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.
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