Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting: the first ten years

The Bruntwood Prize is the biggest national competition for playwriting. With prize money totalling £40,000, plus the chance of a production on a major stage, as well as publication by Nick Hern Books, it’s a fabulous opportunity for writers. Since its inception in 2005, over 11,000 scripts have been entered, more than £200,000 has been awarded to 22 prize-winning writers and 16 winning productions have been staged. Here publisher and NHB founder Nick Hern reflects on what makes the Bruntwood Prize so special, while below we introduce this year’s winners and catch up on the Bruntwood Story with Exeunt Magazine’s podcast…

HernNICK HERN: Memory is an unreliable friend, but it tells me that the first thing I did ten years ago on hearing the announcement of the brand new Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting was to write suggesting that part of the prize might be to guarantee publication of the winning play by Nick Hern Books. I was very taken with the essential premise of the award: that no entry should have been performed or published before and that all entries were to be submitted anonymously, the identity of the winning author only to be revealed after the judges had arrived at their verdict. In other words the work was to be judged on its merits alone and not according to the expectations aroused by the author’s other work – or lack of it. This seemed to go a long way to fulfilling every writer’s desire to know whether what they’ve written is really, intrinsically, even existentially any good!

Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave, winner of the 2005 Bruntwood Prize

Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave, winner of the 2005 Bruntwood Prize

Anyway, my offer to act as ‘publisher by appointment’ was accepted, and so I found myself at the ceremony awarding the first ever Bruntwood Prize to Ben Musgrave’s Pretend You Have Big Buildings. True to our word, we had the pleasure of publishing it when the Royal Exchange, also honouring their commitment to stage the winning play, premiered it on their main stage.

I’m not going to pretend to remember the chronology of subsequent winners, but together they amount to a seriously impressive collection of brand new plays, each of which might have remained in their author’s bottom drawer had it not been for the Bruntwood. Indeed, in at least one case, the play would not even have got as far as that drawer: it would probably never have been written. Vivienne Franzmann tells the story that, as a career schoolteacher, she had been saying for some time that she was going to ‘write a play’ – but never had. Then, hearing of the Bruntwood, and realising the deadline was only a couple of weeks away (alert: unreliable memory at work), she set to it. The result, Mogadishu, opened to loud acclaim in Manchester and proceeded to transfer to London, thereby launching Viv on a new career as a full-time writer.

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann, winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Prize

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann, winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Prize

I am as proud of each of the playwrights we have published thanks to their winning the Bruntwood as if I had discovered them myself: as well as Musgrave and Franzmann, there’s been Matt Hartley, Fiona Peek, Andrew Sheridan, Janice Okoh, Nayla Ahmed, Louise Monaghan, Katherine Chandler, Anna Jordan, Gareth Farr and Luke Norris. In the same way, we ‘take on’ each of our writers in the fullest sense, publishing not only the winning play but also standing by to publish their subsequent work as well, as has been gratifyingly the case already with Janice Okoh (who won with Three Birds and went on to write Egusi Soup) and Anna Jordan (who won with Yen, but whose Freak and Chicken Shop have been published subsequently).

So Here We Are by Luke Norris, winner of a 2013 Judges Award

So Here We Are by Luke Norris, winner of a 2013 Judges Award

As the Bruntwood has grown in reputation and renown – and, it has to be said, in the generosity of the prize money on offer – my sense is that more established writers are submitting their work. In the early days we used to joke about a situation where Tom Stoppard, say, submitted a play – anonymously of course – and failed to win… Now, it seems, something like that really could happen, though, to the writer’s relief, only the administrator of the prize would ever know! Our latest winner, in fact, has already broken the mould in some respects: Luke Norris was already a performed and published playwright when he submitted – and won with – So Here We Are.

In its ten years, the Bruntwood Prize has already gifted a rich panoply of new plays to the world. So here’s to its next decade – and to ten more years of splendid if unreliable memories.


KatherineSoper

Katherine Soper, winner of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize (photo by Joel C Fildes)

Congratulations to Katherine Soper on winning this year’s Bruntwood Prize with her play Wish List.

Katherine, who currently works in a perfumery on Regent Street in London, was announced as the winner of the 10th anniversary Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2015 on 17 November.

Wish List is Katherine’s first play. She said: ‘This is the best boost of writerly confidence I could imagine.’

Congratulations also to the recipients of the four Judges’ Awards: Chloe Todd Fordham, James Fritz, Alan Harris and Kendall Feaver.

Find out more about the Bruntwood Prize at www.writeaplay.co.uk.


PODCAST: The Bruntwood Story

In this episode of Exeunt Magazine’s podcast Pursued by a Bear, produced in association with Nick Hern Books, Tim Bano takes an in-depth look at the Bruntwood Prize, following the progress of scripts from submission to shortlisting by speaking to judges, readers and writers.

Featuring interviews with: Michael Oglesby, Anna Jordan, Sarah Frankcom, Suzanne Bell, Andrew Haydon, Megan Vaughan and David Mercatali.

Podcast presented by Tim Bano. Produced by Tim Bano and Annegret Marten.

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PART 5: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

image of Andrew Sheridan

Andrew Sheridan receiving his award

Andrew Sheridan is a joint-winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for his play Winterlong – ‘a dazzling debutGuardian. Set in Manchester, the play explores what happens when a baby is discarded a few nights before Christmas. Sheridan is also an actor, and has appeared in award-winning TV, film and theatre.

How would you describe your play, Winterlong?

It’s a play that wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no bullshit with it. It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s direct. It’s like Mancunian people. We’re direct. There’s no flannel.

So a sense of place, of belonging in Manchester is important to you as a writer?

I’m Mancunian. I write with a Mancunian voice. It’s important. It always has been. It comes from a tradition, a history of having to search for beauty in the ugly. It has to be shiny and bold and revolutionary. Full of vibrancy and expectation. It has to speak louder than other voices not because it wants to but because it has to. It doesn’t have a choice.

How have you found the experience of working with the director, Sarah Frankcom, on your play?

Sarah Frankcom is without doubt one of the most important directors working in British theatre. She has such an understanding of me as a writer. She has always believed in my play and the characters that populate it. She has never wavered in her support and vigour to direct my play with truth and honesty and daring. I would trust her with my life.

It must be strange – as an actor – to be watching other actors do the job for a change?

Going from actor to writer is slightly weird – almost like trying to walk again or learning to ride a bike. It really hit me when we started casting really. I suddenly realised that I was on the wrong side of the table, and I was so used to walking into the room and seeing these three people, the casting director, the writer and the director.

And the cast?

Every one of the actors in Winterlong is the best there is. They are quality. End of. They all bring an amazing amount individually and collectively to it. I’m so lucky. They’ve all clicked into that Manchester vibe of thinking regarding the play and how they feel about it. “We’re all doing this and we don’t care if you like it or not. We’re doing it.”

jacket image of WINTERLONG

Winterlong by Andrew Sheridan

How does it feel to have your play staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre?

The Exchange is where I saw my first play. The Exchange is where I got my first acting job. The Exchange is the theatre that will premiere my first play. I can’t say how much this building means to me. It creates some of this country’s strongest and most daring theatre and all the people who work there are the best there is. They are all totally sound.

How important has the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition been to you?

I think the Bruntwood is the most important new playwriting competition in this country! You can enter the competition completely anonymously. No one knows who you are. It could be your first play, it could be your fifth play, it doesn’t matter, you will be judged on the merit of what you write and that is what’s so good about the competition.

Bruntwood are doing such a good job really considering the hard times that we’re going through economically in this country and the cuts to the arts. They’re  really maintaining what’s important for new writing theatre. It’s just so important at this time that this competition continues… Well done to Bruntwood for doing it and the Royal Exchange for hosting it!

Winterlong received its world premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, February 2011. It will later transfer to Soho Theatre, London, opening on 23 February 2011.

Next week: Bruce Norris on his multi-award-winning hit Clybourne Park – now playing in the West End at the Wyndham’s Theatre until May 2011 after a sell-out run at the Royal Court.

PART 4: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

image of Fiona Peek

Fiona Peek collecting her award

FIONA PEEK…worked for many years as an actress and director in Ireland, before returning to England and completing an MA in Dramatic Writing. Her first full-length play, Salt, was joint-winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition, and was premiered at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in February 2010.

Until you’ve had a play accepted and produced, you can’t really refer to yourself as a ‘writer’.

In 2004 I took a leap, and with no previous writing experience started a 2-year part-time MA in Dramatic Writing at Sussex University. My background was in theatre – performance and a small bit of directing – but for a number of years I’d been doing other things. The MA was a potential route back and, in the course of it, I began writing Salt. It was my first full-length play and to an extent I regarded it as an ‘exercise’ in naturalism (any work I’d attempted up to this point fell into the lyrical/surreal category!). Because it never occurred to me that it might be produced on a real live stage with real live actors, and most significantly, real live stage managers, I didn’t worry overly much about the practicalities of conjuring a 4-course meal every night (which said real live actors would be called upon to eat).

So at the end of the course, I had a difficult-to-produce play, which I knew to be unfinished and no real sense of what to do with it. I sent it out to a couple of the bigger new writing theatres and had positive feedback. But none of them was in a position to take it further.

Jacket for SALT

Salt by Fiona Peek

And that’s where Bruntwood came in. The extraordinary thing about the Bruntwood Prize is that it enables potential to be recognised and developed. What an amazing opportunity – to work closely with the literary team over a period of time to develop the piece to its fullest potential, to have one’s work produced in one of the most highly-respected regional theatres in the country, not to mention the possibility of one’s work actually being published through Nick Hern Books’ close association with the competition.

And then of course there’s the money, which often goes politely unmentioned, but which for me bought the time to pursue more writing avenues. Working at the Royal Exchange was hugely rewarding. Had Salt not been spotted by the Bruntwood team, I could easily still be touting it around – I almost certainly would not currently be writing for the BBC and working on my next play. So on some level, one could say that the Bruntwood Competition turned me into a writer… or at least someone who claims to be one!

Come back tomorrow for the final installment in our week-long Bruntwood Playwriting Competition blog special! Andrew Sheridan reveals why the Bruntwood is the most important new playwriting competition in this country!” – and what it’s been like to go from being an actor to a playwright with his debut play and 2008 joint winner of the prize, Winterlong.