Jo Langdon - on Paines Plough and supporting new writing and writers
A chat with Jo Langdon
at Paines Plough
the national theatre company supporting new writing and new writers…
Since 1974 Paines Plough have been pushing boundaries at the frontier of theatre. Fierce champions of new writing, Paines Plough proudly support playwrights looking to turn their dreams into reality, helping them take their amazing ideas out of notepads and onto the UK touring circuit. We went up to Paines Plough’s office to chat with their latest talent, poet, playwright and slam poetry champion Zia Ahmed about his first play I Wanna Be Yours. While we were there, we got chatting to Jo - part of the Paines Plough team - who told us a little bit about what they do and why they do it. It turned out to be such an interesting chat, that we decided to share it with you all…
Can you tell us a bit about Paines Plough?
So Paines Plough is a new writing touring theatre company. We have been around since 1974 and we basically tour the best new writing all over the country. So the idea is that we want everything to be available to everyone. Theatre is cool and we want to help it continue to be cool, and that means helping venues all over the country develop their audiences by reminding young people that theatre is great, and just taking the best theatre that we possibly can everywhere. I think we are quite niche in the fact that we only produce new writing, and we tour everything. We don’t have a London ‘home’, our theatre is our pop-up theatre called Roundabout which is a 167 seater ‘in-the-round’ dome-like-thing. Calling it a pop-up theatre makes it sound like it’s this really small thing that just jumps up somewhere but it’s not, it’s a geodesic dome (like in the Eden project), and it’s got L.E.D lights and surround sound and it’s just really cool. We take that around the country as well on a much shorter tour, but I Wanna Be Yours will be part of our small-scale touring network which is a network of 31 venues around the UK that we take a piece of theatre to.
Paines Plough also do lots of work developing not just writers, although we are the writer’s theatre, we have a lot of training programs where we help train up producers and director, we work with creative access, and we’re committed to reading every play that is submitted to us (more information available on the website - link this).
We also hold open auditions twice a year in different parts of the country for anyone to come and audition, so it doesn’t matter if you have an agent or not, or if you’ve ever done any acting before. The idea is that we meet new actors and then we have people in mind for when we next want to cast a play. We have Come To Where I’m From which is an app that you can download which is over 200 plays by writers, they’re about 15 minute short plays, about where they are from. And it’s our 10th year of Come To Where I’m From this year. There are also live performances all over the country where we get live performers all over the country where we get a few writers to talk about where they’re from, and to do a little piece about that.
Those are our 3 main projects; Come To Where I’m from, Roundabout, and the Small Scale Touring Network. We also act as a receiving venue in a way while we’re in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Roundabout. We have 7 visiting companies this year, we have 11 shows that we have on repeat in Roundabout while we’re at the Fringe, including 3 of our own shows.
So Paines Plough are the national theatre of new writing and new plays. We tour new theatre all over the country, we don’t have a venue in London, we have a pop-up theatre called Roundabout. But other than that we’re very much light on our feet and we go to 30 different venues across the UK - The Old Market is one of those - and we read a lot of new plays, we produce about 8 new plays a year, we have lots of training programs. We have Come To Where I’m From which is an app and also an event that you can go to around the UK which is writers writing 15 minute plays about where they come from. Roundabout is at the Edinburgh Fringe all summer acting as a receiving venue for 11 shows. That’s us in a nutshell.
How important is it for new playwrights and plays to be given this kind of platform in your opinion?
I think it’s incredibly important. Generally whenever we talk to playwrights about their journey with Paines Plough it’s sad how surprised they often are about how much support we’re willing to give them. We provide space and financial support for writers that we think are worth investing in. So we have the Big Room scheme where we have a lot of different writers who we think are really cool, and we basically just give them a bit of money and time here with a space to write. It doesn’t necessarily lead to a commission in the end, but we basically just invest in them.
We also have our playwriting fellowship scheme. So we have one new playwright every year who just comes down and is part of the team at Paines Plough. They’re based in the office with us and they work with us all year which Charley Miles was last year and we did actually commission her to then go and write a show for Roundabout this year. I think that making sure new writing is toured around the UK, which is what we do, is incredibly important because it’s a hard thing to put on. It’s really difficult to put on new writing so you need to do it from a place where there’s enough support, financial or otherwise, behind you to be able to securely go into producing a new play. And I think that we are in the lucky position where we can give that support, but it shouldn’t just be the case that new writing exists in London, it should be all over the UK. And we need to try and give theatre a bit of a re-boost anyway, we’re trying to make sure that theatre remains quite a cool thing, it’s like a band touring round the UK, that’s quite often how we think of ourselves but with theatre.
So yeah I think that it is incredibly important. I think that playwrights are not given enough of a platform a lot of the time, and there are so many playwrights out there, but I think we’re doing the best that we can at the moment. We can always do more to give more support.
How accessible do you think getting into theatre as a writer? A lot of people will have this fantasy of having their ideas made into a film, but the reality of that can seem way out of reach, and in that regard making theatre should seem much closer, but it does seem that there is a separate sort of barrier to getting into that. Why do you think that it?
I think it’s a lot to do with place. I mean we are based in London, which is a bit ironic really, but the idea that place is so important in terms of where you’re going. Who feels that they can go to the theatre, and who feels that they can write for theatre is quite often to do with where they are or where they’ve come from, which I guess is the central idea behind Come To Where I’m From. It’s a bit like, actually this place exists and playwriting can exist anywhere, and should exist everywhere that it wants to be. But yeah, we think that this is something that should be focussed on more that being something which is given space and room across the country.
So we’ve had a few Paines Plough shows here at The Old Market now, most recently being Pop Music (Anna Jordan), but we’ve also had Every Brilliant Thing (Duncan Macmillan, James Rowland), and coming up next is Zia Ahmed’s I Wanna Be Yours. Are you looking forward to working with TOM again?
Yes! I’ve been in this position since September, so I came down to you guys with Pop Music, and it was such a dream working with TOM because it’s just one of those venues where everyone is so lovely and really excited to have you. We had a sell-out show with Pop Music, or it felt that way anyway, and the audience development work that we collaborated on around that in the form of a sort of ‘bring your own DJ’ night was just great. I went down with two of our artistic directors James and George, and Hannah who was our Senior Producer at that time, and we just had the best night ever. We watched this play and it felt like everyone was leaving the room dancing, so yeah it felt like a really event. It’s such a nice place to kick off what we call our small-scale tour, where we tour a sort of small, flexible, easy to pack up show to over 30 venues around the UK and its great to come to TOM a bit earlier because it gives our actors and creative team such a boost. It’s a confirmation that what they’re doing is really cool. It can get really hard when you’re on tour and you’re doing the same thing every night, and sometimes you’re in smaller venues that don’t have the same capacity to be able to sell the shows as much. And because it’s new writing and we’re still trying to build those audiences for new writing, that it means often a lot of the times our audience is a lot smaller in a lot of venues. So to be able to come to The Old Market where there is all this support and just a fantastic team behind everything it’s just a real treat. We love coming to you guys.