Deciding to enter the Bruntwood Prize in 2015 was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I wasn’t going to. I’d entered twice before: In 2011 I took my first thing longer than a couple of pages and sent it in. It didn’t make the longlist – but for the first time in my life I’d written a play. In 2013 a version of what would become my play Four Minutes Twelve Seconds made the longlist of 100 which was thrilling, encouraging me to keep going with the play.
But in 2015 I didn’t have anything to hand in. What’s more I was working in an office and didn’t have any time to write anything new. I decided to skip it that year.
And then, about a week before the deadline, I changed my mind.
The more I thought about it the more I thought – this is one of the best opportunities in the industry and it only comes along once every two years. If I’m serious about eventually being able to do this job full time, I should get something in. Even if it’s bollocks.
I also thought it might give me the motivation to try something new. I’d had an old idea that I wanted to do something new to. To blow it up and start again from scratch. But like many people, if I don’t have a deadline it won’t get done. The Bruntwood seemed a relatively safe and (crucially) anonymous way for me to test if the new idea had legs, as well as giving me a concrete deadline to write towards.
I luckily had a few of days off work that week, so I sat in my local library and wrote and wrote, handing something in with about two minutes to spare. It was messy and strange and I would never have written it under different conditions.
It’s two years later and I’ve just handed in the umpteenth draft of that furiously written play, Parliament Square to The Royal Exchange. In a couple of weeks I’ll be submitting another one. That initial draft that I handed in in June 2015 has shrunk, grown, changed shape, been taken apart and been put back together again. Characters have been added and culled. Events have been moved around and disappeared completely.
And that’s the thing. It can be tempting not to hand a play into one of these competitions until it’s ready, until it’s perfect. But receiving a Bruntwood Judges Award was only the beginning for Parliament Square. The play was far from perfect when I entered and I’ve since learned that it didn’t have to be.
The draft I submitted was rushed, raw and unfinished. But the readers expect this. They know you’ve probably written it, unsupported, for no money around your day job. They know that winning one of the awards is only the beginning of a process where one of the best theatres in the world will work with you to make your play better until it – hopefully – reaches the stage.
Since receiving the Judges Award I’ve worked harder on redrafting Parliament Square than I have on anything before. I’ve been able to do this because I’ve never had a play have so many resources at its disposal for development – so many excellent people working towards helping me make this big, difficult idea stageable. Suzanne Bell, Sarah Frankcom and everyone at Royal Exchange have given me all the support I could ask for right from the beginning.
They partnered me early on with a director – Jude Christian – who is much smarter than me and understood my play and what it needed far better than I did. I was then lucky enough to be sent on a residency to The Banff Centre in Canada in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, where I worked with a group of Canadian actors and dramaturgs on redrafting. After that Jude and I had a week’s development time Manchester, where we first began to think about how the play might look in the Exchange’s breathtaking main space.
Even then, after all that, eighteen months on from winning and a full two years since I entered we’re still a long way from done, but with every draft (hopefully) we’re getting it closer to something that deserves to be put in front of an audience.
The best way to think about entering writing prizes like The Bruntwood is not that you might win something. It’s that you might get a job at the end of it. You might be given money to work hard on something you care about with incredible people. If you were in any other industry and your dream job was advertised, you’d cobble together an application even if you thought you had a slim chance of an interview.
I’m a very lucky man. Writing prizes – like job applications – are something of a lottery. So many plays are entered, some incredible ones are bound to be lost in the mix. So my advice would be to not write thinking about winning one of the prizes, or even getting onto a shortlist. That’s a lovely bonus. Think instead about the real prize – which is writing the thing you’ve always wanted to write. Being able to look at the first page and the last page and everything in between and think: I did that. There’s no better feeling in the world.
Plays aren’t written in isolation. Everyone needs support. Everyone needs motivation. Everyone needs encouragement to keep going. The Bruntwood Prize offers all three, in different ways. Making the longlist in 2013 probably had as big an effect on me as receiving a judges award in 2015. In an industry that can often feel frustratingly lonely and unsupportive when you’re starting out, recieving considered, encouraging feedback from the Bruntwood readers and the Royal Exchange’s literary department gave me the confidence to keep writing when I needed it most.
So if you have something, anything, and you’re thinking of handing it in – finish it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be a mess. Mine was. Trust your instincts. Show them something new. Get to the end, pick a hilarious pseudonym and send it in.
You have absolutely nothing to lose, and the best job in the world to gain.