Phase one reader blog- JN Benjamin

All plays are submitted anonymously to the Bruntwood Prize and are read by an expert panel of readers appointed by the Royal Exchange Theatre. There is an extensive five stage process to the reading before creating the shortlist. 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.

As each script proceeds through the phases of reading it is addressed by a diverse team of readers. The Royal Exchange manages the reading process to ensure that each script is seen by readers with different ages, genders, work history, ethnicities and interests. The aim of the Prize is to find great plays in whatever shape or form they appear so the entry criteria are deliberately broad to allow first time writers and more experienced playwrights to be assessed on a level footing. We hope that in carefully administrating the reader demographics we ensure no script is overlooked due to an unconscious bias towards a particular way to tell a story.

 

JN Benjamin is a writer from south London. Follow her on twitter @reviewsandtings. She has been reading for phase one. 

 

In the first episode of the relatively new BBC drama Years and Years, one of the characters says: stories help us to make sense of the world. Of course everybody learns and processes information in different ways but that statement is one that is definitely true for me. That stories help us to make sense of the world is a thought that’s becoming more and more prominent in my life – especially as a person who now spends a significant amount of time trying to make sense of stories on pages and on stages; and, particularly against the backdrop of what’s going on not only here in the UK but in all corners of the globe.

 

It’s one of the most interesting – and in many ways, special – things about being a Bruntwood reader; that the work of these 2561 playwrights together paint a distinct and unfiltered picture of what it is like to live in 21st century Britain – about the concerns and preoccupations of the nation. It was often affirming – as a well educated British Black woman who not only both articulate and eloquent, but also one that dares to be all those things on a public platform – I am often regarded with suspicion and oddity – my life experiences are unrelatable and my fears and concerns are gaslighted. Scripts like mOTHER and Hello Ted were like a balm to that feeling of being The Wrong Thing In Every Situation – tender, nuanced depictions of the Black British experience to match my tender, nuanced experience of being British and Black.

 

It was scary sometimes, too. In the 50 scripts I read, I came across (too) many that included some sort of violence against women. It ranged from nonchalant verbal abuse to full on and intricate storylines of kidnapping and sexual assault. I was also alarmed at the amount of casual flagrant racism I encountered – scenes peppered with the n-word and basic plotlines that require a black or brown person to be some sort of terrorist. I wondered thought process the person who used the n-word went through before they typed it – were they Black or White? Woman or man? I also wondered if the one about the kidnapping was written by a man with a sick fantasy or by a woman processing a traumatic experience. Whatever the reality – it was a stark reminder of how much more dangerous the world can be for some people than it is for others.

 

Most of all, the process was illuminating. One of the things that really stood out for me was casting breakdowns. More did than did not call for very specific representations: blind or partially sighted actors, gender non-binary actors, physically disabled actors, trans actors, women actors over the age of 35, black women actors, queer actors – all groups of people who have historically been largely absent from UK stages. I recently had a conversation with a prominent artistic director, who expressed frustration at the UK theatre industry’s lack of response to some of the most significant events of the past five years. I agree with that sentiment. I believe theatre has a duty to respond to the heres and nows of modern society. That isn’t me saying that every single play that is programmed at every single theatre must offer high level social commentary – sometimes theatre is can and should be just for pure unadulterated fun – but rather that there should be some level of reflection of society as it is in the back catalogue of British theatre. Seeing so many plays created specifically for these people – demanding for them to be seen, for them to be heard, for them to be acknowledged, is in my opinion, an excellent thing.

 

Being a reader for the 2019 Bruntwood Prize made me realise that the lack of response that artistic director spoke of is not because there is a lack of material to work with. Of course there was a spectrum in the standard of competition entries but what was absolutely clear is that there is an abundance of new writing talent out there – much of it ripe for development, but some of it ready to fly. My only hope is that the powers that be in our theatres are paying attention.

 

 

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22 Jul 2019

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