This year the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting Judges decided upon a winner anonymously on Monday 23rd October. The winner and Judges Awards will be announced at the Award Ceremony (livestreamed from 4pm Nov 13th) In the run up to the ceremony we’re profiling all the shortlisted writers and their plays.
This is Not America- Joshua Val Martin
Idris lives in the shadow of his precocious sister Nusiba, seemingly unable to ever do enough to impress his Dad. His girlfriend gives him an ultimatum – find a job or lose the love of his life. Then he’s offered the chance to escape. To Mars. Idris can’t think why he’d want to stay on earth, but can think of many reasons why he’d blast himself into space and reach for a new future for the human race.
Joshua has completed the Royal Exchange Theatre and the SOHO Theatre’s respective playwrighting schemes. His play IN A TOWN SOMEWHERE NORTH OF MILTON KEYNES was lucky enough to make the Top-40 of the Bruntwood Prize 2015 and BACK SEAT BETTY was awarded ‘Best Play’ at the LOST One-Act Theatre Festival and ‘Best Drama’ at the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2015. His play A VOCATION (49 SCENARIOS FOR GAY MEN) has played this year at the Arcola, the Contact theatre, the Bury Art Museum and is being made into a film by Mann Bros. He has worked as a facilitator with the New Vic Theatre’s young company, and extensively with Staffordshire’s incredible Borderlines team.
What inspired you to write this play?
I was living alone in my dead Granddad’s empty terrace in Farnworth the week that both David Bowie died and Donald Trump won the US general election. The number eight bus journey into Manchester sometimes took in excess of an hour (that is, when it turned up). So perhaps unsurprisingly, I started writing something about leaving earth.
Sometime after, someone asked me to write a play for them. I asked them what it should be about. They said ‘I don’t know – you choose’.
So that’s what I started writing about – choosing stories.
Who was the real David Bowie – the thin white duke, the heir to Isherwood, the bisexual glam rocker, Major Tom? I was interested in the stories we choose to tell other people, to define who we are or who we want to be. And in the stories other people use, to tell us who we are. The kind of stories people tell about people who are no longer here – which felt all the more pertinent when sleeping in what was my Granddad’s bed.
As facts have become more abstract, the news apparently fake, stories have become more powerful, and the choices between them starker – Trump/Clinton, Refugees/Immigrants, Remain/Leave – it’s like choosing between staying on the planet we know, or blasting into the unlimited potential and promise of Space.
This isn’t exactly the play I ended up submitting anyway – I’d gone for a quick shower, when I came back and found that rain had poured through my window and onto the laptop. Of course, though I’d been working on it on and off for a year, I’d failed to back it up. I really wanted to make sure I got something in, so I decided to rewrite it in the four days until the deadline.
It wasn’t ideal, and not something I’d recommend, but it did give me an impetus to write without too much deliberating. I was pretty inspired having not long before gone to see Angels in America. There’s an audacity to the winding political musings and fantastically impossible images and scenarios, that gave me the confidence to write, without worrying, exactly what I pleased.
The other big inspiration for this quickly written draft was having just met someone Really Great, and having finally moved out and into a bedsit in Longsight – it made me think perhaps I didn’t want to leave the earth after all.
I still wanted to write something Serious, and Political – but also something with jokes and irreverence and action and stage directions I’d love to see on stage but hadn’t a clue if they were possible. In the end, my intent was to write something that would give an audience a good night out.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a playwright?
I’ve always written but I don’t suppose I’d ever thought of myself as much of a writer. I enjoyed watching plays by the Harvey Street Methodist Church players with my Mum – they were usually farces or thrillers, but I remember a good production of Talking Heads. I also loved acting in musicals at school, and with a youth amateur dramatics society. It was really though at University I thought about writing plays – I studied Music at Manchester, and as the course was never for me, I deferred to the drama department whenever possible. It was as part of the society’s annual festival that I saw a production Orphans by Dennis Kelly. I left wanting to write something that made other people feel the same way I did leaving that play. So when I found out the drama society took a play to the Edinburgh Fringe each year, I was given the motivation [deadline] to write my first play, ‘Strangeways’.
I was really lucky in that the actor who played the central role, Ellie Scanlan, knew plays and very well. We spent a lot of the rehearsals sat down, as she’d rip it apart and put it back together, teaching me how plays work. During the run itself, I didn’t do much on the writing front – I just loved sitting at the back and watching the audience – working out why things got laughs some nights but not others, trying to read the mood as people left. It was exciting, so I wanted to repeat the experience. I wrote and put on a few more in Manchester, where there’s a proper DIY ethos. I learnt a lot during this time, particularly listening to Theresa Heskins during a 3-month RTYDS placement at the New Vic Theatre – but I shall resist typing out my CV. A big turning point was sending one of my plays to Suzanne Bell at the Royal Exchange, who was kind enough to meet me to chat about the play, but more importantly she gave me plays to read. It was a bit like the Goosebumps books – if you like that then read this, if you didn’t then read that. I got onto the Next Stages playwrighting programme at the Exchange, led and mentored by the inimitable poet Louise Wallwein. From this group, I wrote a play that made the longlist of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize, and I haven’t stopped writing since.
How do you feel about being shortlisted?
Synonyms of happy and shocked – in my eyes it is Britain’s (Europe’s?) best playwrighting prize, launching some of my very favorite writers and plays – even more perfect that it is the prize based in the theatre that for many years I’ve called home. I can now more confidently say, when I’m asked by acquaintances what I do, that I am a playwright. I’ve also spent a lot of time smiling at the idea that the likes of Russell T Davies will one of these days have got home, made himself a pot of tea, popped the heating on, and then settled in for the evening to read my play.
What do you think about anonymity of the Bruntwood Prize?
I really believe that the readers would always want what they see to be the best plays to get through, whether they know the writer or not. What anonymity does is make the relationship only between the reader and the play – they don’t frame it in terms of what the writer has or hasn’t already done, who they are and how that might charge the text in a certain way. It means only the words on the page can do the talking, which is a rare and very exciting opportunity for a writer.