A provocation- Tori Sampson
I was preparing for a performance of a play I wrote about the brutality catapulted towards blackness. Of course I was anxious. Every time members…
For many of us, theatre—writing it, writing about it, working with it, working in it—is less of a hobby, less of a job, and more of a sort of calling. Something we are part of because we must be. There’s the good, of course, the joy of seeing something special on the stage, but if many of us are being honest, there’s also the bad, the painful, and the difficult. Much of this negativity stems from the way so many people in both the industry, and our audiences, feel excluded from theatre spaces. More often than feels appropriate for someone who writes about theatre, who has a decade of watching plays under her belt, and who has been backstage at some the country’s most well-known venues, I too am someone who questions their presence often. How to change this? I’m not sure. But the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting hopes to challenge the spaces of our industry—both physical and not—by both platforming excellent work, but also encouraging conversation. The commissioned essays to follow are an important first step for this.
It’s an honour to introduce these six essays, from some of the best playwrights this country (and the world beyond it) has to offer. The writing explores some of the points that have come up again and again during the discussions around this year’s Prize; what stories should be told on our stages? How can we look at plays in different ways and not necessarily adhere to Western or heteronormative narrative structures? What lenses can we view work through? And what responsibility do writers have to the work and the writers that have come before you? There are no easy answers. But the following six essays, a precursor to the Bruntwood Prize 2019 opening for submissions, hope to get us closer to real solutions.
The first essay, from playwright and screenwriter Vinay Patel, poses a question of neutrality in theatrical narratives—who and what is seen as the default, and how can we challenge this? The privilege of universality is rarely afforded to plays that explore facets of the ethnic minority experience in this country, regardless of how common said facets (e.g. love, family, friendship) might actually be. “You can never really write stories for a mainstream audience. You can only write stories that become mainstream” Patel writes, adding “It’s less about forcing yourself into an accepted model and more about decentralising what is accepted.”
Many of the topics Patel covers in his writing are further explored in the essay that follows, from playwright and actor Daniel York Loh. What happens when what is seen as the default minority experience still excludes you? Writing about British East Asian theatremakers, York Loh looks at the idea of canon, and what legacies he can leave for the writers who are yet to come. His hopes for the future include helping to shape and form a canon for other East Asian writers to look to, in spite of the gatekeepers—of all races—that try to control the narrative.
While Daniel York Loh and Vinay Patel look towards the future, Kevin Loring looks more to the past. Responsibility is a heavy word, and in a theatre industry that is preoccupied with firsts (especially with regards to artists from marginalized backgrounds), looking back is more important than ever. For every ‘first X’, it’s important we question ourselves twofold. Firstly, is this person or persons really the first, or do we only think they are because the archives just aren’t there? And second, if they truly are the first, why is this—who came close, and who paved the way? Part call-to-arms, part cross-examination, Loring’s searing writing asks tough questions of the theatre industry and what we all consider hallowed texts.
So, what stories should we tell? In their essays, writers Sophie Woolley and Jo Clifford both ask and answer, using their personal experiences as creators and artists to examine both the burden of representation, and the power of creating. Woolley’s essay touches on the importance of accessibility, too; how can we expect diversity in writing if some people simply cannot even access work? Clifford, meanwhile, reminds us that we have no choice but to write plays from the perspective of who we are. It’s an important reminder that everyone, not just those from marginalised or minority groups, holds their own way of looking at the world. There’s no such thing as objectivity, and instead of fearing this, we must embrace the perspective we might not all have, but we all can share with the world in our writing.
The final essay, from American playwright Tori Sampson, brings us back to the idea of space. Who takes up theatre space, who owns it, and how can we disrupt this? Sampson’s viewpoint as a non-British writer is an important one, and brings to mind provocative questions about the UK’s own issues around race, in particular. Her writing also prompts uncomfortable questions about the way the UK industry programmes work; why are many major theatres more likely to programme plays by Black American writers than Black British ones? What versions of blackness, queerness, disability, and class status are seen as acceptable to the gatekeepers of our industry?
For the 2019 Bruntwood Prize, there’s a hope to see a varied and exciting range of writers submitting work of all kinds. As with these essays, the Prize are asking for brave work, work that challenges and provokes. Writing that makes joy, or pain, or neither, or both, come alive on the page. Submitting is the first step, but I acknowledge submitting isn’t the only one. Just as important is taking up space, and writing for both the audiences you have, and want.
The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2019 launches on January 21st 2019
Bridget Minamore is a writer, journalist, and critic. She is a contributor to The Guardian, Pitchfork, and The Stage, and her writing has been commissioned by the Royal Opera House, Historic England, Nike, and the Tate Modern. Bridget has read her work both nationally and internationally, was shortlisted to be London’s first Young Poet Laureate, is the youngest person and first woman to be lead tutor for the Roundhouse Poetry Collective, and is part the creative team behind Brainchild Festival. Bridget has been a Creative in Residence at The Hospital Club, as well as one of Speaking Volumes’ 40 Stars of Black British Literature. Titanic (Out-Spoken Press), her debut pamphlet of poems on modern love and loss, came out in May 2016.