Setting: subtlenuance office, early May 2019
Me: What are these?
Award Admin: All the entries for the 2019 Silver Gull Play Award.
Me: Wow. That’s a lot of plays. What did you want me to do again?
Award Admin: Read them.
Me: All of them?
Award Admin: And choose a shortlist.
This year the Silver Gull Play Award is five years old. Reading all the plays entered into the award, and choosing a shortlist, was a fantastic experience and I learnt a lot. It was like enrolling in a Playwriting Masterclass.
So what did I learn as a reader?
For me reading equals magic. The page is a portal to new worlds. I love reading novels, poetry and non-fiction, but I also thoroughly enjoy the dramatic form. Although seeing a staged production of a play brings it to life in all its richness, reading the script when it hasn’t yet acquainted itself with actors and the theatre is a unique privilege.
Reading this year’s entries for the Silver Gull Play Award reminded me that when I read I like to forget where I am and what’s written on my ‘to do’ list. I want a thrilling journey to somewhere I’ve never been. I need to wonder what happens next. I need to be affected by what the characters do and say. I like to be given hope; perhaps to be shown a way to do the things that need to be done in order to keep our world spinning. I guess I like to feel inspired, and I feel short changed when a writer reveals their cynicism. I like to read what I would never write myself and to be surprised by imaginations wholly unlike my own. I also like to read things that I wish I had written and explore ideas that activate my own writing.
As a writer I learnt … The scripts that were entered in the award were all new Australian works. In fact the writers were all from NSW, so this is art made very locally. But that did not circumscribe the settings. I read plays set as far and wide as London and West Papua, plays set in the past and present, plays set in dystopian police states, apocalyptic futures, war zones, and escape rooms. As a result I learnt, that in our plays, we can be as adventurous as we like when choosing a setting.
I read plays with rich and poetic language, and plays with narratives based on ancient myths or medieval fairy tales. I read powerful stories of real lived experiences but also richly recreated fables probing zeitgeist issues. I was excited by the myriad of genres that plays were written in, including naturalism, satire, black comedy, farce, paranoid fiction, monologue, verbatim theatre and metatheatre. But I was also reminded that we playwrights can fall into the trap of telling rather than showing, resulting in plays that rely on individual characters to deliver simplistic messages, instead of the whole play fusing into a multifaceted understanding of an idea.
I read a lot of plays that were written like film scripts. They had extremely short scenes and the action zoomed quickly through time and space. Sometimes we use overly complicated staging, requiring blockbuster-like budgets, reducing the chances of the play being produced. And we’re tempted to write overly complex stage directions, rather than let the actors and directors interpret the action from the dialogue. I was reminded that theatre production is a work of many minds.
What about the big stuff? You know, the political and philosophical….
If this cohort of plays reflects our society in 2019, then we are very concerned about identity, political correctness, mental illness, physical disability and trauma. We want to talk about sex, sexuality, gender relations, rape, and domestic violence. We’re fascinated by power; who has it and how they use it. And we’re angry about its abuse, particularly when it involves children. I learnt that we have very strong attitudes about class differences, racism, the plight of refugees and the experiences of first and second generation migrants.
We’re grappling with the concept of art. We’re questioning the place of celebrities in our society. We’re exploring democracy and its perceived ills and alternatives. We’re discussing issues of law and justice. We have a love hate relationship with capitalism. There’s a sense of dislocation from the present and discomfort about the future. A few plays mentioned the big issues of the environment and climate change. There were plays infused with a reverence for nature and sadness for what we are losing, and others despairing at our collective inaction. There was an awareness of the ongoing drought and the sad plight of farmers across many parts of Australia. There was very little about Indigenous issues.
I learnt that we feel very strongly about important issues but at the same time crave simplicity. Perhaps this is an awareness of how complex our world really is. And perhaps that’s why as writers we choose the dramatic form which can encompass a wild variety of voices.
The Silver Gull is an award for a play that explores philosophical or political themes. After reading all the plays, I was excited to see that writers interpret this brief extremely broadly. Playwrights created characters and stories that entertained and influenced, and in so doing, said something that no one else could say. I learnt that writing can be an act of courage, and an irreverent remaking of what we are told reality is. It can be a way of taking action in the world.
It’s been a privilege…
I loved reading these new works. I want to thank all of the playwrights who submitted a play. Thank you for your courage and generosity in sharing your created worlds with us. It’s been a wonderful experience to read your work.
The 2019 shortlist:
I Damo by Pauline Bleach
Son of Byblos by James Elazzi
Field of Vision by Joanna Erskine
Breathless by Deborah Mulhall
The Deal by Kel Vance
The winner will be announced on 26 August.
More information about the Award can be found at: https://www.subtlenuance.com/silver-gullplay-award