Joint Artistic Director Katie Posner on leading a company through 2020 and creating digital stories that explore life in lockdown across the world.

Once upon a time, Charlotte Bennett and I stood outside the Paines Plough office in Aldwych in the rain and said ‘can you imagine if we ever got the chance to be the new Artistic Directors of this incredible company?’ So we took this picture and joked ‘yeh and this could be our press picture!’ Both of us hoping, praying and wishing that one day this would come true. As we travelled home on the bus that night we cooked up what our first season would be, promised we would laugh every day, use the rage we felt about our industry to make radical change, and went to be bed dreaming of all the artists we would be able to work with.

Then it happened! Months later we both sat waiting for the call to find out whether we had got the job. I was directing a show for Guildford Drama School and had tucked myself into a corner in a stairwell, right next to a group of trumpet players who were rehearsing very loudly. Charlotte was standing on super-busy Dean Street outside Soho Theatre. The WhatsApp conversation between us as we waited was literally ALL the reasons why it would never be us – (why do we always do that to ourselves?) –

– but the call came and it was us and for those few seconds I held my breath in disbelief, with relief and excitement. We were going to be partners, collaborators and leaders together. And so we began!

Six months later, COVID-19 hit. Our job very quickly became about navigating a global pandemic crisis (like everyone in our industry) and working out how we were going to survive as a company. For us it was about being resilient and fundamentally about finding the positives in times of adversity. It was now more than ever that we needed to step up as new leaders, work out how we could continue to tell stories, commission as many writers as we could and connect with audiences at a time when they needed us most. We knew that things needed to change and we wanted to work out how we could be nimble, adapt and continue to make work – in a digital landscape.

I distinctly remember an early conversation we had about creating online work with lots of amazing artists, including the super wonderful Travis Alabanza, whose ability to be deeply insightful about being human in 2020, and their perceptive exploration of new digital forms, was wonderfully inspiring. We had been playing with ideas about how people could receive new plays. We all felt that short, sharp, cleverly crafted stories that were broken down into bite-size moments could feel more active and exciting. We wanted to share stories without asking people to stare at their screens for too long. 

We had always talked about making work internationally and suddenly this felt like an opportunity to make those collaborative connections. With an idea to create bilingual, experimental, digital plays that would explore life in lockdown across the world, we started by finding writers in other countries and connecting them with UK-based writers. Our first meeting with Calle Fuhr and Dipo Baruwa Etti was so deeply exciting, Travis Alabanza and Magdalena Zarębska-Węgrzyn’s wit and style felt intertwined and Guiditta Mingucci and Rosie MacPherson became instant penpals after their first conversation. What was clear amongst all these artists was their openness. We were going to make work that crossed barriers and transcended borders all from the comfort of our homes. The digital festival, The Place I Call Home, was born, and is headlined with these three international plays which will be delivered to you via WhatsApp, email and in the post.

It’s a festival about connection and hope, just at the moment that so many of us around the UK are being asked to stop connecting, and finding it harder to hope. As the nights draw in and the rain starts to come down, we want to be with you, sit and talk with you, and find the next steps.

Some of our events are about finding a new future for our industry – whether through our Re:Assemble and Re:Build programmes, which aim to support change in the industry for dramaturgy and emerging companies, or Deafinitely’s panel on using making bilingual BSL/spoken English work for the stage. Some of our workshops are about you discovering a new future for yourself – perhaps through self-producing your own work, or looking for jobs in the industry. And some of the time, we just want to connect with you, and to be together – through meeting new actors at the Open Auditions, or sharing time at our Instagram Live events with Chinonyerem Odimba, James Graham and Vinay Patel.

Most importantly, we have stories – stories that have given us hope. Stories that arrive on your phone. Stories that pop into your letterbox. Stories that are guided by the writer, giving you a beautiful insight in to their worlds. Stories that have been created for you to enjoy. They are about feeling connected to people when we don’t know when the next chance will be to meet them in person. 

None of us would ever have predicted the enormity of what has happened to us as a nation over the past six months. Everything feels uncertain and that can feel worrying. I do however believe that artists and audiences need to be at the forefront of every conversation. Stories need to be truly valued whether they are online, in a car park, on someone’s doorstep or shared over the phone.

Above all, that’s what we want The Place I Call Home to be about: stories and hope. Hope means knowing that today is hard, but that we can make tomorrow better if we are together. Hope means knowing that there’s hard work ahead, but that we are strong enough to do it. It’s found in the moments that we sit together, and share a look, even if it’s over Zoom, and know that we are with each other.

We’ll find ways to enjoy this moment together, not just to endure it; we’ll share joy, and creativity, and ideas about the future. And above all, we will share hope.

We would love you to join us – and we’ll see you at home!

Katie Posner, Joint Artistic Director of Paines Plough.

You can book tickets for THE PLACE I CALL HOME Festival here.

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