With their passion for the immediacy of new writing, Paines Plough’s new joint artistic directors Katie Posner and Charlotte Bennett tell Kate Wyver how they are building on its mission to tour engaging work nationwide
In late 2019, Charlotte Bennett and Katie Posner took over as joint artistic directors of new-writing touring company Paines Plough. “It was a gut-instinct thing,” Bennett says. “It just felt perfect.”
Posner adds: “What [former artistic directors] James Grieve and George Perrin have done over the past 10 years is amazing. The reach they’ve had is extraordinary, and we want to grow and evolve from that. We keep looking at [the role] and going: ‘How would one person do this?’
The duo met a decade ago while working on freelance directing projects in York. They bonded over the desire to push for a wider range of new work in programming. “We were both feeding into this desire to see new writing flourish in a regional building,” Posner says. “There would be programme meetings that were conversations about Caryl Churchill being a risk and you’d sit there feeling very frustrated.” In Bennett, she found a friend, collaborator and co-conspirator.
They had discussed the idea of applying for the job for years. “Charlotte has always said: ‘If Paines Plough ever comes up, we’re going to go for it and we’re going to get it.’ I think she just knew.” Because two artistic directors ran the company previously, it set an expectation that a job share could be possible. “There’s this old idea of artistic director as rockstar,” Bennett says. “But the idea of a singular vision is not something I buy into.” As a pair, Posner says: “You’re scrutinising things through two lenses. You’re challenging each other all the time in a really healthy way.”
Training: Various as actor and director
• The Season Ticket, UK tour (2016)
• Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes, York Theatre Royal (2017)
• My Mother Said I Never Should, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick (2019)
• The Seven Ages of Patience, Kiln Theatre, London (2019)
• The Mold Riots, Theatr Clwyd (2019)
• Best production, Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Awards, for Made in India (2017)
Agent: Alexandra Cory at Berlin Associates
Paines Plough is at the forefront of touring new writing in the UK. Formed in 1974, it has toured more than 150 new plays, working with writers such as Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Kate Tempest and Duncan Macmillan. Its name comes from the founders having a pint of Paines Bitter in the Plough pub, and their shows are a vital part of the British theatrical landscape.
To the public, the company is perhaps best known for its spaceship-like venue the Roundabout, a pop-up, pack-up theatre that tours the country and lands in the Summerhall courtyard at Edinburgh every year for the fringe.
Posner and Bennett’s first season, Live Out Loud, explores the idea of taking up space. Among the new plays are Chloë Moss’ family drama Run Sister Run, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s story of a girl’s voice going missing, Really Big and Really Loud, Chinonyerem Odimba’s musical Black Love, about romance and the lack of representation on stage of black couples and Chris Bush’s Hungry, a meditation on food, class and grief.
“There’s something about the unheard voices in all those stories that have a commonality,” Posner says. Refreshingly, every playwright in the season is female or non-binary, though Posner says the choice wasn’t led by gender. “When we asked [ourselves] who we wanted in our first season, it happened to be those artists.”
‘Being politically active is important to me. I’m not on the street every week with banners, but I can do it through art’ – Katie Posner
Neither Posner nor Bennett took a traditional path to directing: neither did residencies, a master’s or won the JMK Award. Posner started off as a performer and teacher, before becoming a director, with one role feeding into the other. “Directing and teaching are completely mirrored,” she says. “You’re facilitating a room, you’re empowering people and you’re discovering together.” She left teaching to work as a freelance director, while also becoming associate director at Pilot Theatre, where she toured shows regionally, nationally and internationally.
Before Paines Plough, Bennett worked as associate director at Soho Theatre, where she led the new-writing department and commissioned and programmed the upstairs studio. After being told by careers advisers at the University of Hull that she would struggle as a female director, she got a place on a course at Birkbeck, but had to turn it down because she couldn’t afford the fees.
“The thing I felt was really exciting about that course was that you got a placement at a theatre, but you were expected to assist for free, and then on top of that you’ve got to find £8,000 a year.” She worked in Leeds and saved up money to come to London to spend six weeks at a time assisting. “It created a stop-start nature to my career and I felt like I was always on the side of something. I still feel strongly about it now: access to finance and barriers and class.”
For them both, it is the immediacy of new writing that’s so addictive; the ability to engage with issues and ideas on a stage as they unravel in the world outside at the same time. “As custodians of a company like Paines Plough, I think there’s an amazing opportunity to bring about change,” Posner says. “Being politically active is really important to me. I’m not on the street every other week with banners, but I can do it through art, through the stories we tell and the artists we connect with.”
Bennett agrees. “We’ve always been driven by who our work is for. Who is it speaking to and why? What is the conversation we want to be having? And how are we having that conversation across the country, especially at this point when the country is so divided?”
One of their key concerns is the sustainability of writers’ careers. “If you’ve got a writer from Sheffield,” Bennett says, “Sheffield can commission them a number of times, but where else are they going to get their work on and build a career? If Paines Plough can tour that work and engage other audiences and theatres and show that there’s an interest and a connection, that can help broaden the possibilities of their career.”
Born: 1986, Leeds
Training: University of Hull
• Rattle Snake, York Theatre Royal; Soho Theatre (2017)
• Whitewash, Soho Theatre (2019)
• Fringe First award for Two Man Show by RashDash (as producer)
They want to help writers build a national voice, to help the evolution of the British theatrical canon. “Our USP is touring so we’re essentially able to help give a writer a national voice,” Posner says. “We’re not saying we’re going to sell out Sheffield Crucible, but who knows? If we deepen the dialogue with Sheffield audiences maybe in five years we will, and that could be a radical new play by someone completely unheard of. What a dream that would be.”
Posner and Bennett are quick to insist that new doesn’t necessarily mean young. As part of their new season they have Charlotte Keatley’s new play about AI and how the world is designed for men.
“She’s brilliant,” Bennett says. “And we recognise that many women of her generation had male contemporaries hot-footing it into the Olivier or getting number nine or 10 commission, while they dropped off. It’s absolutely to do with the industry’s interest in the new, and historically its interest in male playwrights in big spaces over female playwrights.”
‘There’s this old idea of artistic director as rockstar, but the idea of a singular vision is not something I buy into’ – Charlotte Bennett
It’s not just on stage that Posner and Bennett want to make a stand. They are supporting directors with job-shares, childcare timings and access needs, and are also collaborating with Ellie Keel Productions on the first Women’s Prize for Playwriting, which Posner describes as “a wonderful opportunity to find and discover playwrights”.
This first season sets the precedent of what Bennett and Posner hope to do: they are scrutinising the responsibility they have as change-makers, building on Grieve and Perrin’s legacy and continuing to investigate how much noise and impact the arts can make. “Let’s challenge and unpick,” Bennett says, looking forwards, “not just inherit and accept.”
Run Sister Run is at Sheffield Theatres until March 21 then at London’s Soho Theatre from March 25 to May 2