Playwriting competitions – showcase or short change?

Thursday, 16 April 2015 18:45

Playwriting competitions – showcase or short change?

by guest blogger Elspeth Rushbrook

A great way to earn money and start your career? Well, not exactly.

Many competitions work on the assumption that what you the writer most wants is to be seen, and to be able to put on your CV/resume and website that you’ve been performed. But competitions seem to work on the same principle as voluntary work: that doing is a reward in itself and substitutes, if not eclipses, earning. ‘We’re charities, we get little money’, competition organisers say. And yet they’ll charge the public a fee to see the performance and pay their box office staff, but not their writers, and I fear nor do actors, directors, composers or stage crew receive money.

Sometimes, everybody BUT the writer gets money - and they've spent the longest creating the play!

Here are some British-based national open theatre writing competitions whose rules and ethos I query:

Windsor Fringe’s Kenneth Branagh award. Three plays are chosen for performance, one gets picked as winner and gets money. So it means that plays 2 and 3 are performed without prize or fee and cannot be put into other competitions, which almost invariably ask for unperformed works – a point the organisers don’t understand.

They also charge £5 to enter, which must alleviate their costs. To see one’s play performed, you’d spend money on travel/accommodation and generally make a loss, especially if you are one of the two that doesn’t get any prize. But you’d want to attend, just in case you win, and to see your work. Or you make this a very local yokel competition, losing talent from further afield.

I suggested the £500 be split between the 3 plays chosen, say £300, £100, £100.

Their reply to my querying this was as petulant as it was ungrammatical. I won’t reproduce it without permission, but I did feel glad I hadn’t entered. They began with the classic “we’ve not heard anyone say this before” – immediately making you feel odd and isolated. But such feedback ought to be useful, for many of us simply don’t do something, and acceptance suggests acceptable, and makes it harder for the persons who do stand up.

They mention high costs of admin and production – so they are paying staff there?

And if room hire and publicity aren’t free – why is the use of someone’s writing (or other theatrical talent) considered something that can be unpaid?

Although they say nearly 50 people give up a weekend to read the scripts, it’s not comparable to the work put into writing (or performing) one; a weekend’s volunteering is not on a par with those trying to make a living from writing, through which competitions entry is the most obvious portal.

They ended – set up your own competition and see how it feels.

There’s a thought – and I shall not be doing any of the following:

Ticket to Write (a Beatles themed Liverpool based festival with Ace Drama) wants to control the copyright for 6 months and claims other powers such as editing - all for £10 submission but only £150 prize. They again use audience vote as a way of ensuring all shortlisted candidates allow their play to be performed, but only one will receive any money. You also don't see the submission form until you've entered your script.

Several option work for up to 18 months but don't guarantee performance, including the well known Hide Tide festival - which makes entrants sign up to online Ideas Tap before they can see the full details.

Lots perform entrant's work without any monetary prize including the 24:7 competition in Manchester, which has a hidden £20 entrance fee, and the Brockley Jack, a pub theatre in Southwark, London.

And the Bruntwood, the UK's biggest open playwrights' competition, is very vague about prizes. I wrote to them and didn't get a clear answer. In 2013, they awarded £16k to the winner, £8k to the 2nd prize, but the terms of their use of the plays were the same. So it seems they'd pay the runner up half but for a full length play with the same run and same option period (18 months, which is a long time, although it is allowed under Britain's theatre governing body, ITC's rules).

So yes, we appreciate time and money is involved in running the competitions (perhaps then literary departments rather than competitions are the best way to handle unsolicited scripts and new writing). As Cambridge-based WRiTEON pointed out – who don’t run an open comp – choosing winners implies losers and that some plays are more valuable than others. Are the resources spent on a competition worthy of the outcome, for any party?

I would ask the unperformed rule to be axed or amended to those who haven’t been commercially performed (ie remunerated, including prize money).

Copyright should absolutely be the author’s and optioning should be for a shorter period: these theatres know the prize is part of their calendar and how long rehearsals take. They shouldn’t need 18 months – meanwhile, stopping the playwright from earning with that piece. Optioning should mean a guaranteed run and fee. The ITC should change its rules to allowing only 9 months.

Winning a competition should always involve a performance, a fee – and clear terms without having to sign up or submit to see them.

The clearest, fairest rules for a competition were from Cambridge-based Menagerie who run the annual Hotbed competition. And sadly, this is the one who has had to withdraw the competition due to a shock funding cut.

Perhaps this is the real issue – that the arts are underfunded and undervalued, whereas money is spread to other areas many of us find less worthy, if not immoral (don’t start me on what they might be). But that funding cut shouldn’t land on the backs of the people who create what we see and hear.
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Elspeth Rushbrook previously guest-blogged for Artists Bill of Rights in December, 2014. You can have a sneak peek of her forthcoming novel here.