includes budgeting, financing, negotiating contracts, marketing and press of the production) to the creative side (collaborating with writers, directors, actors, musicians, stage management and technical crew), to create a show which hopefully everyone is proud to be part of.”

For Hutchinson, “essentially the producer brings everyone together. It’s their original idea and they conceive of how it could all work as a whole production. They’re the risk taker. They have to have the belief from the beginning.” Hutchinson explains how “risk is a big word in theatre at the moment. I hear it at conferences and in arts discussions all the time.” Hutchinson describes the types of risks that producer is taking as being both financial and creative, as not only are they playing with huge amounts of money but “it only takes one flop to put theatres off your work; one bad show, one project that is under par…” As Hutchinson will be using his Stage One funding to finance a regional tour of the puppetry musical Avenue Q he tells me how, particularly in recent years, there is even more risk associated with regional theatre: “Regional theatre is in crisis. The only way we can rebuild it is with funding people [like Stage One] who are taking these kind of risks”.

Both McGill and Hutchinson agree that the funding provided by Stage One is a vital support network for emerging or early-career theatre producers, and both are thrilled to have received the funding for their individual projects. McGill tells me that “Stage One has been crucial to my development as a producer. As well as nurturing and developing my skills through the New Producers Workshops, the advice and support of established producers is there to ensure the next generation can come through and hopefully continue the success.” And it would appear that Hutchinson is also grateful to Stage One for more than just the financial support as he explains how, aside from the monetary boost, Stage One adds a level of credibility to the project which Hutchinson calls the, “second wave” of securing funding, where the backing of Stage One “really makes everything more concrete as now, as we’re applying for more funding, we already have the cast and have started with rehearsals, as well as having secured some tour dates”.

Although both are now well stuck into their producinf careers, neither McGill nor Hutchinson came to the world of performing arts with this intention, as both initially trained as actors. McGill explains how he came to producing when, “during a particularly long ‘dry spell’ between acting work I was fortunate to work as a production assistant on the transfer of Jersey Boys into the West End. It was so exciting being part of a big production from the first rehearsal – which was my first day on the job – through to previews, opening night and beyond. I learned a huge amount in regards to the work that goes on behind the scenes to get such a big musical on stage and it was as rewarding, if not more so, to be part of the production side of the show.”

Hutchinson tells me how, whilst he was training at LIPA, “we had what they called ‘management classes,’ and they were the first lesson the morning after the weekly ‘£1-double-vodka-red-bull student night’ and everyone would sit there, head in hands, but I was completely fascinated. I graduated knowing that I wanted to produce. But I consider the actor training as a tool. I think it’s important to know how to talk to other creatives and I know that I can speak to actors on a level. It’s a tough career and I respect that; I don’t think that some producers have that understanding.”

Hutchinson believes that the best way to learn is by doing things yourself and that, specifically with a producer, this comes from initially working on small scale or fringe shows where, due to budgeting, there really is no choice other than to take on a vast number of different production roles. But all this experience will eventually pay of as, as Hutchinson puts it, “you realise after doing all of these things yourself that you need to build a team where you can find someone who specialised in all these different areas, but then when you are working on this kind of larger-scale production and you need to speak to a technician and want to use the right vocab, or you’re asking someone to design a lighting plot, you can – because you’ve done it before.”

Hutchinson assures me, however, that even further up the career ladder, the job of the producer isn’t necessarily all glitz and glamour, and those intending to shoot for a career in producing should be prepared for a difficult journey. “We all want to dive in straight at the West End, but you have to start small and then you can up-scale. It’s a real slog. I’ve had five years of battling ‘no’s. I’ve been driving vans down motorways at midnight, washing and ironing costumes because the stage manager’s off sick, so don’t think it’s going to be glamorous!”

But it seems that at the end of the blood, sweat and tears that a producer has to put into realising that initial vision that they had for a show, all the work can pay off when the show is performed to an audience, as McGill expressed: “for me, the best part is seeing the production you’ve worked on for months – or maybe years – on stage in front of an audience for the first time. I love the journey a show takes from page to stage and it’s so exciting to finally be able to share it with an audience.

 

Stage One supports new theatre producers with industry-led training workshops, bursaries, apprenticeships, start-Up investment, mentoring and advice. For more information see the Stage One website.

Harriet Stevens

Harriet Stevens

Harriet is an applied theatre practitioner working with young people in London, and a recent MA graduate of Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She is hugely passionate about theatre and live arts, and spends much of her free time seeing as much theatre as possible.

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