The World of Theatre... without the drama
Andy Gray investigates the Paines Plough movement
Ever get the feeling it’s you, rather than the performers, who suffers for their art during a trip to the theatre? The faded, fusty venues illicit as much warmth as Theresa May’s smile; you pay an arm and a leg for seats without – ironically – arm or leg room, and whilst the entertainers go about their shout-y, show-off-y business for what seems like forever, you must remain upright and silent or face being ejected – ‘if only’.
There is another way, however, to get your thesp-based cultural kicks without feeling bruised by the whole experience. Folkestone native James Grieve, artistic director at West End theatre company Paines Plough, brings Roundabout – ‘the world’s first pop-up, plug-in-and-play theatre’ - to Margate in September. As he told Andy Gray, the group’s productions are specifically aimed at ‘people who don’t like theatre’. Luvvies, look away now…
‘Theatre for people who don’t like theatre’?... Tell me more.
We try and break down some of the barriers that stop people going to the theatre. Some of those issues might be do with the venue itself, with people perhaps viewing its architecture as imposing and unwelcoming. Then there’s the expensive bars and the uncomfortable seats, so an accumulation of a number of off-putting things is probably to blame. Paines Plough produce about 10 shows per year and tour anywhere between 50 and 100 places in the UK; but we’re not all about theatres. We go to music venues, pubs, village halls… anywhere that’ll have us, really. A lot of the negativity disappears when people can watch theatre at their regular music venue, for example. They’re in surroundings that are familiar and comfortable to them and there’s no change in ticket price. They are, however, getting something slightly different to what they’re used to seeing on stage.
Do traffic islands form part of your alternative venue circuit, hence the ‘Roundabout’ programme?
In Margate, Roundabout takes place on a small, triangular patch of grass opposite Dreamland. We’ve been there the past two years. In essence, we turn up and say to the public, ‘we’re using this space to put on some of our shows; if you want to come and see them, great, if not, how would you prefer to use the space’? We invite people to create work for it - not just theatre. We’ve hosted beatbox nights, baby sensory classes, tea dances for pensioners, local history society talks… anything, really. When there isn’t an event on, the theatre’s open for people to come in and look around, especially young people. This is their chance to try their hand at some of the theatre’s technical aspects – lighting, sound or carpentry, for example.
Ah, the blessed ‘young people’. You’ve no business appealing to them, James. They like selfies and social media – they’ve no time for ‘proper culture’.
I think a lot of people get turned off by theatre ‘cause of the really terrible productions they were taken to at school: fusty Oscar Wilde plays or badly-done Shakespeare. Also, a lot of theatre feels very worthy and you end up feeling the same way about theatre as you do broccoli – you consume it ‘cause you have to, not want to. Whereas I think theatre can be really exciting.
By ‘exciting’, you mean?
Theatre with genuine contemporary political and social relevance – and is entertaining. It’s what I aspired to when a friend and I started our own theatre company at university. We put on shows in places other than theatres – pubs and bars. We also ran a big club night – the Nabokov Arts Club - in Shoreditch in a little underground venue where we ran these big warehouse parties that included specially-commissioned theatre pieces, poetry, comedians and live bands. Then DJs would go come on ‘til two in the morning. It was like an arts rave.
You used to review theatre as a freelance journalist before turning to stage direction. I believe the phrase is ‘poacher-turned-gamekeeper’?
Poacher-turned-gamekeeper ha! I was working for the Daily Telegraph on their ‘Diary’ column and reporting on lots of theatre and music. I just fell out of love with writing about other people doing stuff in favour of trying to make some stuff myself – I’ve never looked back. Arts journalism and criticism is vital – now more than ever; it’s an art in itself. But I’m happier doing what I’m doing now, I reckon.
Why Paines Plough? As in, why quit your own theatrical enterprise for an established group? And Paines Plough, the name itself, sounds so very, erm… ‘un-thespy’.
We felt we’d taken our own company as we could after running it for 10 years. It’s still going, but under a different artistic directorship. Paines Plough, which is a bigger, more established version of our old company, was set up in 1974. The founders were struggling to think of a name so went to the pub for inspiration. The pub was called the Plough and the bitter they drunk that night was called Paines, so they ended-up putting the two together. It’s a strange name and we constantly have to explain it, but I love its humble origins.
One of your latest independent productions, The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, a show about ‘truth, celebrity and public outrage’, I can imagine going down a storm with a cosmopolitan Shoreditch crowd, but how about less artsy, more provincial parts of the country?
It would have been dead easy to create work and not play anywhere other than Shoreditch, but we built Roundabout four years ago with the specific aim of taking it to parts of the country without any theatre infrastructure. That’s the thrilling part of what we do; working out how to make a show that works in Cornwall, Cumbria or the Scottish Highlands., for example.
Or places such as Chatham, Gillingham or Sheppey…
For some reason we find it difficult to put on shows in some areas of Kent, particularly places like Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham.
I think I have the answer: those places are dripping with culture; they’ve no room for any more. Growing-up in Folkestone couldn’t have been barrel of high-minded fun, either…
I left Folkestone to go to university at 18. There’d never been a theatre in town the whole time I was there. It’s got the Quarterhouse now, which is an arts centre more than a theatre, but it’s perfect for that community. Growing up in the furthest south-east corner of Kent, you always had the feeling the really exciting cultural stuff was happening elsewhere. It meant I was travelling a lot to Tunbridge Wells, Canterbury and London for music gigs and theatre shows. I think that journey of discovery, if you like, influenced my work and desire to tour it.
Which begs the obvious question: ‘what’s the most unlikely place you’ve staged a theatre show’?
Our best show ever was on the Isle of Eigg in the Scottish Hebrides. A total of 99 people live there and it’s the first self-sufficient island in the world. Half the island turned up to watch our show in this tiny little hall. We all went to the pub with them afterwards. It was just extraordinary. Being able to take a show to an isolated community that never gets to see theatre was a truly amazing experience.
That’s the ridiculous, now tell us about the sublime?
We’ve performed at music festivals such as Latitude. One year we premiered a show there with Kate Tempest. During our performance you could hear the strains of singer Grace Jones coming from the main stage. It was both surreal and gratifying to be able to draw a crowd whilst a huge soul star like Grace was playing just across the way.
I’m still struggling with the idea of putting on theatre in pubs where usual theatre rules don’t apply. How does the audience, let along the performers, concentrate amid the sound of beeping phones and the usual barroom ‘bantz’?
The actors who work with us know what they’re getting into. They know they’re going to be touring some interesting places. We’re not playing traditional theatre where everybody conforms to the rules – ‘sit down, be quiet, stare at the front, don’t use your phone, don’t eat’… If we go into other people’s spaces, we conform to their rules. The audience is completely free to check their phones, Tweet, eat or even make calls. Sometimes things can get a little destructive, but the minute you tell someone, ‘shut-up’ or ‘stop behaving like that’, it’s going to put them off coming back. I suppose my passion for music – which plays a big part in our shows – is part of what’s driving me to make theatre that instils the same exhilaration you get from a gig.
How does pop-up, alternative theatre such as Roundabout pitch itself to passing trade without the aid of traditional means – billboards, flashing lights or sandwich boards?
We have a massive sign outside saying, ‘this is a theatre unlike anything you’ve seen before’. The great thing about Roundabout is its simplicity - it doesn’t require any special skills to assemble and the only tool you need is an Allen key. No piece of the auditorium takes more than two people to carry. It takes six people about a day to pop it up and plug it in, and away we go. It’s completely self-contained with state-of-the-art LED lighting, and a superb way to present outstanding plays by some of the country’s finest writers.