You pay your money, you ship your script, you wonder if you’ll ever hear again – how do you know a playwriting competition’s worth entering?
Well here’s a positive, frontline report from one of them. The Pen is a Mighty Sword international playwriting competition, run by the LA based company Virtual Theatre Project, had good words passed around about it on blogs. Their website checked out as something real. I had what I thought was a great little play that I wanted someone to notice so it seemed worth a punt. Off it went into the 2006 competition. Back came news of its winning (one of the runners up spot, so some prize money and a staged reading) … and I’m penning this in Charlotte Airport, North Carolina, on the way back to England from that stage-reading week.
(Check late February 2007 for tales of the production itself. This posting aims to be more general.)
First, I’m impressed how real the love of theatre is among the company. It’s a genuine operation out to promote new voices in theatre. As Kim Terrell, the artistic director (in centre of picture), tells me, this isn’t necessarily new writers, but new voices, maybe established writers trying out new directions. The judging process is blind, no names attached, and from what I’ve seen no parameters are set over the type of play they’ll choose – the literary manager Whit Andrews (here in black leather jacket), on the back of a lifetime in theatre, is simply open to good writing.
One play nabs the number one spot, a bigger cheque, and gets a full production. Two runners-up get the staged readings, while a number of honourable mentions get real feedback and support. I still want that full production of course, but I’m very happy with the process I had. The whole process was timed to the very day to suit me wonderfully, as I was freed from a rush of other commitments. A long journey flew me into North Carolina, a car journey through a night-time landscape saw me installed in a hotel, and my world was reduced to that hotel room and Wake Forest campus for a week … an epic journey resulting in a focusing-in rather than a broadening-out. It was terrific just to be detached from the normal run of life and delivered into a creative theatrical mindset for a week. The company of people was truly lovely. As a bonus that crucial element of my next play, which I’ve been edging around for years, even slotted into place in my mind. New home, new friends, no outside cares for a week, it made for a fine parallel world.
A bonus of the prize, not trumpeted in the promotional materials as I read them, was the provision of the flight and accommodation – it’s a week of star treatment in that way, being feted for your writing. I was ready to enter into revisions, but that isn’t the way of these staged readings. The compressed time doesn’t allow for it, but the philosophy is more constructive than that. The company aims to take what the writer has produced, even if there’s some instinct to get in there and edit, and work hard to make what is written work just as it is. That’s one of the best results of the process … seeing how effective what you’ve written is in reality. There’s time to go back and change it later if needs be, when it’s back to being just you and the text.
The company runs workshops with drama students and I joined in, sitting on panels and running a couple of workshops. On the final night dance students took an hour’s workshop from me on movement and text, and in an ensemble run by their professor delivered a brisk, clean and enthusiastic dance piece. My own patented drama workshop, collaborative writing and producing of a three act play inside three hours, came next. I breeze into the process, shifting the workshop guidelines according to the group. It’s always worked so far, remarkably, different people writing different voices simultaneously then coming together to find it has all cohered into a play somehow. It’s a fun rabbit from the hat moment, delivering the finished article to an audience – the fun coming from their enjoyment.
Each playwright brings something different and effective to the residency, I’m told. This is theatre, it thrives on shifting dynamics. I can’t see any playwright (well not quite true, belligerent cussing souls might be an exception, but …) not growing and developing through the process. I look forward to seeing where my play goes from here … and where I go too.