This is the second time I’ve read for Bruntwood. In the two years since the 2015 competition I’ve been struck by images from those plays at the most unexpected times. It’s the images you remember, long after specific lines have dissolved in your memory. A flock of crows, a deserted train station, deck chairs in a lethargic summer. Moments of action or of stillness which somehow encapsulate all the surrounding words at once.
Characters too, who you see queuing at the post office or driving an uber or sitting outside the British Library. There are others, of course, but maybe you never meet them because of where you go or who you are, or maybe it’s because those people don’t really exist; they were just narrative tools, plot devices.
The one I remember most clearly is the girl who arrived in a new place, searching for someone or something. It all felt very dreamlike, very unclear, but the specifics didn’t matter to me. I felt like she did: as if there was a certain jigsaw piece just out of reach, and a hard-working, methodical approach would surely complete the puzzle. I remember feeling overwhelmed with sadness when she never found the thing, whatever it was, enough to make me wonder if the whole story was really an exorcism of grief.
I’ve mostly forgotten the shit ones. The ones that bored me or made me angry or made me want to march out the door and have it out with the writer, ask them if they realise the damaging effect their words can have. I’ve moved on from them – something I try to remember now, as I start my 2017 reading and immediately hit a seam of new plays that trample on women, patronise us, imprison us, use us as therapists and secretaries and cum socks. Plays which specify the body shape of actresses, right down to how ‘perky’ the nipples should be, then write more developed roles for intergalactic mutant frog-men. I look forward to forgetting all these too, as soon as I possibly can.
As I read I think about the male gaze, and what that might mean for images that aren’t even quite images yet. In the visual arts, John Berger wrote about the way femininity has been defined in by its surveyor, by its collector, something which is somehow made strange by the act of reading. In film, Laura Mulvey explained how the camera lens becomes gendered – a heterosexual man. Women’s active spectatorship is taken from them by angles that position their bodies as objects of desire
In the most troubling of the plays I read, I feel myself becoming complicite in this gendered viewpoint. As I read I am being stripped of my own femininity, made to think like a teenage boy, forced to look down on the women who are my equals and comrades. I try to resist ‘watching’ the characters as I read, instead hoping that they might live as they wish, that they might retain some kind of fluidity – perhaps they will perform differently for another reader.
The critic and academic Jill Dolan, author of the Feminist Spectator blog at Princeton University, exercises ‘critical generosity’ when she writes about theatre, or art, or tv. In the past people have balked at this – it’s not ‘real’ criticism if you only talk about what you like (etc etc YAWN) – but Dolan’s ‘generosity’ has allowed her to prioritise work which is underrepresented in the canon, or deserves celebrating for its fair representation or progressive politics. She expends her energies only where they are warranted, redistributing attention and praise. As I sit in judgement of each play I read for Bruntwood, I ask myself what the most critically generous decision would be. What do I want to celebrate? How do I want to redistribute attention and praise? What responsibility does a playwriting prize even have to the world?
When they arrive, the answers to those questions appear almost unexpectedly. They hit me like sudden rain, like seeing an ex in the supermarket, or hearing a favourite song from my school days through an open window. Or in a different way: like a discovery, a cure for an ailment I didn’t know I had, a secret that I’ve uncovered but that I’m not allowed to tell. I type a feverish love letter into the feedback portal, press submit, then go and read it all over again.
Perhaps they clean a lens for me, shake the ground I stand on a little. Perhaps they take my feminist gaze and they turn it, point it towards another intersection, to another voice and another perspective. Remind me of my class privilege, my insider status, my whiteness. These are the stories I yearn for but could never articulate my need for. The plays that make me question everything, starting with myself… these are the plays that are most urgent of all.