Royal Exchange's Sarah Frankcom: 'A good play doesn't leave you alone'

The director talks judging the Bruntwood Prize, filming ”Hamlet” and staging a new play on Manchester’s scuttler gangs

Sarah Frankcom
Sarah Frankcom
© Dan Wooller

Sarah Frankcom has been artistic director of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester since 2008, during which time her productions have included Punk Rock, That Day We Sang and Hamlet starring Maxine Peake. She's a judge for the £40,000 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, which recently commenced its tenth anniversary year.

Could you summarise the Bruntwood Prize process?
It runs in two-yearly cycles. We receive an enormous amount of entries, anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 plays, which are read and read again and then whittled down to a shortlist of about 12 which goes to the judging panel. We meet and identify one winner and three judges' prizes. Those plays and writers then have a relationship with the Royal Exchange over the next year. Some of the playwrights are quite experienced, whereas others have never stepped foot inside a theatre. The whole process takes about 18 months from the winners being announced to the work being staged.

Entries are submitted anonymously – does that make it easier to judge?
To me that's the unique thing about the prize. It's an open door to anybody over the age of 16 to engage with a theatre. Every play is read and the shortlisted playwrights all receive feedback. At a time when theatre seems less and less accessible and unsolicited plays increasingly go unread, it has a very important place because it doesn't depend on who you know. We always get a very diverse range of writers entering. And the anonymity certainly helps the judges. It's often surprising when you find out the true identities of the writers – last time for example we were convinced one play was written by a young male writer and we were completely wrong.

Nicholas Hytner is chair of the panel this year – are you looking forward to comparing notes with him?
Definitely. Nick was a judge on the first prize, and I think he really understands the difference between what makes a play exciting on the page and what makes it exciting as a live experience. This year we're really challenging people to change what can be done in theatre – to think big and bold and about the 'nowness' of theatre as opposed to other mediums.

So the million dollar (or £40,000) question – what are you looking for?
We're looking for plays that create a wide-ranging discussion, plays that get us fired up, plays that stay with you. For me personally I look for an almost physiological reaction – when you read a good play it gets inside you and doesn't leave you alone. This year I think there's a real hunger among the judges to find a play that's bold in form and tears up the rule-book.

Your production of Hamlet starring Maxine Peake is about to be broadcast in cinemas. Is that an exciting new venture?
It's going to be in over 200 cinemas on 23 March. It's the first time as a theatre that we've filmed anything in our space. The filmmaker, Michael Williams, has really encapsulated what happens for an audience watching the production. It's a unique prospect because our theatre is in-the-round, which we thought would make it really challenging to film but actually makes it really compelling. The audience are a big part of the film – you can't forget that they're there.

David Jubb at BAC recently asked why there aren't more regional productions streamed into London, as opposed to the other way round – do you agree?
I do agree. It feels like a one-way street at the moment. Certainly the journey we've had is that, prior to Hamlet, we hadn't made the right production to be filmed. But now we understand the technology I don't think it will be long before we do more. Something else it changes it that it makes it possible to get our work into places on a doorstep, such as schools and prisons, that we wouldn't otherwise be able to. That's a more pressing concern I think.

Next up in the main house you've got Scuttlers, written by Rona Munro – how did that come about?
We've had a relationship with Rona for a number of years; she wrote an adaptation of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell for me in 2006. We looked at Victorian Manchester and the Scuttlers [youth gangs] were something we were both interested in. Rona tends to 'cook' ideas for quite a long time – this one's been in development for a fair few years. It was the Manchester riots in 2011 that marked the beginning of Rona starting to formerly work through the idea, and then we brought in [director] Wils Wilson, who is a great fit. So it all gradually fell into place, and we're really exciting about sharing it with audiences. It's especially fitting because the Scuttlers were young factory workers, and the Exchange was built on the profits of the cotton industry, so it feels as if those young people are finally getting to take over the building.

You're also about to premiere the last winner of the Bruntwood Prize – Yen by Anna Jordan. What made it the stand out play?
All the judges felt it was the play that made you stop and look at the world, and particularly the experience of young people, in a completely different way. There's a constellation of characters in that play that break your heart, and make you very worried about what it's like to be young and male and trying to work out how to grow up when you don't really have anyone to show you the way. She writes beautifully, and she writes with great passion and grace. She's extraordinary about creating explosive moments that burn into your head; a great addition to the Bruntwood's impressive list of winners.

Entries for the Bruntwood Prize are open until 5 June 2015. Scuttlers runs at the Royal Exchange until 7 March 2015, and Yen from 18 February to 7 March. Hamlet is broadcast to cinemas on 23 March.