Stephens is an award-winning writer whose plays include Country Music, Herons, Bluebird (all at the Royal Court) and Pornography, On the Shore of the Wide World and Punk Rock.
This is an edited transcript of his speech, delivered at Manchester’s Royal Exchange on 31 January 2011.
It’s a curious time for theatre and potentially a troubling time. The savagery and suddenness of the cuts made across the public sector by the Tory-led government has been startling. Theatre has been and will be affected by those cuts as severely as will the army or the police, education or social services.
The consequences of those cuts may seem less alarming than a school or a community centre being closed, or a soldier in Helmand Province or an ambulance driver in Longsight being poorly equipped. But I don’t think we should think of ourselves as playing a kind of cut back top trumps with other public services. We’re all threatened.
The wealth and energy of the theatre culture in this country dignifies us. It has for the past four hundred years. We’re a better country for it. The particularity of the playwright in British theatre is unique. It has made British plays the envy of the world in a way that say British footballers aren’t. We’ve found something that as a country we appear to be good at. I think that’s something to value. I am nervous that the savagery of those cuts could damage the conditions in which playwrights have been able to work. And subsequently in effect that something valued is threatened.
Theatres face contraction and that contraction may result in a more tentative approach to programming, as necessarily cost and marquee casting opportunities become considerations even in theatres with a determined artistic policy.
The Bruntwood Prize allows and encourages freedom and confidence in form and content in a way that may seem increasingly difficult to sustain elsewhere. This is an opportunity for more playwrights than any other competition allows to write exactly the play that they most want to write at a time when that confidence becomes increasingly difficult to support.
While I am nervous about the fragility of the conditions of work for playwrights over the next five years I am also fascinated to see how playwrights respond to these shifting conditions and this shifting country.
Some of the most startling plays of the last 15 years have been born out of a particular relationship between the writer and the country. Playwrights have been disappointed or ironic, searching or uncertain. Certainly that uncertainty has defined a lot of my work over the past ten years. I’m not sure that uncertainty is appropriate any more. When I read plays by writers younger than me, the plays of Mike Bartlett for example or here in Manchester Alistair Macdowall, I find an anger and a confidence that I think my own plays have lacked.
I wonder if that anger and that confidence has become a more necessary position to take. I am fascinated to see how it will manifest itself in the plays we read for the competition this year.
Playwrights at their best are a counter-intuitive disobedient bunch. I don’t expect and certainly don’t hope that we will find plays dominated or even defined by lengthy angry monologues or polemic. But I think there will be a change in the ways in which playwrights use and juxtapose metaphor and image, structure and dramatic action to explore that which they want to explore or say what they want to say. I think this year’s Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting could be at the vanguard of that change. The plays we read could offer us an insight into those shifts in this country that is as illuminating and energizing as the shifts are unsettling.
In that sense I can’t wait to start reading.
Simon Stephens is the chair of the 2011 Bruntwood Prize judging panel. The panel is completed by the writer Jackie Kay, actor Sue Johnston, actor Maxine Peake, author Jackie Kay, joint Royal Exchange artistic director Sarah Frankcom and chairman of Bruntwood Michael Oglesby.
The 2011 Bruntwood Prize is now open for entries. To enter and for more information about the prize visit www.writeaplay.co.uk