What literary award? ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 08, 2010

What literary award?

The eyebrow-lifter of the week is the NSW Premier's Literary Awards. In particular, the decision by the judges of the Play Award not to release a shortlist, and instead to give the $30,000 prize to PlayWriting Australia, to "support professional development opportunities for new playwrights in 2011".

Perhaps they ought to spend the money instead on short classes for playwrights on entering awards. Of the four prize-worthy scripts Ms TN immediately brought to mind on hearing the news, only one was actually entered: the total entries, for an Australia-wide award, was 25 titles. However, judges in these prizes have the discretion to ask for scripts to be entered, if they think that significant works are missing from the mix; I can only presume this year that the NSW judges couldn't think of any.

Naturally, this has led to various bods asking whether local play writing is in crisis. No more than usual, I'd suggest. It does seem a perverse decision: even from the limited field on offer, Ms TN could have cobbled a creditable shortlist of at least three plays. One of which won last year's Louis Esson Prize in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. So, what do you think?

17 comments:

epistemysics said...

My initial thought was that perhaps the plays weren't very good that were entered, because I know that some awards occasionally don't give a prize away for a particular year because of this. Then I read this in the article:

"The judges arrived at their decisions "through a rigorous, independent process", said NSW Minister for the Arts Virginia Judge, adding that she understood the nominations for the category were "particularly competitive" this year."

So, unless 'particularly competitive' is code for 'bad', then I'm baffled by this.

Interesting that the money goes to PWA, who have, since around June (I think) last year, not been accepting any scripts through their 'PostScript' service. (Which would perhaps not be so bad except that a lot of theatre companies have redirected their script reading services through PWA.) Maybe the 30k can hire some more readers?

Anyway - I thought the whole idea of an award was to encourage new writing, etc, because people wanted to win the prize? I'm not sure how not awarding a prize can be seen as 'encouraging' in any way.

Okay. Rant done. (Not that I'm particularly angry - more bemused, I suppose.)

kit said...

Epistemysics, I'm equally bemused.

It is, I think, a troubling decision, and I've been trying to work out how it might have been arrived at. I can't think that it can be for a lack of worthy entries - as you pointed out, Alison, 2009 wasn't an especially lean year for Australian playwriting, and it stands at odds with the judges' reports of this year being "particularly competitive."

The thing that troubles me about it is that in essence what has occurred is the redistribution of funding from a direct financial incentive to an artist, to what is a relatively small amount of funds being distributed by another layer of bureaucracy.

Quite aside from the point that it is embarrassing to think that PlayWriting Australia is so short of funds that it should need to be the beneficiary of a one-off grant such as this one, or that this might be a somewhat patronising gesture towards the playwrights who submitted work (and I'm sure no one needs me to point out that financial rewards for playwrights for their primary occupation are few and far between, but hey, I will), it represents a governmental predisposition to fund an arts bureaucracy rather than artists - a predisposition that is particularly rife in the New South Wales government.

I don't for a second mean to thumb my nose at the excellent work that PlayWriting Australia does, often on the smell of an oily rag, but prizes such as this one represent a particular opportunity to a playwright. It is, to an individual, a large lump sum that might fund an extended period of time in which the writer might be able to work exclusively as a playwright rather than having to hold down a secondary job, as so many do. To set the precedent that prizes can be redistributed in this way is, to repeat myself, troubling. Surely we have development grants for professional development, and prizes such as this one for their stated purpose: "offered for a play or a work of music drama given its first production in Australia between 4 October 2008 and 2 October 2009."

Anyway, long-time reader, first-time commenter. But this one really got me.

Kit Brookman

kit said...

PS. is it PlayWriting Australia that the funds will go to? I looked for a mention of them on the Premier’s Prize website and the article in The Australian but couldn’t find one. Just thought I should clarify!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Kit & EP: puzzlement seems to be the general response. Especially on the "competitive" aspect of the entries: I really don't know what that could mean.

I see Currency Press has released a statement which makes the same point you do, Kit. To quote:

"The NSW government did make it clear they intended to keep money reserved for playwrights. ‘Rather than having the $30 000 forfeited, it goes to literary pursuits in the field – a grant for playwriting to support Australian playwrights’, said Premier Kristina Keneally. But isn’t it a little odd that a prize for work done has turned into a grant?"


And according to my sources, PlayWriting Australia is the chosen body.

The judge's decision (does anyone who know the judges were this year?) isn't the fault of the government, whatever else is. But the somewhat patronising encouragement of "new playwrights" does add to the cultural infantalising that seems to be something of the lot of those who choose to write for theatre. Development hell, indeed!

A friend did suggest they could jackpot the prize so next year's winner would get 60 grand. Woohoo!

Alison Croggon said...

I should probably make clear here that I do think that not awarding a prize ought to be an option when judging an award. But I do question whether this year's batch of entries merited such a rebuke.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, is there a published list of the 25 entrants?

shawjonathan said...

The list of judges for the awards doesn't specify who judged which award, but Barry Oakley and Peter Kingston were among the judges, and probably were two of the three drama judges

Alison Croggon said...

No, the list of entrants isn't published. I'm not sure it should be either, for the sake of the entrants. I have seen it, though.

Alison Croggon said...

...and thanks Jonathan. Wouldn't Barry be judging the poetry?

I don't know why the NSW PLAs are so shy about the judges. They're all listed at the top of the judges' reports on the Victorian site.

epistemysics said...

Perhaps they meant 'particularly competitive' in the way that a marathon run by fat, middle-aged men could be considered competitive - all of them would be close to each other, and it'd be quite the competition, but there wouldn't be much excellence on display. Though I'm guessing that's not the case.

And I must say, these sources of yours are very intriguing, Alison - they wouldn't happen to know where the safe is that they're keeping the $30,000 in, would they? A floor, room number, and combination would be quite helfpul. Not...not that I have any reason in particular for wanting to know. I'm just, you know...curious and all. Yeah, that's it...curious.

Chris said...

A question that doesn't seem to have been addressed yet is whether or not this is a permanent shift towards a 'development' award, or simply a one-off? If the quality of the works in 2008-2009 was strong, as it appears to be, then surely such a radical change in the NSWPLA approach couldn't simply be attributed to the discretion of these particular judges on the grounds of poor substance? It looks like something's-a brewing...

I guess I already tweeted my position yesterday, albeit briefly, but I don't think this is necessarily such a bad thing. I am biased as an emerging, rather than a professional and widely-performed, playwright. But I also think there are many awards available for finished product and performed work - the Richard Burton Award over at Black Swan Theatre the newest. At the same time there seems, especially in New South Wales, to be a lack of money purely for developmental purposes.

The parallel to the R.E. Ross Trust Script Development Awards in Victoria can hardly be ignored - it seems this new model, though we know practically nothing of it, will follow in the footsteps of that highly successful program. Some fantastic work has come out of it, too - as I'm sure you can attest, Alison.

Although suspicious at the altogether eradication of an award, I certainly think another script development program - this time for NSW residents - is a positive step towards cultivating new work.

- Chris Summers, http://theatargh.wordpress.com

Alison Croggon said...

Writing this again as the commenting software swallowed my last, after at first accepting it. A ghost in the machine... if any of you are having trouble, let me know via email.

Chris, to my knowledge this is an anomaly of this year, not a permanent shift. If it were, people should quite rightly be scandalised - one might as well scrap the lot then and send the money off to the Australia Council Lit Board. I'm all for the Ross Trust, which I think an unusually valuable award, but replacing in perpetuity a major literary prize with development would argue a stunning lack of faith in our theatre writing. (I see that today Nick Marchand, outgoing AD at Griffin, feels like me that there's a robust generation coming up that might argue the ground for a fair bit of hope). And since PlayWriting Australia is based in Sydney, it is a big call to say there's a lack of developmental support in NSW.

A couple of updates:

I've been told the quotes about the "competitive" entries referred not to the play award, but to the film scripts. So that solves that mystery.

Also, I've been squinting at the press release, which lists all the judges, if not what they judged. (Thanks, Jonathan). My best guesses for the Play Prize:

Gil Appleton - feminist and theatre historian
Peter Kingston - theatre director
Penny Gay - Shakespearean academic

They seem to be the names with connections to theatre. Any confirmations?

Chris said...

While I'd agree with most of that Alison, I was careful to refer to a lack of development 'money' and not support - I'd wholeheartedly agree that the presence of PWA in Sydney is of definite benefit to NSW new writing. But I was drawing attention to the lack of an R.E. Ross style award, which gives development money to be utilised in a fashion as determined by the writer. So their development can be moulded and sculpted to suit their own / their project's unique purposes, rather than those determined by a bureaucratic body or in a pre-determined program. All this outside of a formal Government-funded context - quite unique, indeed! It'd be great if it popped up in more places.

I hope the money from the NSWPLA will be distributed by PWA in such a fashion - if it is to be distributed on an application basis, at all?

Also, I wasn't sure of what you were saying with regards to Nick Marchand's comments, but I wouldn't think that there should necessarily be a correlation between allocated money for development and signs of a resurgent new writing environment? Especially since the pool of new writers haven't yet translated into a big shift in programming on our major stages. Development of new writing / new writers should always be a priority? My own bias shining through again, heh.

- Chris Summers, http://theatargh.wordpress.com

Alison Croggon said...

Agree with you (sort of - the best way to develop playwrights, in my humble opinion, is to get them working with theatre artists and putting stuff up in carparks and church halls and La Mama in front of actual audiences - pace Lally Katz and Declan Greene).

But development ought not to be conflated with acknowledgement of achievement. As you will discover when you become a "mid-career artist".

David Williams said...

Just to be clear - PWA was not consulted about this supposed transfer of the award monies. The first they heard of it was in the media. Which adds to the bizarreness of all of this. The other thing that might be interesting to note is that Arts NSW is now charging entry fees for some of their awards. Which may explain why there were only 25 entries for this one (though I'm unsure if the new charging policy included this award. The NSW Premiers History award now has an entry fee)

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks David. I wonder how PWA feels about all this? As puzzled as everyone else?

I just checked the 2010 guidelines - there is indeed an entry fee for all categories - $40, for each nomination. Does this mean that playwrights are poorer than other writers? Surely not poorer than poets? It would be interesting to know if every category were as sparsely entered. I've judged the Vic PLA poetry prize a couple of times, and the last time the entries seemed to cover every release in Australia - from memory, around 50 books. Maybe more.

5thwall said...

30K would not afford one full time reader let alone several...

if i was PWA I'd throw it back in the faces of indecisive, bureaucratic Premier's Award judges and throw a writing competition with three prizes of ten thou a piece for first time playwrights.

if that doesn't encourage someone to pick up a pen then nothing will

just an idea. it certainly doesn't seem like the people running the award have that many