J.N. Benjamin on reading

The Bruntwood Prize closed to entries on June 6th. We were delighted to receive 1890 scripts. Since that date out large cohort of around 150 expert readers have been working on reading every script.  There is an extensive five stage process to this reading. You can read a bit more on the reading process here: How do I enter? – The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting (writeaplay.co.uk) 

This year- readers also participated in some new training- written by a group of people who work across theatre, diversity and inclusion and human resources to support readers with their task. Of course it has been drawn up by a limited number of individuals, so we anticipate in a cohort of over 100 readers people will find their experiences and ideas about reading differ. We are not looking to create a homogenous reading model but instead to offer some though provoking resources to prepare readers specifically for the Bruntwood Prize reading. 

In today’s blog- long time reader and part of the new reader training working group J.N. Benjamin about the process and her own perspective in reading. 


Every two years The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting enlists the help of around 150 people to take on the mammoth task of reading all of the scripts submitted to the competition. In 2022 the total number of submitted scripts was just under 2000, to be read (and re-read) and rated over a period of 4 months. Readers sometimes take on more than the average number of scripts if they’re assigned to a number of rounds, but most people read in just one round – it all depends on availability. For each edition of the Prize individuals in the group of readers are selected from all walks of life – some, like I am, are theatre industry professionals whose job it is to regularly think about what makes a good script, while others are those with a love and enthusiasm for the theatre arts.

This year the Prize piloted a training resource for their team of readers. The resource was built over an extended period with a group of contributors from a range of different social backgrounds, and consists of a series of prompts and provocations which are split into different sections. It’s designed to interrogate the process of picking out a good script by encouraging introspection and critical thinking. In addition, the training intends to draw attention to where we, as readers, may have bias – either positive or negative – so that we’re consciously aware of it during the selection process. I was part of the group that contributed to the content design of the resource as part of which we spent some time talking about plays which focus on specific societal ills and how they can be the most contentious to judge – especially in an anonymous competition.

Some years ago I was reading a script for another playwriting competition and it made me frown. The script in question featured a White and British-English protagonist whose character – by the writer’s own admission – was “inspired by” a certain far-right political commentator. The driving plot point of the play, which was assigned to me in one of the later stages of the reading process, was that every Black person and Person of Colour living on an unnamed island was responsible for the climate crisis and the only way to solve it was to ‘send them back to where they came from’. The central protagonist spent the majority of the play chasing Black people and People of Colour to the edges of said island, in hope that they would be encouraged – not so gently – to leave.

That script went on my reject pile.

I often think of that play when there’s any sort of conversation about censorship or freedom of speech within an arts setting. The purpose of theatre is to entertain or to educate – and in my view, this script did neither of those things. What it did do, though, is platform hate speech against specific communities. It was alarming to me that the play had made it through a number of rounds, each person before me considering that it was a suitable contender to win. I thought about the Black people and People of Colour who would have to be cast in this play and how it would feel for them to have racial slurs relentlessly flung at them – performance after performance, night after night. I also

thought about the Black People and People of Colour who would be drawn to fill the audiences after seeing the publicity photos, and what the experience would be like for them. I concluded that the potential harm to those people far outweighed any potential good that could come from the script.

It is without doubt that I felt so strongly about this particular play not advancing further into the competition because I am Black. The writing – in my opinion – was not clever, or funny. It just perpetuated the most gross racist stereotypes. But do plays with elements of racism contained within them have a right to exist? Of course they do. First of all, everybody has a right to talk about racism. It doesn’t mean they should. Or even that they’ll do it well. But they definitely have the right to form opinions on the subject. Also, and perhaps more importantly – everybody is affected by racism. Some people are affected negatively and some people are affected positively but the actual effects of racism are felt by every single living person on the planet. Talking about that in a theatre play is one of many great ways to explore and process that fact.

I am talking about racism here because that’s a part of my lived experience but that can be substituted for ableism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-semitism, misogyny or any other so-called ‘protected characteristic’ (I say so-called because how protected are these people, really? That’s another piece of writing for another time). But scripts that feature racial slurs, or violence against women, or outdated stereotypes about disability should not automatically be bound for the scrapheap. It is definitely possible that the inclusion of any of those devices could contribute something essential and/or illuminating to the general discourse about their subject and the job of the reader is to discern that. My biggest takeaway from the process remains: as a guiding principle, context – and intent – is key.

The version of the reader training that was rolled out this year is not perfect; it continues to be a work in progress. When the Prize opens again for entries in two years’ time, there will be an updated version for the next group of readers. We never set out to create a thing definitive nor final – our only aim was to encourage deeper and more critical thinking around the reading and selection process. In my opinion it’s a really great initiative and I am glad that The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting has committed to doing this work. I hope more scriptwriting initiatives follow their lead. And I also hope all of the incredible playwrights that submitted their scripts this year and will submit their scripts in the years to come will be pleased to learn that their words are being handled with such care.


j.n benjamin is a writer, broadcaster and multidisciplinary creative from south london. follow her on twitter and instagram @reviewsandtings.

Published on:
21 Dec 2022


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