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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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Feature: Bitch Boxer – “I just wanted to know what it was like. To hit and be hit.”

Posted on 09 April 2014 by Lee Anderson

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When I ask Charlotte Josephine how she began writing for the stage, she tells me her primary motivation was one of frustration. While auditioning for drama schools, she became increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of monologues available for women and decided to do something about it: “I used to write my own and say that someone else had written them. I’d go into an audition, nervous, and I’d get this little buzz when I’d say a fake name of a play. The panel would pretend to know who I was talking about, so I’d lie and say someone else had written it.”

This pugnacious and spirited drive manifests itself in Josephine’s debut play, Bitch Boxer; this one woman monologue, about a young boxer training for the Olympics, delivered a volley of knockout blows to audiences and critics when it bounded onto the stage more than a year ago. But as Josephine explains, those early forays into writing were crucial in exploring the kind of ‘voices’ so often lacking on stage and in the pages of anthologies: “I’d try and pick something really gutsy and strong, but I couldn’t find any contemporary monologues. So I wanted to write myself a really good part, as a woman, because I didn’t feel like I was getting them.”

Josephine began developing Bitch Boxer during a spell at the Soho Theatre Young Writers Lab. At the same time, she started training at the Islington Boxing Club and this was instrumental to the evolution of her writing, in allowing her to capture an atmosphere of authenticity: “I just wanted to know what it was like. To hit and be hit. It was so invaluable for the writing. The lingo and the language, the smells and the whole soundscape.”

Bitch Boxer went on to win the Soho Young Writers Award in 2012 and was produced as part of the Old Vic New Voices season in Edinburgh. Since then, the play has enjoyed success overseas, packing out the stalls down under when it performed at Australia’s Adelaide Fringe earlier this year. The furore of the Olympic games and the triumph of boxer Nicola Addams – who won the Gold Medal for Boxing – may have provided some context for the surge of interest the play received early on. Yet as Josephine explains, the play is about far more than boxing: “I don’t think I had realised quite how zeitgeisty and current it was going to be. I hadn’t realised it was going to be quite so popular as a theme. In lots of ways, it’s not really about boxing. It’s about someone’s struggle, the human heart and about fighting for what you want. It’s a really human story”.

For its debut production at the Soho Theatre, Josphine took on the role of Chloe herself. She continued to perform the role for the play’s national tour, garnering acclaim for her performance, as well as her writing. When it became apparent that the play would continue to tour, Josephine and Director Bryony Shanahan decided to audition new actresses for the role of Chloe: “Bryony was really keen to find the geekiness of Chloe. She’s very witty and self-deprecating, and we wanted to find that… As soon as Holly walked in, I was like, ‘that’s our girl!’. Because she had this natural clout that we really wanted to find.”

Holly Augustine had recently graduated from drama school when she auditioned for the role of Chloe: “I’d been warned that the first few jobs you get are going to be rubbish scripts. Then I was handed this beautiful 14-page gem of a job, and started training.” Augustine threw herself into the role with the determination and energy of a prize-fighting athlete, and as she explains, the physical dimension of the character was an essential element to tap into: “For me, it really came together when I started training properly and going to the club three times a week. Because the absolute core of steel it takes for someone to do that for a living – you can’t really put that into words.”

This muscular approach to inhabiting Chloe’s world meant undertaking an intensive, physical routine that recreated what it felt like to train as a boxer. The endurance, stamina and unbending discipline of an athlete – as they push themselves harder and further – underpinned Augustine’s preparation for the role. It was also a source of renewed energy and focus for every performance: “In a run, when you get to week three and you’re tired and your body hurts and for whatever reason you’re not feeling 100% raring to go – you have to find it in yourself. You have to dig deep.

In Chloe, we’re confronted by an unyielding resilience and fierce determination. Yet, as well as demonstrating physical and mental strength, she speaks to the audience with an expansive, emotional truthfulness. She is an athlete with tremendous heart, warmth and intelligence. As Augustine explains, this compassionate side is actually closer to reality then many might think: “Boxers are really nice. They’re a really chilled out breed and you don’t initially expect that because you’re used to seeing them so ferocious.”

On the other hand, there is never any sense with Chloe that she is waiting for a Romeo to turn up and save her. “It’s a female character that is strong, gutsy, competitive and aggressive in both the physical sense and in the ‘I wanna do something’ sense,” insists Josephine. When watching Bitch Boxer, it occurred to me that as a culture we seem perfectly comfortable with the idea of ‘gutsiness’ and ‘competiveness’ as aspects of male behaviour, but feel compelled to treat such traits as remarkable or unique when identified in women. In light of this, does Josephine consider Bitch Boxer to be a feminist play? “Those traits aren’t seen as ladylike in society. In order to be attractive I’m supposed to be passive, I’m supposed to look pretty and I’m supposed to be polite. Sorry, but I’m not going to be! It is bold and it is ballsy. So in that sense, it is a feminist play.”

Bitch Boxer is at Soho Theatre until 13 April. For more information and tickets, visit Soho Theatre’s website

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Feature: Straight from the director’s mouth – 27 mins with Gbolahan Obisasan

Posted on 08 March 2014 by Rachel St John

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s cleverly titled play We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915, took the US by storm, becoming part of a growing trend of exploring Africa, its past and its culture. The show has now been brought to London’s Bush Theatre, where actor turned writer/director Gbolahan Obisesan is taking charge of the show.

“I actually found out about the show whilst researching another play,” Obisesan says. “I had been receiving newsletters from Jackie’s agent and I saw the name of the play in one of them and found it intriguing. I eventually read the play and was moved; it was funny, challenging but very tragic.”

Drury’s play is about six young actors in their 20s, three black and three white, who are doing a presentation about the first genocide of the twentieth century. With themes such as race, identity, belonging and culture within the performance, it’s no wonder Obisesan jumped at the chance to get involved. Not many plays bring up the eye-opening reality of such a historic tragedy in a modern day context.

“I really wanted to put the play in front of a British audience and see how they’d respond to it,” Obisesan continues. “In the same way that Jackie Drury intended to engage the audience in the script, I wished to do the same with the production over here – making it poignant and relevant to the audience on a high level. I was excited to get into the rehearsal process with the actors, unlocking and unpicking the play so that it would work theatrically. The play explores an obscure historical event that deals with a lot of issues which the well-intended characters deal with. They become challenged, battered and broken on the legacy of what happened as they look into their human sense of identity.”

Obisesan, a London-based director, originally started out as a member of the National Youth Theatre wanting to be an actor. I asked how he transitioned into writing and directing so successfully. The National Youth theatre started up a programme called Short Nights where it challenged members to write a play. As a result, Obisesan wrote his first play, Roadside, about a young man dealing with addiction and mental illness. “People responded positively to it and I also directed it. It was then I wanted to learn more about what I could offer actors, but I also had more stories within me that I wanted to explore and share through the medium of theatre.” From there, he began looking for outlets to further explore this creative side – and became part of the Soho and Royal Court writers’ groups whilst undertaking an introduction to directing course at the Young Vic. “I was keen to find out which I felt a stronger pull towards without limiting my potential by focusing on just one.”

Which does he prefer, I wonder? Cue another chuckle: “In a way, I think they go hand in hand. Part of my motivation is to remain visible and to not feel limited. I’ve been lucky enough for people to acknowledge me as a writer and a director. As a director, you need to communicate the play to actors and decipher the message. With writing, it’s about sculpting characters, the narrative, and elements of the drama and its structure which may be helpful for the director. So to me, both are valued and they feed off one another. If a writing job comes up, I’ll take it. If a directing job comes up and it’s a play I really want to do I’ll probably take it as well.” He went on to describe himself as a “hired gun”, going where the money is. “You don’t want to be struggling or on benefits and there’s an integrity about making a living whilst having freedom, so the balance of writing and directing for me depends on where the work is coming from.”

Although he had a busy press day ahead, I took time to ask what advice he would offer to directors and theatre makers who are just starting out: “One of the biggest challenges for directors starting out is breaking into the industry, so just jump in with both feet and immerse yourself, rather than half exploring it. Take every opportunity you can and ensure that you’re being creatively challenged whilst learning about the things you’re lacking. If you have a sense of what you want to achieve and where you want to go, you’re more likely to find yourself gaining momentum and not stagnating.” Because from there, he continued, you can find opportunities to match your dreams.

All this is easier if you live in or close to London – but what if you don’t? “Remain visible,” he advises. “Get involved with your local theatre the best way you can – even if it means writing a letter with regards to what you’re interested in. They might be able to lead you in the right direction or support you by making the theatre more open to you. When it comes to being taken seriously, how you present yourself on a professional level is very important. So make adjustments if you need to. It could be your sense of style, how you communicate or your attitude in how you relate to things. As long as you can present strong ideas and back them up there’s no reason they won’t take you seriously.”

We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915 is at the Bush Theatre until 12 April. For more information and tickets, visit the Bush’s website

 

Rachel St John

Rachel St John

Rachel is an aspiring playwright and theatre enthusiast who graduated from Kingston University in 2012. She currently works as a freelance writer and part-time babysitter, and is a regular volunteer at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth.

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Feature: Michaela Coel – a powerhouse

Posted on 07 March 2014 by Lisa Carroll

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Playwright, actress, singer and poet, Michaela Coel is a busy woman, I learn, as I manage to grab a few minutes with her on a two-show day: she’s currently performing in Blurred Lines at the National Theatre Shed, while simultaneously preparing for her upcoming solo show, Chewing Gum Dreams, which will play the same venue in March. “I’m a Jack of all trades,” she jokes, “but average at all of them.” Her modesty only adds to her list of enviable qualities and talents. And indeed, the longer we chat, I soon see that her comment couldn’t be further from the truth: Coel really is a powerhouse.

Coel only graduated from Guildhall in 2012 but in her time since has had some formidable achievements. Believing that “unless you’re very, very lucky, there aren’t enough opportunities being blown in your face. You just have to get up and do it yourself – you have to,” she decided to develop a short solo piece she’d written while at Guildhall, which formed the basis of Chewing Gum Dreams. Following persistent phone calls to Jay Miller, Artistic Director of The Yard Theatre, Hackney, he agreed to put the play on and Coel set to work; “I designed the flyers, I designed the set, I built the set, I produced the show and was standing on the street handing out flyers. It was on for four days and every night was sold out.” Now the play has been published, she is on commission with the Bush Theatre and has projects coming up with the Almeida and the Royal Court, on top of which, the show opens at the Shed in March. Talk about being proactive, or as she humbly describes it, “just working hard and trying to put stuff out there”.

The play draws inspiration from Coel’s own school days in the early noughties, (“it’s literally like a tribute to Craig David,” she tells me) and it explores the tipping point between innocence and adulthood – that moment where “suddenly life isn’t full of laughter and it’s not easy anymore – you start to realise there’s a life that I’m going to come to know which includes a bit of hardship, which includes struggle”. While some people realise this young, she goes on, others hit might hit that point at 40 – but when it comes down to it the play is for “anyone who went to school, basically,” with audiences from their early teens to their sixties responding incredibly positively to its original run at The Yard, with Coel hopeful for more of the same when it opens at the Shed.

With Chewing Gum Dreams being set in an all-girls school and exploring relationships, early sexual experiences and violence, Coel agrees that writing from a female perspective does inevitably inform the tone of her work: “I think naturally being a woman I find it quite hard to escape writing something that did have women’s issues. I think it’s impossible.” That said, it was her role in Blurred Lines which really opened her eyes to gender issues; “it has sort of changed my life in that sense,” she tells me, “I don’t think I even realised that I was particularly a girl until I did Blurred Lines.” Working with Director Carrie Cracknell and Playwright Nick Payne in devising Blurred Lines gave Coel the chance not only to examine those issues but also to contribute to the debate, as Payne was keen to include some of Coel’s own poetry in the play.

Nonetheless, Coel is the first to admit that she struggled a bit when rehearsing Blurred Lines, as she began to wonder if she was right to prioritise gender over other issues such as class or race: “I’ll be honest, I started thinking there’s so many other things going on in the world – there are worse things going on in the world– I’d just be like – I’m a bit busy being black at the moment.” In hindsight, however, Coel has come to believe that “if something is wrong, then no matter the scale of the wrongness it should be addressed”. And, though it also touches on ‘women’s issues’, Coel tells me that class is much more central to Chewing Gum Dreams, with the play taking a look at the young people who populated her school and whose voice she feels is not so often heard on the stage or beyond.

As a result, with her future work, Coel is keen to keep telling unheard stories and examining life from different perspectives: “I rarely see an Indian girl or a Bangladeshi girl in a play that isn’t about India or Bamgladesh – you never see that girl in the theatre. I love the idea of just writing Sunita,” she explains. “I feel like I do have a voice that I don’t hear – I think everybody has a voice that they don’t hear, though – and it’s about expressing that voice in whatever way you can.” And doubtless, with so many opportunities coming her way thanks to the her hard work on Chewing Gum Dreams, it seems certain we’ll be hearing more of Coel’s voice soon.

Chewing Gum Dreams is at The Shed at the National Theatre from 17 March to 5 April. For more information and tickets, visit the NT’s website.

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll graduated from University College Dublin in 2012 with a B.A International in English. She is also a playwright, script reader and director. @lisa_carroll46

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