Bruntwood Blog: Round Five by Tommo Fowler

All plays are submitted anonymously to the Bruntwood Prize and are read by an expert panel of readers appointed by the Royal Exchange Theatre. The readers as a cohort have a broad range of experiences and specialisms to try and give each submitted script the best chance. The cohort of readers is made up of theatre professionals, skilled in reading scripts. They include directors, designers, dramaturges and literary managers at leading producing theatres, actors, national critics and theatre commentators and previous Bruntwood Prize winners.

Tommo is a freelance dramaturg for text and production.
He is co-founder of script-reading and dramaturgy company RoughHewn, Visiting Tutor on the MA Playwriting at City University, and a member of the Dramaturgs’ Network Advisory Board.
He has worked as a reader at the Royal Court, Sheffield Theatres, Bush Theatre, Finborough Theatre & Theatre503



Bruntwood Blog: Round Five

Round 5.
It’s a strange one.

In previous rounds, readers are still hunting for that play the shows them world as if for the first time, the play that somehow shifts our expectations of what theatre can say or do – and, when we find them, we carry the torch for them.

There’s massive pressure on this part, though: we’re actively making choices, deciding whether each play should go forward or whether it shouldn’t. We could literally change someone’s life.

By Round 5, it’s different: we know which hundred plays are on the Longlist.
We’re not making those choices any more.
This is a script in the top 5% of the plays that were submitted.

So Round 5 is an exciting prospect.
It’ll be way easier, I think – less fraught with doubt.


For this, we don’t have the luxury of just writing a few notes to other readers –
for this, we have to write a response that’s going to go directly to the writer themselves.

And when I start to think about what that actually means…

oh god what if i phrase something badly?
or what if it doesn’t make any sense?
or what if i’ve just totally misunderstood the play?

i can’t ask the writer about it
and frame everything in response to what they tell me

i can’t take it back what i write
or change it or rephrase it

what if i say something laughably stupid?
or impenetrably pompous?
or too simplistic?
or too academic?
or just irrelevant?
or –

what if i let down the whole bruntwood prize?

what if i let down the writer?

what if one day i meet the writer?!?!
and what if they say
“yeah that bruntwood feedback really pissed me off
/ knocked my confidence
i’ll never work with a dramaturg now”

oh god oh god
i should just get in the bin
and never say anything to anyone –

– are some of the things racing through my head.

I might be wrong, but I bet all of us felt something similar – because if there’s one thing I’m starting to learn about dramaturgs, it’s that none of us can deal with the idea that we have (or should have) The Answers™.

And whilst we can compensate for that in face-to-face meetings, where we can adapt and work things out in the moment, having to write it all down is a whole other ballgame. And you can only imagine how that escalates when you’ve never met or spoken to the writer, and in fact don’t even know their name – and they don’t know the first thing about you either.

Because dramaturgy only really exists in dialogue, right?

It’s a process of asking questions, listening to the responses, then asking more questions.
It’s a curious, rigorous and collaborative conversation designed to unpack a playwright’s aims for their work, and to support them in articulating those aims in the clearest, most dramatically potent way possible.

How can that happen if we can’t talk directly?
Well, I don’t think it can.

I can’t pretend like I’m the Final Arbiter of Structure or whatever – I’m just a dramaturg, sitting in front of my laptop, trying to figure out what might be useful.

So that’s why the little introduction that playwrights get before they reach what we’ve written is so important. I’ve copied and pasted it because I love its phrasing so much:

…we wanted to get in touch about your play and give you a sense of the responses to it through the reading process. The aim of this report is to suggest where the play really impressed and excited us and where we feel there’s potential still left to explore. This isn’t intended as a set of notes for a next draft or instructions on how to ‘improve’ the play – we don’t believe we have the right to make those assumptions.


It says, ‘Sure we’ve read a bunch of plays in our time, but you’re the expert on yours.’
It says, ‘We just want to explain what’s been going through our heads as we’ve read this.’
It says, ‘We’re here to help if we can.’

That’s something I can work with.

And that “we” is my favourite part, because it’s completely accurate: Round 5 readers get an incredible document that tells us what everyone else has thought about the play.

Suz and Chloe, who facilitate and administrate the Bruntwood, go to great pains to bring together a group of readers with diversity of identity, experience and artistic practice – and I really can’t tell you what a gift it is to get all the brainpower of such a smart, generous and insightful bunch of people.

Sometimes I find that we’ve agreed entirely, and I get a massive rush at seeing how the work has resonated with others.
Sometimes the thing I’ve been struggling to articulate is just phrased perfectly, and I’m massively thankful that such clever people have given me a key to interpreting the work – and thankful that I get to learn new languages for talking and thinking about plays.
Sometimes, if I’m being honest, we disagree so profoundly that I start wondering if we’ve read the same play.

But at the end of it all, the document the writer gets really is a synthesis of what we, collectively, over several rounds, have thought about the play – even (especially?) when we’ve disagreed.

And I really hope, dear playwright, that all this thought makes for a genuinely helpful response.
I hope you feel we’ve done right by you and your work.

I hope you can feel how engaged we were by it, how much we admire you for writing it.
I hope you’ll march up to producers and directors and buildings, and get your play on stage.
I hope I get to see it.

I really hope that.

This is the best bit of being a reader: the imaginative worlds we spent time exploring in cafes, on trains and (let’s be honest) with a cuppa on the sofa, are about to be made real.

In fact, some of the plays I’ve had the privilege of reading are already programmed in seasons around the country – and I can’t wait to find out how they’ve grown and developed through collaborations with other artists.

I’m booking my tickets.
See you there?

Tommo is a freelance dramaturg for text and production.
He is co-founder of script-reading and dramaturgy company RoughHewn, Visiting Tutor on the MA Playwriting at City University, and a member of the Dramaturgs’ Network Advisory Board.
He has worked as a reader at the Royal Court, Sheffield Theatres, Bush Theatre, Finborough Theatre & Theatre503


13 Jan 2020


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