Why Do Prizes Like The Popcorn Writing Award Matter?

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Popcorn Writing

The Popcorn Writing Award for new play writing champions work which playfully and artistically questions current affairs, societal trends and contributes positively to public debate. Set up in 2019 by Popcorn Group, the award was established to support new writing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and submissions for this year’s awards have just opened.

Last year, Jennifer Lunn was awarded the Popcorn Writing Award for her play Es & Flo, which follows a lesbian couple who have secretly been in love and living together for over 30 years, when Es begins to show signs of dementia.

Popcorn nominees go against the grain and challenge the status quo, rewriting debates and bringing new perspectives to the forefront. It shines a spotlight on writing which represents contemporary conversations and relevant debates and issues, bringing these narratives to a wider audience. This is more essential for theatre now more than ever, at a time where independent, new productions risk falling through the cracks.

Typically, mainstream award ceremonies like the Olivier Awards celebrate work featured in the West End or larger productions which have been continuously running for decades. Last year for instance, Andrew Scott won Best Actor at the Oliviers for Present Laughter, a comic play written by Noel Coward and first produced in 1939. The Oliviers emphasise reviving classic or traditional theatre, rather than introducing new work, with most nominations each year going to re-runs or long-standing productions. The Popcorn Writing Award focuses on newfound excellence and fresh thinking rather than popularity or status.

The award helps to ensure that theatre continues to change to match both its audience and the wider world, heralding new generations of writing talent. This is vital at a time when theatre and the arts are clearly not a government priority when it comes to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of the pandemic, theatres were required to close their doors in March 2020, with many remaining closed for almost a year. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced its £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund in July to rescue culture and heritage organisations at risk of financial failure. However, mainstream conversations about protecting the arts tends to focus attention on larger, more recognisable institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company or West End theatres, rather than independent venues and companies that are more likely to host new productions. Most notably, Andrew Lloyd Webber became the face of ‘save the arts’ from last summer and up until and including present day for his pledge to save theatre, appearing on BBC Breakfast, BBC News and appearing on The One Show before Christmas to promote Cinderella with Carrie Hope Fletcher.

As valid as Lord Webber’s comments are, his focus and that of the BBC stories that picked up on his argument centred on how it is vital to save West End theatres and established, historic venues, as opposed to local or independent theatres more likely to host and recognise new writing.

Additionally, large broadcasting outlets have consistently focused their coverage on Shakespearean productions returning to the stage, further reinforcing the idea that ‘traditional’ or ‘classic’ theatre must return and new theatre has been forgotten. During the pandemic, ITV News covered stories about Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet, and an interview with Sir Patrick Stewart. In the interview, Sir Patrick discussed the importance of bringing back regional theatre, but the headline read “even if I do a one man show, I shall perform it at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.” This places classic, established theatre on a pedestal, transferring focus away from regional theatre and the struggles smaller organisations have been going through during the pandemic.

With insecurity about grassroots theatre comes uncertainty on a wider level. According to Freelancers in the Dark, 72.4% of theatre workers are much more pessimistic about their future in theatre. Their concerns include poor job security, lack of support, and worries about loss of opportunity and personal capabilities. The Popcorn Writing Award and other prizes like it can help to reduce this pessimism, not just by promoting new theatre and allowing new playwrights the chance to excel, but to continue reminding us that new theatre is vital for a healthy UK arts sector and should receive the same recognition and status as the rest of the industry. The more ingenious and pioneering UK theatre can be, the more a sector as a whole will thrive.

It is as important for playwrights to express their own stories as it is playfully cover societal trends or current affairs, and equally significant that audiences are able to witness them. If these awards were to dry out and new productions were never to be funded, theatre would run the risk of becoming stagnant and detached from audiences.

This year, the winner of the Popcorn Writing Award will be awarded a £6,000 prize fund and a guaranteed slot at one of the partnering venues, including Assembly Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, Summerhall, Traverse and Underbelly. Asides the obvious appeal of seeing their work performed live, it is a heavily coveted lifeline of financial support at a time when new works cannot be commissioned and performed in the same quantity as years gone by. The symbolic and practical significance of such prizes cannot be overstated — just ask any aspiring writer.

Words by Millie Lockhart.


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