2011 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition

Today marks the launch of the third Bruntwood Playwriting Competition – the UK’s biggest (and most lucrative) award for playwrights.

It doesn’t matter where you come from in the UK, whether you’ve never written before (or you’ve written a hundred plays), or what you want to write about.

Royal Exchange Manchester logoYou’ve got until 3rd June 2011 to submit a play to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, who organise the competition. One first-prize winner will win £16,000 and the offer of a year’s attachment at the Royal Exchange; three runners-up will be awarded £8,000 each. Some of the plays will also receive full, professional productions at the Royal Exchange. In addition, four of the previous competition winners whose plays have gone on to premiere there have been published by Nick Hern Books – and we are delighted to be offering the same again for this year’s winners.

Publication of these new writers has been an excellent way for us to add four distinctive new voices, and their superb debut plays, to our list. And we think it’s helped promote the writers’ work in the wider world. As Sam Pritchard, the Royal Exchange’s New Writing Associate, says: ‘Publishing the texts of those Bruntwood winners that have been produced at the Royal Exchange has been a crucial element of what the competition has to offer writers. Nick Hern Books’ editions of the plays help launch the lives of these plays after they have been staged, and are an important landmark in the careers of winning writers.’

For the rest of this week, each of the four playwrights published by NHB will be talking about the prize and the effect it had on their careers. First up tomorrow, the winner of the first competition in 2007, Ben Musgrave, for his play Pretend You Have Big Buildings. So make sure to check back tomorrow to read his post!

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Going Public: What playwrights feel about their reviews

Playwright and tutor Steve Waters explains the power of the review, and offers advice on how to deal with them, whether they’re good or bad.

Steve Waters

As I sat down to write this piece, I was waiting for reviews for two new plays of mine: Amphibians, a project I have developed with Offstage Theatre Company, and Little Platoons, part of the Schools Season at the Bush Theatre. Going public with a new piece of work induces a strange psychotic state in a playwright that I have never got used to – in the breach between opening night and judgement day, it feels like the world is talking behind your back.

jacket image of LITTLE PLATOONS

Little Platoons by Steve Waters

Writerly paranoia of course. But it’s interesting to compare it with having a book published, or indeed working in other media. David Greig has described the impact of a radio play being broadcast as something akin to someone farting in a large room – OK, you might get a nice comment in the Radio Times or some vituperative stuff on an online message board, but by and large life goes on as before. Likewise when my book The Secret Life of Plays came out in the autumn, there was a rash of congratulatory emails and positive reports from friends and relatives, and then a painfully protracted silence before the reviews started to appear.

There are heroic alternatives to running this gauntlet. I admire those who proclaim they never read reviews, as if they have somehow exited from public judgement altogether. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t even read the reviews of other people’s work, which strikes me as going too far – surely a little schadenfreude from time to time is perfectly healthy?

jacket image of THE SECRET LIFE OF PLAYS

The Secret Life of Plays by Steve Waters

I’ve forgotten the innocence of life before notices. What did I do with myself? The odd reference or exam result or school report was all I had to go on. How on earth was I able to evaluate myself? When my first show received a raft of bruising brush-offs I felt I had been mugged in public – the sad, knowing smiles of people around me seemed to confirm my misjudgement of my own worth. The first casualty was my own capacity to believe in reviews myself – having innocently imagined them to be acts of public service, they suddenly looked like collective malice.

I think the poignant delusion behind these anxieties is the hope for justice. Rather like composing your own obituary in advance, there is this naïve craving for a fair trial – no, worse, the laughable need for absolute praise. Being a playwright is not always a sure sign of psychic balance.

The most tortuous aspect of it is the slow release of reviews, like a deadly spread of some toxic gas, undermining your glow of self-belief over a week or two. I have never been addicted to a drug but I imagine it would be akin with the undignified scramble to get online followed by the glum or gleeful hit that ensues. Four stars makes your day, two stars makes you head for Finland.

The proliferation of online reviewing has made this worse not better. More is not merrier – at least with newspaper reviews you know who counts and you know how long they take and you have a vague sense of where they might land. Blogs, websites, and message boards simply demolish your smugness more thoroughly.

Having now been through this on about ten occasions you might hope I could dispense some wisdom. I wish I could. But what follows are merely notes to myself on a good day:

  1. Assume the worst.  As a congenital optimist this is hard work for me. Like Jarvis Cocker I have been composing my own notices for some time and unsurprisingly they tend to the positive.
  2. Dont commit the inductive fallacy. I think Bertrand Russell came up with this term to unpick the logic that because something has happened before, it is likely to happen again. His example is the turkey who blithely assumes he won’t be killed for Christmas since a happy year has passed in the turkey farm and he is so far unscathed – but tomorrow is December 24th. There’s an admixture of rationality and the irrational in the process of being reviewed that must be taken into account. The fact that a critic has been kind in the past is no guarantee of anything – indeed, your luck may have run out. Journalists can’t afford to be predictable, they live and die by their copy.
  3. Don’t take it personally. OK, that was easily writ, but there have been certain reviewers in my career who I always imagined very keenly shooting up their hand in the editorial meeting ahead of my show, hungry to go forth and shaft me. But that way madness lies…because what if the good reviews also stem from some undisclosed personal tie? What if they’re just being nice?
  4. Never respond. Oh God, the hours wasted composing tart and uber-eloquent rejoinders, light as a meringue yet laced with toxins, or the fantasies of Berkoff-style punch-ups next time round. But pause, remind yourself what an arse you will look, and move on.
  5. There is no such thing as neutrality. Everyone has a vested interest in their judgement – your partner to shut you up and pre-empt your insatiable questioning, the actor whose arse is on the line and needs to look on the bright side, the right-wing newspaper with a certain constituency, the left-wing one ditto, the blogger avid for attention. You will never, ever get to the bottom of what you have really done.
  6. Nothing lasts. Yes, damage can be done. But here I am, the survivor of at least two collective maulings. Equally, the presumption that a pat on the back ensures plain sailing thereafter is unsound. Critics are no more nor less than another version of the audience. And as with the audience, even as everyone’s baying with laughter, someone will be looking at their watch; and when everyone’s baying for blood, someone will be smiling wryly to themselves.

Steve Waters’ play Little Platoons opened (with glowing reviews) at the Bush Theatre on 24th January. It is published by Nick Hern Books, as is his book on playwriting – The Secret Life of Plays. To view the full list of NHB titles by this author click here.

Why Publish Plays?

Do plays need to be published in the first place? Publisher Nick Hern looks at the how and the why, and what lies ahead in the age of ebooks.

Publishing plays is an odd activity – and at Nick Hern Books we publish a lot of plays: there are about 900 in print, and we add another 60 or so each year. It’s not glamorous like fiction publishing where you can be the one who actually discovers a brilliant new novelist. Nor is it essential, as it is to most writers, for whom publication is their only means of contacting their readership. A playwright’s chief conduit of communication is – and should be – the theatre. But a play publisher does fulfil a useful function in giving permanent form to an evanescent art, and thereby allowing many more people to have some kind of experience of a play than could ever see it in the theatre.

I’m often asked who actually buys playtexts. First, and most obviously, there is the audience. I have worked hard over the years to persuade theatres who stage new plays to participate in a ‘programme/text’ scheme whereby the text appears in the same volume as the theatre’s programme pages (with cast list, actors’ biographies, programme notes etc.). Anybody who has visited the Royal Court in Sloane Square since 1980, when they first made their appearance, will have been offered one of these ‘programme/texts’. Because of economies of scale and because by delivering direct from the printer to the theatre all the middlemen are cut out, we are able to reduce costs so that a book retailing at £9.99 can be offered to theatre audiences at less than half that amount. It’s a win-win situation. The audience gets a bargain, and the play finds its way into literally thousands more hands than it would if published without such a scheme in place. And this in turn means that producers, directors, actors, and above all teachers from all over the world have access to a play that they might want to make use of later – either in the theatre or in the classroom, or both.

Most of the plays we publish are, perhaps inevitably, premiered in London (though we do work with many touring and regional theatres as well, most regularly the Traverse in Edinburgh) but we need to stay aware that not everybody can get to the one theatre performing such and such a play for a relatively short run. Antony Sher writes in Year of the King (a Nick Hern Book, needless to say) that, growing up in South Africa, he was only able to feel at all in touch with theatre in England thanks to the plays being published.

Year of the King jacket

Year of the King by Antony Sher

It is amazing, looking back over thirty years, that anybody ever discovered what books were published when we had to rely on printed catalogues and the huge, encyclopaedic annual called simply Books in Print. Now, a visit to our website or indeed to Amazon will tell you in a minute – and if you want to stay right up to date, you can even go to our homepage and sign up for our monthly e-newsletter!

Playtexts also have a ready market amongst theatre practitioners, drama teachers and students, and amateur drama groups. Then, if we’re lucky, the play will start to show up on reading lists, set book lists and, when the stars are really in alignment, on exam syllabuses, which is recently the case with Kindertransport, a play we first published when it premiered on the London Fringe in April 1993. More than seventeen years later it’s a prescribed text for GCSE English. If you are a play publisher, you are in for the long haul.

KINDERTRANSPORT jacket

Kindertransport by Diane Samuels

Plays are by no means the whole story. We have an ever-increasing library of theatre books, almost all of which are written by theatre practitioners for theatre practitioners, whether these be professional actors or drama teachers in secondary schools. But plays will probably always be our bread and butter. The first Nick Hern Book was Nicholas Wright’s play, Mrs Klein, which opened at the National Theatre in August 1988 and went on to the West End and Broadway. It was particularly pleasing to see it revived so beautifully at the Almeida just over a year ago. And who knows, maybe that revival came about because the playtext was sitting on somebody’s shelf, attracting the notice of a younger generation. I like to think so.

The first edition of Mrs Klein, and the current one

As for the future, we are always on the look out for outstanding new plays from the professional theatre and for promising ideas for new books from theatre practitioners at every level. And with digital publishing now coming of age, we are about to launch our first ebooks, amongst them Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. Will this mean a sea-change in the rehearsal room as actors are required to bring their e-readers to rehearsal? I doubt it. But we know there’s an appetite for digital editions of our plays and theatre books, and not only amongst students.

JERUSALEM jacket

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth

Meanwhile there’s still a lot to be said for the good, old-fashioned book. It’s a pretty good invention. You can scribble on it, pull it apart, throw it across the room at the director, what you will. You can rely on it. For many people, it’ll take some beating. So for the time being, as well as ebooks, we’ll continue to publish editions you can put on your shelf. And from time to time I remind myself that there are more plays in print today than at any previous moment in history. It’s a comforting thought.

Look out for forthcoming posts on the NHB blog: Bruce Norris on his play Clybourne Park and administering a good punch in the face; Steve Waters on getting over a bad review; plus exclusive advice from winners of the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize. Sign up for RSS now.