Why are playwriting competitions important to the playwright? Competitions are one of the few ways for a writer to get his or her work in front of directors and audiences.
Over the past few years new writing has taken something of a back seat in the theatre world. However, writers do not stop writing just because it is no longer fashionable. The ideas keep coming, the muscles need to be exercised. Apart from commissions I probably write at least one complete new play a year. This is completely for my benefit but it is a loved little thing even if it will soon be an unwanted orphan and join the other orphans in the drawer in my desk I like to call The Orphanage.These little waifs and strays have little chance of finding a home to go to. It is of little use packing a little suitcase and sending them off to producing managements and directors because a) They aren’t considering new work b) They haven’t got time to consider new work because they are too busy boiling up a three handed version of Timon of Athens. So my little waif is intercepted even before he reaches the door of the Playhouse by a stern beadle called a dramaturge. The dramaturge comes in two forms - the embittered older writer who enjoys giving a sound kicking to someone else’s snivelling foundling or a fresh faced young person for whom this is the first job after their university writing course and who has never actually seen a play except once when he or she was in the sixth form. Either way the dramaturge is there to keep your off spring as far away from the theatre space as possible.
There is another little wrinkle that amuses us writers greatly and that is the “emerging writer syndrome”. ACE delights in funding new writing from new writers. These are youngsters with the same background as the dramaturge (2). The emerging writer may well be full of ideas but they need to learn the craft and so their work is usually a vehicle for the director and company to lay into leaving very little or the emerging writer’s work to emerge. But, of course, having learnt something from this experience they are now no longer an emerging writer so they have immediately excluded themselves from ever being commissioned to write a second or even third piece. Thus skill and experience drains away and the status of the playwright takes even more of a hit.
So the competition circuit becomes an important conduit for new but not emerging writers and us old hacks to get work to the public and to try and recover the idea of plays that are not written to a formula. To charge us a fee for the privilege of actually being read by a potential management is adding insult to injury. This is where the new and important ideas will come from. Apart from the fact that I can’t afford to fork out £20 I feel demeaned to be considered such a low specimen in the theatrical hierarchy. For us a competition is a sort of audition, we may not succeed but we know at least we have given it our best shot. But are actors charged £20 a head to audition? Lighting designers, £15 a pop for an interview? How much would you charge an Artistic Director? Or a dramaturge?