I’m nearing the end of almost a decade as joint artistic director of Paines Plough, the UK’s national theatre of new plays. It’s been the greatest honour to lead this vital touring company and work with so many outstanding playwrights, creatives and colleagues to produce and tour 45 world premieres to hundreds of places across the nation and around the world. I’ve loved every hectic minute. But nobody should run a company for more than 10 years and now feels the right time to step aside. Paines Plough has always thrived on reinventing itself and I’m excited to see new artistic leadership forge a new era with fresh ideas and energy.
Not that I’m winding down just yet. I’ve still got five months left and there is plenty to achieve before I pass on the baton. My week starts with a 9am staff appraisal and catch-up meetings with our producer Sofia and my co-artistic director George. We have a programming meeting to discuss the visiting companies we will programme into Roundabout – our pop-up theatre – at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Having made myself voluntarily unemployed, I do have one eye on my future as a freelance director and pop out for coffee with producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers to discuss a project we’re cooking up together.
Walking to work is one of my great pleasures and privileges. Every day starts with a 40 minute walk from home in Bermondsey to the office on Aldwych, over Waterloo bridge with its peerless view of the ever changing, always majestic skyline of pulsating London. I usually listen to music and plan my day but I’m currently working through Series 3 of Simon Stephens’ searching and fascinating interviews on The Royal Court’s Playwright’s Podcast.
I find it useful to cluster meetings wherever possible so Tuesday is weekly meetings day. We start with a management team meeting, followed by a full company meeting, marketing team meeting and a catch up with our PR company The Corner Shop.
I spend the morning in the office catching up on emails and wrestling a production budget to see if we can make a potential future show make sense financially. I spend the afternoon with David Baddiel whose debut play I am directing as my first freelance gig post-Paines Plough. I’ve long been an admirer of David’s polymathic brilliance and I am thrilled to have the chance to work with him. Three hours of wide-ranging conversation fly by in the company of an extraordinary thinker and raconteur.
It’s George’s birthday. We’ve worked together since 2000 when we set up a company – nabokov – while we were both at Sheffield University. We took over Paines Plough in 2009 and will leave together in August. It’s been the greatest fortune of my working life to have a partner and co-conspirator of George’s extraordinary imagination, wisdom, integrity and loyalty. We both support Man United so we spend the evening in the pub watching the second leg of the Champions League tie away at Paris St Germain. We have spent many hours over the years discussing the similarities between football management and theatre directing, and analysing the management styles of the greats. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s tactical nous and inspirational man management sees his second string team miraculously overhaul a 2-0 deficit to win. A masterclass, and a great birthday present for George.
I spend the day in the rehearsal room with a great group of actors workshopping a draft of a brand new play by Andrew Thompson, a writer of rare imagination and theatrical flair whose play In Event of Moone Disaster was one of the most striking debuts of recent years. This new play is about gaming and the gaming industry and we’re workshopping it so Andrew can hear it aloud for the first time and test out a few of the scenes.
Along with four other playwrights, Andrew is part of a group we have been running for the past year with commercial producers Fiery Angel. Its aim has been to investigate what makes a ‘big play’ and try to understand how writers can make the jump from writing for studio spaces to writing plays for big stages. We share with Fiery Angel a desire to see more new plays premiere in the West End and tour commercially and this is a great example of the subsidised and commercial sector working together with shared ambition for mutual benefit.
Breakfast with Tania Harrison, Arts Curator of Latitude and pioneer of festival theatre. Through Tania’s bold and diverse programming of Latitude’s arts stages since 2006, she has changed the face of music festivals, and fomented a wave of thrilling gig theatre attracting new artists and audiences.
Over to the Coliseum for a meeting with English National Opera producer Katherine Wilde about touring and reaching audiences in parts of the country where arts engagement is at its lowest. At 5pm the whole office downs tools for Friday at Five, affectionately known as FAF. A few years ago we realised everyone was so busy that we sometimes went whole weeks without talking about the thing we all went into it for – plays. So we shut the office at 5pm every Friday and decamp to our local, The Nell Of Old Drury, to spend an hour discussing plays, playwrights, shows we’ve seen. It’s a great way to end the week as a team, and an important reminder that even if we’ve spent the week staring at spreadsheets, we do it because we make plays. Then I’m at Soho Theatre for press night of Penelope Skinner’s blistering comedy Angry Alan, produced by former PP producer Francesca Moody. It’s an excoriating satire on the emergent men’s rights movement and it hits its mark with Penelope’s trademark wit and fierce intelligence.
There are never enough hours in the week so Saturdays are often spent drinking coffee and catching up on emails with 5 Live keeping me up to speed on the football scores. Dinner with friends in the evening.
My partner is deputy stage manager on a show in the West End so she works every evening and has two shows on a Saturday. So Sunday is the one day we get to spend together. Today is her birthday, so we set up camp in our Bermondsey local Simon The Tanner to be joined by loads of friends for roasts and drinks and a really lovely afternoon of conversations. A wonderful Sunday respite from the working week.
James Grieve is the outgoing co-artistic director of Paines Plough.