On this new series Pathways To Playwriting, Editor Jennifer Richards is looking at different routes into the theatre industry and becoming a playwright. First up: playwriting awards!
Entering playwriting competition can seem like a mystical world sometimes – what are the judges looking for? Will my play even get read? And what actually happens if you win?
London Playwrights’ Blog got to speak to three fantastic playwrights who are all well-versed in the world of playwriting awards: Phil Porter, one of the winners of the first Bruntwood prize and now a judge on this year’s panel; James Fritz, who was a Bruntwood Prize winner in 2015 for his play Parliament Square; and Stephen Jackson, who won the 2015 Verity Bargate Award with his show Roller Diner.
And we thought, who better to ask all our questions to?
Here it goes…
Q: What convinced you to enter?
“I went to a Verity Bargate Award roadshow in Birmingham where Nadine Rennie from Soho Theatre gave a talk about the award. At the end I asked her if they accepted musicals. She said I could enter it but that the music wouldn’t be taken into consideration – only the script. Roller Diner didn’t seem to fit at all – but I entered in any case – don’t ask me why! After I’d won, I said I’d entered in the way an unlucky gambler rolls the dice. I’d got nothing to lose. I thought Soho would have to be bonkers to choose Roller Diner. But they are bonkers and they did choose it!”
Q: I’m unlikely to win, so should I even bother entering?
“First, a reality check: the number of people that enter awards is only reflective of the amount of people who like the idea of being a playwright. Your chances of winning might be quite slim, but at least your play will be properly considered, and if what you’ve written is as good as you think it might be, then you’re in with a chance.”
“Second: I’ve met all of the final judging panel of the Bruntwood and I know lots of people that will be reading earlier rounds; I promise you that whoever receives your play wants it to be award-winningly good.”
“And third: even if you don’t win a prize it was still worth doing. You finished a play that you can send to people and put on stage and prove us stupid judges wrong.”
Q: But I’ve been rejected before, so should I really submit again?
“I had entered [Bruntwood] before two times, first just when I was starting out, which didn’t make the longlist, and the second time a few years later – that made the longlist of 40 and I got loads of useful feedback.”
“With Parliament Square, I had the idea knocking round in my head; I wasn’t planning on submitting anything, but it’s such a good opportunity and I got such useful feedback before.”
Q: How do I know when the piece is ready to enter?
“You are never ever going to get it perfect. Let go of the idea of writing a perfect play before you submit it.”
“If you have something that communicates an idea and how you want to say it, the Royal Exchange and Bruntwood readers are smart enough to understand the development process and see where [your play] can go. The main thing is just to get it in.”
Q: Surely it’s so subjective, so how do you judge plays?
“I think it always comes down to the same two things: having an interesting thing to say and having an interesting way of saying it. After I met with this year’s Bruntwood judges we went to the Royal Court and watched Wish List by Katherine Soper, the most recent winner. It was a great reminder of everything we’re looking for: relevance, wit, emotional insight, guts, theatricality, originality.”
Q: What can happen after winning the award?
“It’s been pretty epic actually, you get it and it’s great but you don’t really know what’s next. Then you go in for the first meeting and they say this is literally the beginning.”
“I’ve spent two years working with Royal Exchange Literary Department and the Director. It’s grown and then shrunk back again, and then exploded and put together again.”
“They gave me time and license to explore different ways [of telling this story]. Half-way through I was even packed off to the rocky mountains in Canada to work with Canadian dramaturgs.”
“It would’ve been tough without the support, I would never have got there.”
Q: Does winning an award change you as a playwright?
“Having an award has given me some crazy confidence – with the VBA and the Best Composer nomination [for Roller Diner], I’m wondering if I now dare attempt the larger-scale musical that’s been buzzing round my head… My toes are tingling and I’m feeling a bit dizzy at the thought…”
Q: Are playwriting awards a viable route into the theatre industry?
“Not many of the playwrights [the 2015 Bruntwood Prize winners] were working full-time when they won, and so many of them are now working professionally and doing amazing work. In this regard the Bruntwood has become increasingly essential over the last ten years. In 2006, when I entered, there were many more theatres reading unsolicited work.”
“Now those opportunities are few and far between so awards like the Bruntwood provide a really important service to playwrights and to British theatre.”
“Of course, awards aren’t just about viable routes into the industry, they’re about something much more exciting and romantic than that. They’re about talented people with great ideas trying to write one truly remarkable play.”
“But absolutely, if you hope to be a professional playwright and you’ve got a play or an idea you’re mad not to enter.”
Q: So how should playwrights view playwriting awards?
“Competitions aren’t a substitute for a career strategy – because only a lucky few can win, but if you do win, it is career-changing.”
“I have mainly used competition deadlines as a stimulus to finish something – without really expecting to win anything. It’s hard to keep motivated when nobody is interested in your work, so a deadline date can be a goal to aim at. Then send your masterpiece off, forget about it, and carry on with your career plan as normal.”
“And clearly many playwrights aren’t discouraged by our sheer numbers or there would be fewer of us – if that makes sense! I suspect most writers write because they can’t help themselves. I’ve tried quitting many times – but I soon find myself sneaking off for a crafty scribble when nobody’s looking.”
“In conclusion I would say that competitions are often free and at least your work will get read. So enter – you’ve got nothing to lose.”
In Summary: The Role of Awards In Becoming A Playwright
Entering awards with your fingers-crossed is probably not the best strategy if you want to become a playwright – but if you’re fortunate enough to win it can be an enormous boost to your career, and as these writers show, it’s always worth taking the chance of submitting.
Even if you don’t win, competition deadlines can be a valuable motivator to finally finish the draft you always seemed to be halfway through. Or one of the readers could love your work and reach out, starting a new professional relationship.
How can I make the most of this particular Pathway To Playwriting?
1) Get the guts.
There’s no easy way to manage the nerves every playwright feels in thinking their work isn’t ready or there’s no point in entering. It’s a bit like jumping into the deep end of the pool: it can be a bit frightening to take the plunge, but it’s much better than being left standing on the side. It’s normal to feel nervous, but don’t let it stop you. James, Stephen and Phil all show you’ve just got to go for it. You never know what could happen next.
2) Get organised.
Keep track of when competition dates are coming up and research how you need to prepare. Fortunately, our Weekly Opportunities Roundup puts all this information at your fingertips. We recommend copying key deadlines into your diary or making mini-deadlines for yourself if it’s a particularly big project.
Make sure you read the details early, so if you need a reference or synopsis you have time to organise this and don’t wind up unable to apply because you don’t have all your materials together. And it goes without saying, but you really don’t want to leave this to the last minute!
3) Go for numbers.
There is a tradition of novelists taking pride in collecting and displaying their rejection slips – the more you have the better. Obviously everyone wants to win, but the more you submit, the better your odds of winning, so don’t let fear of rejection put you off submitting early and often.
Every ‘no’ you collect represents a victory for putting your work out into the world, and means there is at least one more person in this world who has seen your writing. Plus, it may sound counterintuitive, but the more you submit and get comfortable with this process, the easier it is to let the ‘no’s’ just roll off your back – because there’s always another opportunity just around the corner.
Stephen Jackson’s Roller Diner has been nominated for Best Comedy at the Wilma awards, which you can vote for here.