The Guilty Prize Winner- Michael John O’Neill

Michael John O’Neill is a playwright and producer based in Scotland, and was the winner of the Original New Voice Award as the Bruntwood Prize 2019 with his play AKEDAH. Michael’s new play THIS IS PARADISE will be performed as part of Traverse Festival 2021 in Edinburgh this August. More information on THIS IS PARADISE can be found here.

 

In the end, there could only be one meeting before we all agreed to stay in our homes much more of the time.

It was on a Thursday in December in 2019 at the Grand Hall of the Royal Exchange in Manchester, not far from the spot where, just a month before, the Bruntwood Prize ceremony had taken place. I had won a prize as part of that competition, which consisted of a one-off £8,000 payment and a professional development budget of £5,000. I was meeting with Suzanne, Dramaturg for the Exchange, to discuss plans about how to allocate that development budget across a programme of activities in 2020. In the e-mails preceding the meeting there had been suggestions of international travel, residencies and a period of development on my award-winning play AKEDAH that might lead to a full production (should things, you know, work out that way). I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling 2020 was going to be my year.

The intention had been to find a quiet corner somewhere in the cafe area that flanks one side of the surprising lunar module structure that is the theatre itself. But this was foolishness. It was Christmas, and both the cafe and adjoining restaurant were brimming with patrons enjoying a lunch ahead of a matinee performance of the Exchange’s production of GYPSY: A Musical Fable.

Eventually, Suzanne spotted a couple of extra empty chairs at an occupied table under one of the module’s landing struts and panthered towards them through the crowded hall. When we approached – gesturing to the empty chairs – the older couple already sat at the table enthusiastically gave their thumbs up, introduced themselves as Iris and John, asked if we were also there to see GYPSY: A Musical Fable, and kindly turned slightly to the side and away from us when we explained we were attempting to have An Important Meeting. Kindlier still, they immediately began pantomiming as if they couldn’t hear a word of mine and Suzanne’s conversation, not that there was much that could have been interesting to overhear amongst talk of budget lines and travel stipends.

Towards the end of the meeting I was seized by a need to express to Suzanne a feeling of guilt I had about the award.

“I need to make the most of this” I said. “I don’t want this to be a waste.”

Suzanne seemed concerned. “How would it be a waste?”

I rubbed my face with my hand.

“I’m saying I feel like there are other people who would take this moment, and they would… uhh… use it.”

I interrupted myself by loudly groaning at the words coming out of my mouth. Iris gave a cough.

“I’m saying I think it might be right to remind myself that this is all very valuable, in a context, but that value depreciates. And and and that other people, I’m saying, they could have had this, and that is important. To keep in mind.”

Suzanne paused a moment, quite rightly ill at ease with the unmarked avenue I’d forced us down, and then instead of replying, swivelled sharply in her seat to face Iris and John.

“I’m sorry, do you mind, would you join us for a moment?” she said.

“That’s quite alright” said Iris. John wiped his mouth with a napkin and smiled at me.

“I thought you’d like you to know that you are sharing a table with an award-winning playwright” said Suzanne. Silently in my chair, I experienced major internal organ failure and died and was buried.

“Is that right!” said Iris and lightly tapped John on the arm with the back of her hand.

“Very exciting!” said John.

“Have you written anything we would have heard of..?” said Iris.

“Aaaaa” I said, before Suzanne interrupted “he has written a wonderful new play that just won an award here at the theatre.”

“Congratulations!” said Iris. John clapped his hands and then took a bite of his ciabatta.

“You must let us know when it’s on.”

“I will, thank you” I said.

“I’m sure it’s a brilliant play.”

“Well, aaaa, okay, thank you” I said.

 

I’ve often thought back to my meeting with Suzanne and Iris and John, and particularly that moment. It was sweet of them to intervene. And very natural. To hear a stranger express self-doubt and to say to that stranger ‘however much you may doubt yourself, at this moment, and without the need for evidence, I feel confident that you can do the thing you seem unsure that you can do.’ Such an exchange between strangers is one of the rare examples we have left of a relationship that is no way transactional. There is no risk, no reward. It is a kind of hope that you can leave untended on a high shelf and be content if you never return to it or ask anything of it again.

For me, winning this award had been a realisation of that kind of hope. I had written this play with a realist’s zeal. That I should enjoy giving it a moment, albeit a moment spread over two years of nights and weekends, and then I should expect nothing more from it.

Winning a prize complicated that. And I should clarify – those complications have mostly been top notch, I mean, I am super super pleased and in no way unhappy with receiving this support, especially in the context of such a ridiculous infinite-rakes-in-the-face time for the entire world. It’s meant that I had money in the bank right at the moment that was crucial; it’s meant that when my eyes were dribbling out of their sockets staring at a screen full of words for stages that might no longer exist I was connected via Suzanne and the Royal Exchange to artists I’d idolised and whose singular perspective and passion gave me purpose again. And it addressed something else, something fundamental to creating the conditions for more work. Where previously I had been stateless, it’s as if the Prize came along like some benevolent dictator of a non-aligned island nation and said ‘here you go fella, here’s a passport, check with your area administrator for the relevant papers and get yourself to work.’ But still – Iris, John, forgive me – there is guilt.

Perhaps as context, I should say I work as a theatre producer most of the time. I work in the cacophony of unrealised hope, very often on new writing and performance, and with artists who feel wholly alone in what they do. I’ve read and contributed to countless first attempts at funding applications over the years, and almost always the first barrier we need to traverse together is the applicant’s sense that they are undeserving in some way. That this is not for them. That their labour is worthless. Except for one time with an artist who sent me a first draft of a request for R&D money on a new play that was start to finish a stern letter directed at the funding organisation’s Chief Executive, by name, for presuming to get in the way of their art. It was an alarming strategy, and (in my opinion) unnecessarily scatological in its dominant metaphor. But we worked together to soften the tone and ultimately the rehearsed reading happened and was reasonably well attended.

But putting this aberration to one side, we are left with a broad feeling of worthlessness within the theatre constituency that is often described as ‘imposter syndrome’. But calling it ‘imposter syndrome’ elides the reality. Because on the face of it, our labour is worthless. It has been rendered worthless by a market that has been built to extract as much value as possible from a workforce without investing any of that back into infrastructure that could allow the majority of that workforce to expect basic things like employment rights, proportional remuneration, or even expectation of enough month-to-month income to own/rent accommodation within commutable distance of the sector’s only real physical marketplace.

And then to contend with that reality we so often make a spectacle of the scarcity. If you’re reading this, it is likely you are familiar with the following:

Many thanks for sending us
we received over
read by our team of readers
as you can imagine
thank you for your patience
we have considered
at this time, I’m afraid we will not
Though we won’t
we hope
Please
Best

I’ve received this text many times. As an administrator of awards and open calls, I’ve sent this text to others many times. At this stage I see this text as a naturally occurring phenomenon that’s been passed about within the genome of our subspecies for so long it would be difficult to determine a definitive starting point.

Gradually, as you become familiar with this phenomenon, you may start to feel sad. And if you check twitter on any given response day from a major funder, that sadness is clearly endemic in the working population. It replicates itself and creates the optimal conditions for future potential sadness. An important component of the writing-to-stage pipeline that keeps the pages well-greased as they slip along like merry yuletide swimmers.

If you, like me, are a completist and you let these e-mails take up permanent residency in your inbox, I want you to search back if you can, and pay attention to the number of applicants you keep seeing. You will agree, the number is always Quite A Large Number. Frequently the e-mails will mention that they received record numbers of applications this year. You may wonder, why am I being shown this terrible number? That is too many people. This is unbearable, I do not know how to cope. Close the door, I am weeping, I do not want you to see me weeping.

But for me that terrible number was also the ember of solidarity. We were all out there, like Iris and John, all hoping with no evidence that something in this world could thrive. And so the guilt is having, this once, without fully preparing myself, broken free of the number. Of being 1 of 1 rather than 1 of 1,308. I do not feel like an imposter, I know the script is good. The script is good because I spent time trying to make it good, and because fellow applicants made work that I am in love with and wanted to stand beside, and because others had time to help make it good. Jan O’Neill, Linden O’Neill, Rob Jones, Isobel McArthur, Rosie Kellagher, Katherine Nesbitt, Lucianne McEvoy, Lynsey Anne Moffat, Carla Langley, Callum Smith, anonymous reader from Playwrights’ Studio Scotland, anonymous reader from the Bush, anonymous reader from papatango, anonymous reader from Verity Bargate, anonymous reader at Theatre503. But the script being good doesn’t make it any less unsettling that in order to have the win, the only good work that is rewarded is your own.

 

For the day of the prize giving, the organisers get everyone on the shortlist together in Manchester. You’re put up in a hotel across from the venue for a couple of nights, and there is time baked into the process for you to meet with the other writers. Others of the terrible number.

My memories of winning the award are thin – other than the breathless shock of hearing my name read out and my wife Linden squeezing my hand with pride. But I still vividly feel the morning in the hotel and one of the writers recognising me from the programme photos and coming up and introducing herself and us talking, and feel still the walk between the photo call and the lunch and two more of the writers introducing themselves and us talking, and feel still the queue by the bar and another that I had not met yet introducing herself and us talking. I think as much about this as I do that moment with Iris and John, and as much as anything significant I’ve experienced in the past two years. In these moments the ember of solidarity is a five-alarm fire, and the fundamentals of a world where every one of our terrible number is rewarded for our good work feels heartbreakingly close.

Published on:
30 Jun 2021

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