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.