Simon Stephens Speech

Playwright Simon Stephens was announced as the Chair of the Judges for the 2011 Bruntwood Prize. Here you can read his speech at our launch event in full:

It’s a real privilege to be asked to chair this year’s Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. The last five years have seen an unprecedented level of playwriting in this country. Theatres throughout the country have committed to producing new plays by new writers to a remarkable degree. The Bruntwood Prize has been at the vanguard of this movement.

It is as exciting as it is appropriate that this evening’s launch should coincide with the last few rehearsals of Andrew Sheridan’s remarkable debut play WINTERLONG and with the opening night of Vivienne Franzmann’s brilliant MOGADISHU, the last winners of the competition. They are testimony to the impact and importance of this award. It means a huge amount to me personally to be here at the Exchange, a theatre that has staged four of my plays in the past and that in the past decade especially has positioned new plays at the heart of its artistic policy.

It’s a curious time for theatre and potentially a troubling time. The savagery and suddenness of the cuts made across the public sector by the Tory led government has been startling. Theatre has been and will be affected by those cuts as severely as will the army or the police, education or social services. The consequences of those cuts may seem less alarming than a school or a community centre being closed, or a soldier in Helmund Province or an ambulance driver in Longsight being poorly equipped. But I don’t think we should think of ourselves as playing a kind of cut back Top trumps with other public services. We’re all threatened. The wealth and energy of the theatre culture in this country dignifies us. It has for the past four hundred years. We’re a better country for it. The particularity of the playwright in British theatre is unique. It has made British plays the envy of the world in a way that say British footballers aren’t. We’ve found something that as a country we appear to be good at. I think that’s something to value. I am nervous that the savagery of those cuts could damage the conditions in which playwrights have been able to work. And subsequently, in effect, that something valued is threatened.

Theatres face contraction and that contraction may result in a more tentative approach to programming, as necessarily cost and marquee casting opportunities become considerations even in theatres with a determined artistic policy.

The Bruntwood Prize allows and encourages freedom and confidence in form and content in a way that may seem increasingly difficult to sustain elsewhere. This is an opportunity for more playwrights than any other competition allows to write exactly the play that they most want to write at a time when that confidence becomes increasingly difficult to support.

While I am nervous about the fragility of the conditions of work for playwrights over the next five years I am also fascinated to see how playwrights respond to these shifting conditions and this shifting country. Some of the most startling plays of the last fifteen years have been born out of a particular relationship between the writer and the country. Playwrights have been disappointed or ironic, searching or uncertain. Certainly that uncertainty has defined a lot of my work over the past ten years. I’m not sure that uncertainty is appropriate any more. When I read plays by writers younger than me, the plays of Mike Bartlett for example or here in Manchester Alistair McDowall, I find an anger and a confidence that I think my own plays have lacked. Certainly it sits under the energy of Andy and Viv’s plays I think.

I wonder if that anger and that confidence has become a more necessary position to take. I am fascinated to see how it will manifest itself in the plays we read for the competition this year. Playwrights at their best are a counter-intuitive disobedient bunch. I don’t expect and certainly don’t hope that we will find plays dominated or even defined by lengthy angry monologues or polemic. But I think there will be a change in the ways in which playwrights use and juxtapose metaphor and image, structure and dramatic action to explore that which they want to explore or say what they want to say. I think this year’s Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting could be at the vanguard of that change. The plays we read could offer us an insight into those shifts in this country that is as illuminating and energizing as the shifts are unsettling.

In that sense I can’t wait to start reading.

To read Mark Brown’s Guardian blog on Simon’s remarks, click here.

To read Lyn Gardner’s blog on Simon’s speech, click here.

Comments

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  2. Simon’s remarks concerning the state of the country and the response of play wrights is dead on. We are serious and we are very angry but in times as desperate and uncertain as these I feel we need to have and write something that the people can laugh about lifting their spirits if only for a little while. If we can do that in a time like this as well as report on life and issues taking place I believe we are doing our jobs as writers and as entertainers of the people afterall writting stories and conducting plays is one of the oldest and greatest forms of entertainment that has ever existed on this planet and we should be justly proud of that fact.

    by Emma Ashford - February 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm

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