Can writing competitions change the face of theatre?

Written for Spoonfed, London Theatre:

In a meeting room in Shoreditch, I ask Natalie Wilson, director of Theatre Centre what she thinks about the increasing number of writing competitions in theatre. She thinks for a while, and reminds me that considering the number of playwrights writing away with little chance of a production, there still aren’t that many. But there’s no doubt that such competitions have increased in prominence: more journalists are writing about them and their subsequent productions are reviewed in more publications.

Recipients of Theatre Centre’s Brian Way Award have produced some of the most interesting new writing in recent years; Bush Theatre regularly produces a play by the winner of Be Discovered; while Bruntwood Prize-winning plays rarely fail to attract the national critics. But what exactly is the purpose and the place of writing competitions in theatre? Do they really benefit the playwrights? Are they a search for the next one-hit wonder? Or are they a platform for new writing, a way to breathe life into what is often accused of being a posh, stagnant medium?

Competitions rarely specify the subject matter of a play and so in addition to plucking playwrights from obscurity, they help change the landscape of theatre by being open to ideas. Venues however, will mostly likely have a pre-conceived notion of the ground they want to cover with their productions. The Bruntwood Prize in particular stands out for its lack of an agenda. It invites submissions from any adult, of any location, to submit an anonymous script for consideration.

Sam Pritchard, new writing associate at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, who have a well-established partnership with the Bruntwood, says, “they [competitions] cast a wider net. Broadening the range of people a new writing department talks to is crucial,” he says before reasserting the need to see something new: “we want the writer to surprise us rather than fulfil expectations or stick to a trend, and we aim to find the best writing for theatre.”

Their eye for storytelling as seen in Bruntwood winner Winterlong, and the dialogue demonstrated in Mogadishu, shows how in tune they are with the medium. Both plays are examples of productions that don’t really fit anywhere except hired venues, so the literary caché that comes with winning the prize plays a huge role in how the play is perceived.

Similarly, the subject matter for plays submitted to Theatre Centre’s Brian Way Award is completely open. But the stipulated criteria awards a playwright whose submission shows a way of engaging an audience aged 14-18. “In a lot of mainstream theatre, the audience has to bend to what’s on stage,” says TC director Natalie Wilson. But in the case of Theatre Centre writers, they have to consider “how a young audience engages, how they absorb it and how will they not be bored by it, and it can push everyone to be more creative.”

Charlotte Gwinner, artistic director of Angle Theatre, also sees the challenge of fitting a specification as a good thing. Angle Theatre’s annual competition, Be Discovered, invites people to write about anything but they have to work or live in a certain locality. “Specificity is quite inspiring” says Charlotte. In practice, Angle Theatre’s targeting of specific boroughs draws a variety of scripts. More importantly, it doesn’t pigeon-hole the writer as much as you might think. Rarely will a playwright be hailed as ‘the Hammersmith winner’ of Be Discovered as much as they might be ‘the Irish winner’.

Charlotte highlights the fact that “theatre is now more eclectic. There is still a lot of middle-class boulevard drama on stage,” she says, “but competitions often help to present the best of the UK’s most varied theatre.” That might account for their increasing significance. They bring to our attention things we didn’t know, something that became evident in the critical responses to Vivienne Franzmann’s Mogadishu, which demonstrated what little protection there is for teachers in the school system.

From a playwright’s perspective, Ben Musgrave, winner of the 2005 Bruntwood Prize agrees that “competitions can discover a play as well as a writer. When you’re inside the British theatre new writing machine, people want to develop you,” he says. “They want to see your talent, then they want you to do something new for them. Rarely is a play put on on spec. They want to commission you to do something for them. Writing competitions can find really good plays that might not have been put on because they don’t fit a particular venue.”

And obviously, money is another clear incentive for playwrights. Explaining the importance of Theatre Centre’s Brian Way Award, Natalie emphasises the focus on support for emerging writers. The importance of the £6,000 cash prize, she says, is that “it enables the writer to write. That’s the purpose of it. It gives them a chance to take a breath and put more time into writing. It’s a great testament to the award and the writers who’ve won it that all of them have used that money to write a new play for young people.”

The caveat-free money demonstrates the appreciation for the playwright’s sense of independence, and Ben agrees: “Some literary prizes give you a production, which is fantastic and important but the Bruntwood gives you money as well, which is almost just as important because it buys you the time to write. It means you can spend time writing what you want; you don’t have to worry about writing for other people and it can be an absolute game-changer for the playwright.”

But he believes it’s down to the playwright and not the competition to create the opportunities that follow a competition win: “Once you’ve been launched into the stratosphere, you need to have relationships with people that will keep on bearing fruit to sustain yourself as the playwright,” he says. “It’s not a case of the phone never stops ringing; rather you have to make the phone ring.”

Refreshingly, competitions and playwrights seem to be on the same wavelength. Where the former want to discover plays with something new to say, the latter are looking for this alternative channel that allows them to bypass the conventional new writing system. More importantly, the existence of competitions sends a message to artistic directors and literary managers. While the theatre landscape needs them to act as architects, it also requires more flexibility, and becomes a much more important art form the more open and eclectic it is.

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