“Live performance is what’s left to bind us together en masse.”

Paul Allen, writer, theatre critic, and judge for this year’s Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize, describes the thrill of a first night – for both the writer and the audience.  

Being in a big audience at the first performance of a new play is a bit like a mass blind date.

Everybody’s a bit anxious but hoping for a good time, preferably with a bit of a laugh and possibly with a lasting result.

There’s no other public event quite like it. Having a good time at a football match is only possible if some of the people there have a bad time – and I don’t mean the club owners who’ve just tried to put up ticket prices.

You can have a good time at a party but not everyone’s invited (and you can’t be sure there won’t be a fight or somebody’s mate won’t throw up in the toilets at the end of the evening).

On the first night in the theatre of course the throwing up in the toilets happens earlier, and it’s probably the writer. There’s this huge upside-down pyramid of people; an audience of hundreds at the top, a score or more of theatre workers from the admin staff to the folk who’ve found the props and built the set in the next layer down; the company of actors who are about to go out and do the thing; and the poor man or woman who started the whole process off by having what seemed like a bright idea at the time is at the very bottom, like Atlas supporting the world.

That’s how it can feel anyway. It could be the best night of his or her life or it could be the very worst. All down to how well (or otherwise) he or she has done. Talk about a blind date.

But there’s no better place to be when it works. Now that religion and politics rarely bring large numbers of people together in a rapturously shared experience, live performance is what’s left to bind us together en masse.

Liverpool’s provided a few of those key experiences for me but I’m thinking especially right now of the first night of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. I was reviewing it but enjoying it too much to take any notes that I could read afterwards. I know people kept asking me if I thought the show would transfer to London and thinking yes, it probably would, but this was the least exciting thing about it.

I’d been caught up in the songs, the comedy and finally the tragedy of a great popular work which actually said more about the world I lived in than all the message-laden political drama of the time.

A great story, well told, shared in a packed house. And I think I was probably a little in love with Barbara Dickson.

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The judging panel

 

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Ian Salmon (right) with Liverpool's Royal Court Chief Executive Kevin Fearon at the inaugural award ceremony.

“My business card says playwright and nobody can argue with that.”

Ian Salmon discusses how being Highly Commended for his play The Comeback Special has impacted on his career, and why he’ll always keep that unread winner’s speech close at hand.  

I’m not going to lie to you, I had a winner’s speech printed out and folded neatly in the inside left pocket of my suit jacket. I could claim that it was there ‘just in case’; a safety net in case I was lucky enough to need it. In case I was lucky enough to be the one of the ten finalists at the presentation that won the prize itself. It wasn’t there as a fallback. It was there because I felt that I was going to win. Take that as egotistical if you wish, it’s not, it’s belief.

I entered the inaugural Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize with my play ‘The Comeback Special’ because I wanted to win it. I had no idea whether I could write comedy, no idea whether I could be funny; still wanted to win it though. Wanted to be good enough to win it.

Why? Well….prestige, acclaim, production, money obviously but mostly the prestige, the acclaim and the Royal Court. Always the Royal Court. I’m not sure how many of the final ten were Liverpool born; I know of another two at least. I’ve no idea how many of the two hundred that entered the competition were Liverpool born but those that were know that the Royal Court is special. Really special. I entered because I wanted to win, because I wanted to have my work at the Royal Court.

I grew up in the Court. Every great gig that I saw in my teens and twenties, I saw in the Court. Before it was an amazing theatrical venue, it was an amazing gig venue. The Bunnymen so many times, the Teardtops, OMD, Big Country, The Icicle Works, Kraftwerk, REM twice, U2 twice on the same tour, Bowie. Saw Bowie at the Royal Court. More special now than it was then. I played the downstairs bar with my band, always wanted to graduate upstairs.

The Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize is a way to graduate upstairs. The Prize is vital because it’s for comedy, because comedy is so much of what Liverpool has always been, it’s a prize that represents the city, that represents the people, that partnered with a theatre that’s for the people before everything else. It’s a prize that can recognise the work that appeals to the people that need to be at the theatre but aren’t sure it’s for them.

That’s the work that I want to do, that’s why I wanted to win it.

The night flowed. Food was excellent, wine was ignored – I had a speech to hopefully deliver, company at the table was wonderful, the other writers – dotted around the room and bumping into each other occasionally – became a loose and supportive community for the evening. The ten plays were announced, brief details given. The brief synopsis for mine (‘Robbie would prefer not to speak to the dead and definitely not to this bloke who thinks he’s Elvis’) drew a laugh from the room. A hearty laugh, a big laugh and I thought ‘this could be happening’. The awards edged toward announcement, starting with the Highly Commended writers. The first name appeared on screen and it wasn’t mine. And again, I won’t lie to you; I sat at the table thinking “don’t let my name be next, don’t let my name be next”.

My name was next. My wife squeezed my hand and looked delighted. She told me when I sat down again that she wanted to jump up and scream because she was so happy, so proud. And then she’d seen my face. And I was doing the ‘Oscar nominee’ face. I was doing the ‘Joey from Friends’ award night’ face. Was I delighted? Of course I was but I wanted to win. So much. The first year of a theatrical award that sits second in size only to the Bruntwood? Obviously I wanted to win.

The speech stayed in my pocket. I mumbled a carefully rehearsed ad-lib about how ‘my wife spends every lunch hour with this man’ gesturing at the host, Radio Merseyside’s Roger Phillips ‘but I’m fine with that’ and thanked everybody that needed thanking. Lost in the feedback created by my leaning in too close to the microphone.

No Royal Court then. Yet. It will happen. They don’t know it yet but it will happen. Writing is a form of magic; put the words down, create your world and make your world real. Writing an acceptance speech? It’s practically a spell to create success.

So, a year on, am I delighted at receiving one of the two Highly Commended Awards at the first ever Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize? Of course I am. There were three prize winners from two hundred entrants; I was one of those three. For my first full length play? Come on, that’s incredible. That’s success. The framed award is on my wall, in front of my desk. It’s there every time I write. It reminds me. Want to know what that award has given me? It’s given me prestige. You put scripts in front of people and you have the fact that you achieved this as your calling card. You can call yourself a writer and nobody can contradict you; that piece of paper in the silver frame proves it. People take you seriously. You’re not a guy working in a shop who has a script, you’re a playwright. My business card says playwright and nobody can argue with that.

What have I done since then? My second play, Venus Rising, written after The Comeback Special but produced before the awards were announced, played in the 2014 Page To Stage Festival and will tour this year. My third, Half The Sky, was nominated for ‘Excellence In New Writing’ at Buxton Fringe festival 2015 where I also won the best short film competition for my film Slip Away (a thousand views on YouTube in four days, watched and retweeted by some very interesting and famous people).

Play number four premieres in September, as does The Comeback Special whose initial production is planned to come from the Hope University alumni drama society in the marvelous Capstone Theatre. Play number five is with a local theatre, I signed a contract on my first non-fiction book, and I’m nearing completion of my first novel.

What does the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize Competition give you? The belief that you can do it. The belief that you can do anything that you want, the belief, the knowledge that people will take you seriously. And when the moment comes that you decide to take an absolute leap of faith and put your scripts in front of a major Hollywood agent, the fact that you can say ‘I am the recipient of the Highly Commended Award at the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize 2015’ helps you receive the reply ‘happy to read them’. Yeah, I did that.

Write the story you believe in and then believe in it. It’s amazing what happens. And write your acceptance speech in the belief that you’ll need it.

Picture: Ian Salmon (right) with Kevin Fearon, Chief Executive of Liverpool’s Royal Court at the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize award ceremony.

Follow Ian @IanRSalmon

Ian Salmon – The Comeback Special – Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize 2015

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Katie Mulgrew: Workshop Week

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Last month my Liverpool Hope playwriting prize went into workshop. I didn’t really know what to expect. This is the first play I have ever written. A play that I’ve only ever read out loud to myself, often to the confusion of fellow coffee shop customers. It’s the only piece of writing I’ve ever ‘finished’. I say finished, winning the prize has begun another writing process. Except now I’m no longer alone in it. Since winning the prize I’ve been in constant communication with Kevin and Jess from the Royal Court and Matthew from the Unity theatre. Their enthusiasm and support for the play has been unfailing.

We all discussed that the play needed further development and re-writing. We all felt the next natural step in moving forward was to have a workshop week with a director and actors. So last month I found myself in a warehouse, in a part of Liverpool that at least two taxi drivers found difficult to find with a bunch of very talented collaborators.

Our chosen director was also a fellow writer, Bob Farquhar. What was brilliant about Bob was he could approach the week from both of those creative mindsets.

As a writer, he could spot where the strengths and weaknesses lay in the story arc and with the characters. The play is a farce so as a director he wanted to explore the pacing and at what points in the play could the comedy of the situation be really exploited?

Bob rounded up our quite frankly, brilliant actors.

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We all collectively spent a lot of time working through each character. Asking questions relating to each of their actions. Why? What if? How? Is this true to their character? What do they need? How do they change?

We explored different outcomes to these decisions through improvising. Seriously, some of the actors improvisations were way funnier than the stuff I’ve spent years writing. Yeah, I really hated those guys!

What was fascinating to me was how one even small decision about a character could then affect the entire play.

We pretty much spent the week pulling the play to bits so I could then go away and put it back together a far stronger piece. I like to think we  effectively ‘Robocoped’ the play!

Seeing the actors performing the words I had written just how I imagined that they should be said was such a thrilling experience for me as a new writer.

I came away from the week with my mind whirling and excited about re-writing the play.

 

Katie Mulgrew
Katie Mulgrew

Katie Mulgrew
Comedian, Playwright and Winner of the 2015 Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize

Lancashire comedian Katie Mulgrew won the first Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize for her play Omnibus, which is due to be staged at Unity Theatre before a possible transfer to Liverpool’s Royal Court in 2017. Katie has taken two solo stand up shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She has been the support act for The Boy With Tape On His Face and Vikki
Stone, written for the The News Quiz and featured on the BBC Radio 2 documentary series, The History of British comedy. She has also been in episodes of the CBBC show, The Dog Ate My Homework. Katie recently launched Mum’s The Word Comedy Club, which hosts monthly parent and baby afternoon comedy in Manchester. She hosts ‘The FunnyGirl Podcast’ and is one third of the ‘Animates’ podcast.

Playwriting Prize Now Open

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The second Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize is now open for entries.

One comedy writer will walk away with £10,000 and the opportunity to have their play considered for production by Liverpool’s Royal Court, while up to two Highly Commended awards of £1,500 will also be on offer.

New judges for this year include comedian and actor Les Dennis, playwright Amanda Whittington, editor of The Stage Alistair Smith and last year’s winner Katie Mulgrew.

Returning to the judging panel are screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce, Royal Court Chief Executive Kevin Fearon, Playwright and critic Paul Allen, Liverpool Hope University theatre expert Dr John Bennett, and the Liverpool Echo’s arts editor Catherine Jones. The panel will read the final ten scripts and announce the winner in Spring 2017.

The Stage and the Liverpool Echo have both been confirmed as media partners for the 2016-17 Playwriting Prize.

Budding playwrights have until May 31st 2016 to submit their comedy stage play. This year’s competition is open to anyone over the age of 18 in any UK territory or the Republic of Ireland.

There is a £20 entry fee.

Scripts (in PDF or Microsoft Word format) should be uploaded to the Liverpool Hope University Online Store at store.hope.ac.uk from 10am on Thursday 18th February.