Guidance for Offies Assessors – Plays

PLAYS: Writing / Performance Piece / Production

New Play

for the best new play by any writer…

What to look for

The thing to remember about this is that the winner is not just a good play but a great play. There are many good plays, but very, very few great plays – plays with the weight and substance to compare with the best plays ever written. Remember that winners of this award in the past have included some of our greatest playwrights of recent years – and our New Play must be able to stand comfortably in their company.

You should come out of the performance not simply admiring the skill of the play, but with the certainty that it has given you a profound experience. In other words, it needs more than clever dialogue and arresting characters or even a fascinating theme.  Individual elements of excellence are not enough. It needs to combine all these to create a memorable whole, a whole which shakes your emotions and perceptions deeply. It is a play which changes you.

Originality is often a key element, the sense of a great creative mind at work. Nominations which cover familiar ground, or even go over new ground in a familiar way, are unlikely to win. Many have felt their hearts sink when seeing nominated plays and knowing within a few minutes how it will end, and how the characters will interact. But originality simply for its own sake is not enough. 

A winner a few years ago, Alastair Mcdowell’s Pomona, was highly original in its blend of science fiction and grim reality. But it wasn’t just its originality that earned it the award, but the power of the idea driving its originality. In other words, McDowall wasn’t simply being original for its own sake – but because his dystopian vision could not be portrayed in any other way. It’s the power and completeness of the vision that you’re looking for.

And don’t be misled by looking for originality alone. Another recent winner, Frank McGuinness’s The Match Box, was deeply conventional.  Indeed, it had the compelling power of a Greek tragedy – and that’s what earned it the award.

Look for a vision that goes beyond the surface of the dialogue, a heart that beats in the silences, and gives you the sense that what you actually hear barely scratches the surface – and leaves you longing to plunge deeper into the play’s world. 

In other words, don’t nominate a play just because you admire the writing skill, or enjoyed the evening, and want to give the writer a well-deserved pat on the back. Nominate only when you are certain that this is a play that will have a profound impact on all who see it, a play that will be remembered and revived for years to come.

Most Promising New Playwright

for first / early play that shows the writer has great promise

What to look for

Here of course you first need to check the basics. Look at the programme, research on the internet, ask the theatre, if the playwright really is new. It sounds obvious, but it is surprising how many quite well established playwrights have been nominated. The point of the award is encourage the next generation.

So we are looking for a fresh vision, a playwright who genuinely excites and surprises or delights. It’s the surprise element which is often key. You want that “Wow, yes!” feeling. And the sense that you really, really want to see what the playwright comes up with next.

Again, it is tempting to nominate someone who has done a good job, kept you amused, said something shocking, etc. But our promising new playwright will have written something that you know will make not just you but everyone who comes to see it sit up and take notice – this is a talent to watch. So don’t just think about whether you liked their work – but ask yourself whether other people will be excited (including jaded Superassessors).

Again, originality will play a part. Yet another play about soldiers coming home from Afghanistan, or teenage sexuality, etc, is not going to shake the world. The playwright needs to have a genuinely fresh vision, or a surprising new way of putting a play together (which doesn’t mean multimedia, which has been done for decades). By the way, beware of nominating a playwright simply because you identify with their views or recognize where they are coming from.

Although we’re talking about ‘promising’ playwrights, the level of accomplishment needs to be already very high.

So characters need to be fully-rounded and believable and scenes need to be concise, and dialogue sharp. The writing needs to be taut and well-honed. That means that every line needs to have a purpose in driving the story forward. The story needs to be well constructed, without redundant scenes – constructed so that you can actually see how elegantly put together it is.

Weaker playwrights will allow scenes to drag on, with rambling dialogue. They will also spell everything out at length. And they often have no sense of subtext – the story rolling on beneath the spoken text. So nothing is ever left unsaid…

Many new playwrights come particularly unstuck with monologues, beloved by actors but often hugely indulgent, and adding nothing much to the story. One clue to a writer who thinks in clichés is the dropping of pronouns in monologues. When you hear a character saying, “Went shopping the other day,” rather than ‘I went shopping…’ you know you’re in hack monologue country…

Performance Piece

This award recognises an exciting new and emerging genre.

The Performance Piece should:

  • Involve just one, two or very exceptionally three performers
  • Be an original piece
  • Be written and performed by the same person/persons (or in very close collaboration).
  • Be addressed directly to the audience, removing the fourth wall, and perhaps engage with the audience.
  • Share characteristics with spoken word, performance poetry and stand-up comedy, slam theatre, gig theatre
  • Be scripted, even if the script is fluid

It should not:

  • Be heavily set and space dependent – it could, in theory, be a performance in a back room with no set, just props and sound
  • Be a traditional character monologue or solo play
  • Leave the audience merely as spectator

The award for this piece can consider:

  • Short pieces. Ideally 10-15 minutes minimum
  • Several short pieces by the same performer as part of a short season or single evening
  • Pieces presented beyond conventional theatre spaces

What to look for:

  • The creation: We are trying to recognise the performer/s as creator/s of their own work.
  • The performance: A great performance that holds the audience, not great acting
  • Impact: memorable, highly engaging, deeply moving or exciting
  • Originality: has something new to say, or a particularly insightful or moving personal take.
  • Honesty and engagement: the performer gives something of themselves so you feel you have made a close or exciting personal bond with the performer.
  • Discipline: should not flag for a moment, or lapse into self-indulgence – it has to engage the audience continually.
  • Construction: should have a clear arc.

This is a new kind of award and new genre so there are no hard and fast rules yet. So these guidelines may change as it develops.

Production

The “Production” category is something that people have on occasion found difficult to grasp, but it is NO different from “Best Picture” at film awards. The feeling you should be coming out of the theatre with is the same when you come out of the cinema and you think you’ve possibly seen the best film of the year.

Another thing to point out is that it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Assessments have sometimes concluded that a show had to be Best Production because they had admired so many of its composing elements: the acting was uniformly very good the costumes were on point, the set was inventive etc, so it follows that it MUST be Best Production.

It could be argued that if you come to the rational conclusion that something is Best Production it probably isn’t. The process is the opposite.

You know instinctively that you’ve seen an outstanding show and your job as an assessor is then to step back and rationalise this feeling, by analysing how the individual elements all contribute to a whole and are in interplay with each other (in a Best Production, its individual components are in relationship with each other: they can echo, reinforce, sometimes deliberately contradict each other).

Yes, if you were to look at them individually, there probably wouldn’t be a weak link, but it’s not their individual qualities that, added up, reach the “Best Production bar”, almost as if you were adding up partial test scores to get an overall mark, but how they form the whole that makes you go WOW! when the lights go up.