Matt Trueman: do playwriting competitions sacrifice process for the sake of results?

With the Bruntwood Prize announced tomorrow, Matt Trueman asks how beneficial playwriting compeitions really are

Fiston Barek and Faith Omole in The Rolling Stone
Fiston Barek and Faith Omole in The Rolling Stone which won the Bruntwood prize in 2013.
© Jonathan Keenan

Tomorrow afternoon, around lunchtime, the winners of this year’s Bruntwood Prize will be announced at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. If the past is anything to go by, the live-streamed ceremony will probably provide the first glimpse of writers who’ll go onto big things. Previous winners include Duncan Macmillan (People, Places and Things), Alistair McDowall (Pomona) and Vivienne Franzmann (Pests, The Witness).

Other competitions can boast similar track-records. Soho Theatre’s Verity Bargate award cites Matt Charman, who wrote the new Stephen Spielberg film Bridge of Spies, and Anders Lustgarten amongst its discoveries, while Papatango claims Dawn King, Tom-Morton Smith and BAFTA-winner Dominic Mitchell.

As unsolicited scripts become increasingly rare – even the three back-to-back shows at the Royal Court this season came from writers the theatre already knew – have playwriting prizes become a young writer’s best hope of breaking through?

Of course, such track-records are partly self-fulfilling and partly self-selecting. Winning a prize enhances a playwright’s standing, as will a production, thus raising the probability of future success. Two Bruntwood-winning plays – Anna Jordan’s Yen and The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch – scored major London transfers that will boost their reputations significantly.

Winning doesn’t guarantee a career, of course, but it can look that way. Just as you wouldn’t list your mistakes on your CV, playwriting prizes stress their importance through their success. Those winners that don’t go on to great things are fast forgotten about.

Over the past decade or so, the number of prizes for new writing has proliferated. While some competitions date back decades – the Soho’s Verity Bargate award began in 1982 – there has been a flood of new additions in recent years. In 2014 alone, three theatres – the King’s Head, the Liverpool Royal Court and Theatre503 – all launched new awards for new writers.

Why? Simple. A playwriting competition is a relatively cheap and easy way to harvest a lot of new work in one go. For a pot of prize-money – often the cost of a commission anyway – a theatre receives a whole heap of new scripts to consider. The Bruntwood pulls in 2000 each time, the Verity Bargate 900. Even the independent Papatango Prize gets 600 or so. Those numbers are good for theatres and producers. For individual writers, however, they don’t make good odds.

It means a lot of writers go away empty-handed, despite, I’m told, overall standards rising year on year. Competitions don’t offer feedback in the same way that literary departments once did, and it can look like a zero-sum, winner-takes-it-all game. That said, scripts will sometimes surface elsewhere, often thanks to the intervention of organisers, judges and readers who see some potential.

At the same time, writers have to find the time and space to write on spec themselves – something not everyone is able to do. For all the equal footing of the judging process – particularly when applications are anonymous as in the Bruntwood Prize – writers from poorer backgrounds are inevitably disadvantaged by the competition model. There are schemes in place to counteract that – both the Bruntwood and the Verity Bargate run workshops around the country, aimed an increasing applications – but they can only do so much.

Playwriting competitions serve theatres well, streamlining a script-reading process that only ever yielded sporadic results, but the risk is that they sacrifice process for the sake of results.