How are prize-winning plays picked? Theatre503 on the selection process

The judge’s Perspective: Steve Harper, literary manager at Theatre503

Steve Harper
Steve Harper

Throughout the process of the Theatre503 Playwriting Award we often have to ask ourselves what makes an award winning play, and how important is it that it is produceable at the theatre. Yes we put some restrictions on entries, but not on size, type or content. So amidst the 2,100 entries will we discover that winning play? Other work to produce? And more writers to build relationships with? And if so, how will we do it?

The success of our previous awards has set the bar incredibly high and from my perspective the challenge is one of ensuring the process is as vigorous, diligent and fair as it can possibly be. Amidst all those plays the idea that there is one award winner or five top shortlisted plays, is misleading. There are so many more than that. At a different time, with different readers, different drafts or alongside other completely new plays, would the outcome be the same? This is highly debatable.

Whilst I do believe that great work will shine, it may not shine for everyone, and so the process is such that if it shines for one, it will be given many more opportunities to shine for others. Amidst those plays there will be potentially great works that we miss.

Maybe the piece is not quite ready, maybe the plays it is read in close association with all promise more (or less, in which case a play may garner greater accolade than it deserves), maybe initial readers are too quick to judge, maybe one is too quick and the other just doesn’t like this ‘type’ of play – the reasons can be endless, whilst the time and the resources are limited.

But the process has been designed as far as possible to address these issues, to alleviate reader bias, whilst being open to subjective taste, to make sure that all plays get the greatest opportunity to find an advocate, and that those advocating have the opportunity to be listened to and have their personal favourites noted.

So how does it work? The plays are all read anonymously – as long as the writer has remembered to remove their name – and are considered and rated twice in the first round, with plays that have divided readers and those on the borderline between long list and pass, considered a third time. A further round sees each play read by another two readers and a third if necessary. This can mean that by the time we draw up a short list of around 30 plays, some of those plays, both in and out of the running, have been considered by up to six or seven people, myself amongst them.

In the early stage I confess that my role is largely having one eye focused on the potential future stars of new writing as they blaze into my field of vision, teasing with the excitement and anticipation of the promise they hold in store. Whilst another watchful eye is kept on those plays whose light gently flickers, attracting attention, but not yet revealing the full extent of their power. The privilege of being able to do this is thanks to the readers and the level of trust we have in the team and the process. Our 20 readers – composed of some long-term colleagues and some new friends, writers, directors, producers of all ages and from all demographics – are the true stars of this process, assessing over 200 plays each in a first round, then another 20 or more in a second, before reading all of the final 30. If reader bias is an issue, reader blindness is arguably more dangerous.

If the first round draws out the 250 plays that have managed to distinguish themselves on a first encounter, then the second aims to look deeper into the merits of each, whilst also of course simultaneously interrogating the decisions made in the first. Then a final round wherein the whole 503 team struggle to agree on the five plays that we will send to our always esteemed judging panel whose job it will finally be to choose the winner. There are always some decisions it’s easier to avoid.

So what will the winning play be like? I simply don’t know, why ruin the excitement?

Will it be a certain type of play? Well, who can say, but why limit ourselves or new writing?

But will we be able to find it? Will we produce it? And will we discover an untold amount of talent to invest in for the future? Absolutely yes! I can be certain of that.

Alison Carr
Alison Carr

The playwright’s perspective: Alison Carr – writer of Caterpillar – finalist in 2016

The idea for Caterpillar came from various places, different interests, preoccupations, threads and ideas converging. The play explores expectations and language around parenthood, family dynamics, relationships, the lies we tell ourselves and each other. It’s sad and funny and surprising, and the birdman festival setting brings a bright vibrancy full of hope and expectation.

I’ve been writing the play for a number of years off and on. I did some early development work with Manchester’s Monkeywood Theatre, starting to find the characters and story I wanted to investigate. Entering it into the Theatre503 Playwriting Award gave me some structure and a deadline to aim for and being shortlisted led me to meet director Yasmeen Arden and set us on this path. While I have also written for radio, theatre is my passion. There’s something so special about everyone being in the room together seeing the story unfold live in front of us, but each person bringing their own experiences and imagination to it too.

The world premiere of Caterpillar by Theatre503’s Playwriting Award finalist Alison Carr, directed Yasmeen Ardenby, takes place at Theatre503, London, on 29 August and runs until 22 September.