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Theater in the Time of Covid

LONDON–Katie Posner and Charlotte Bennett, the joint artistic directors of British touring theater company Paines Plough, have been mentors to each other for over a decade. So when the job of artistic director came up last year, the two women decided that rather than compete, they could “pool their strengths” in the role. They started as joint artistic directors for the 46-year-old company last August and have carried on the tradition of focusing on new writing where they told she-files’ Ginanne Brownell in an email interview that their, “ultimate aim [is] to increase appetite for new writing and to work towards a world in which theatre is a part of everyone’s cultural diet.” Great aims, but how does that work in a COVID environment when theater, along with many aspects of the cultural landscape from live music to art fairs and cinema, has taken a huge hit and will unlikely not get back to normal for some time? They told us their plans. EXCERPTS: 

 

BROWNELL: Tell me a bit about Paines Plough and the work that you do? It’s female-led and driven.  

CHARLOTTE AND KATIE:  Yes, Paines Plough is now female-led in that we are the Artistic Directors and we are female, but there is no further focus other than giving equal weight to female voices to promote equality and inclusivity at every turn. The writers and performance-makers that we invest in are those that we believe are making the most exciting, relevant and interesting work in theatre right now, and deserve a platform. The” LIVE OUT LOUD” season, our inaugural season at Paines Plough, is made up of seven plays or projects by playwrights who all identify as female or non-binary, but that shouldn’t be considered the focal point of the season. The fact that it appears to be striking or a statement as a season says more about the state of the industry than it does about our programming.


What is the history of the company? 
Paines Plough was formed in 1974 over a pint of Paines Bitter in the Plough pub. Since then we’ve produced more than 150 new productions by world-renowned playwrights like Stephen Jeffreys, Abi Morgan, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Dennis Kelly, Mike Bartlett, Kate Tempest, Vinay Patel and James Graham. We’ve toured those plays to hundreds of places from Bristol to Belfast to Brisbane. We tour to more than 30,000 people a year from Cornwall to the Orkney Islands; in village halls and Off-Broadway, at music festivals and student unions, online and on radio, and in our own pop-up theatre ROUNDABOUT.


What did your schedule look like this year before COVID–what did you have for the season?
The aim of the “Live Out Loud” season was to celebrate some of the most exciting, distinctive, observant and entertaining voices in British theater. We were in the middle of our mid-scale play at Sheffield Theatres “Run Sister Run”  by Chloë Moss, which was due to transfer to [London’s] Soho Theatre in April. “Moonlicks”  by Charlotte Josephine, part of the RWCMD collaboration, was also due to transfer to The Gate Theatre in London. Our “Roundabout 2020 “season, which would have gone to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and then on a nationwide strategic tour, was comprised of plays by Chris Bush, Chinonyerem Odimba, Phoebe Eclair-Powell and Charlotte Keatley. “Sessions” by Ifeyinwa Fredeick was due to tour to our Small Scale network of venues across the UK in the autumn. We wanted the Live Out Loud season to focus on platforming ground-breaking playwrights and empowering them to take up space with the stories they want to tell.

What were your initial feelings/thoughts when you saw that this was not going to happen?
We were of course massively disappointed that our first year was over before it had even begun but our immediate focus became about how we could continue to support our writers from our season and beyond. We spent a lot of time hosting Zoom conversations with writers to check in with them, built opportunities for new commissions for writers and pledged that any donations we received from digital work would go to support future commission opportunities for writers.

So what did you do? How do you transfer some of those ideas and productions onto an online platform?
We have initially decided against streaming any of the productions in the Live Out Loud season, as we believe that theatre is best served live, so we want to wait until we are able to physically share these stories with our audiences. In the meantime, we have come up with new digital initiatives as a means of continuing to tell stories during this time. The two main strands of our digital programme are “‘Come To Where I’m From”  and “The Place I Call Home”, both spin-offs of Paines Plough’s flagship project “Come to Where I am From”, which celebrated its 10th year anniversary in November 2019.

Tell me more about that. 
In partnership with theatres across the UK, 30+ new short plays from writers about the places they call home will be shared online as visual-audio pieces and then performed at our partner venues when they reopen. We are releasing these on a weekly basis via our YouTube channel – we have already released Series One: Pitlochry (Scotland), presented by PP and Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and Series Two: Newcastle (England), presented by PP and Open Clasp Theatre Company.  For certain groups who may find it more difficult or even impossible to access digital content, we are also offering a caller service – live readings of the plays over the phone, allowing people with little or no online access to experience these plays. Presented in collaboration with theatres across Europe, two writers will be paired up to co-author a new bilingual play about the place they call home. These plays will then be realised with digital artist collaborators, performed by British drama school students who have had projects postponed and shared across digital platforms.  We recognise that these are challenging times and we hope that this new programme which celebrates homes and places will enable audiences to be momentarily transported somewhere else – whether that be spending 10 minutes in Derby or half an hour in Milan. 

The general consensus seems to be that theaters will be the last things that return to “normal”–do you agree?
Theatre has always been able to adapt – it’s one of the oldest art forms. It will continue to adapt. However, it is likely that theatre buildings will be amongst the last to be able to return to operating as ‘normal’ – which is devastating and deeply concerning for the industry.

How do you think the future of theatre productions will be affected by COVID? Can you come up with a contingency plan that will work (maybe seat people every other seat, etc) and what have been the conversations around this?
This is a huge question and one that the industry is trying to come up with answers to on a daily, if not hourly, basis. It is undoubtedly devastating. Every company and every venue is coming up with its own contingency plans. The ‘every-other-seat’ idea isn’t financially viable, as [British producer] Sonia Friedman has stated in her recent Guardian article – theaters will not survive the year on that basis. But theater as an art form has always adapted to its situation. Maybe rural touring will be the answer – we’ve been having exciting conversations with venues that are part of our Small Scale Touring Network and with other touring companies. Theatre outdoors might also come into its own. We’ll keep cooking. The industry will keep cooking. But the most immediate, and obvious, answer is that we need financial support from the government. We need to keep lobbying to protect the industry.


 

 

Ginanne Brownell is the co-founder of she-files.com 

 

 

Photos: 1) First photo, still from “Run Sister Run” directed by Charlotte Bennett (credit, The Other Richard); 2)Second photo, Charlotte Bennett and  Katie Posner, (credit: Rebecca Need-Menear)

 

 

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