Being a Judge #WritingCompetitions

I was absolutely thrilled (and not a little daunted) to be asked to be one of the judges at Sandalle’s Five ‘n Ten International Stage-writing Competition.

judge

The competition asked for monologues and duologues written on the theme of either a phone call or a letter, and the finalists had their pieces performed last Sunday by local actors at the rather wonderful Gwyn Hall in Neath, Wales.

The lovely Gwyn Hall

The lovely Gwyn Hall

After a rather long drive on Sunday morning, I spent a wonderful day meeting the organisers of this competition, the other judges and some of the finalists who had travelled from various parts of the country to see their work performed. I was astounded by the commitment these writers had shown, although not surprised that the entrant who lived the furthest away (Seattle) hadn’t made the trip.

The writing was wonderful, the performances by members of Neath Little Theatre and the Briton Ferry Little Theatre engaging and the dedication of the volunteers was inspiring.

It was incredibly hard to pick a winner, so we settled for two! I’ve been in a similar situation to those writers. I know what it’s like to find the courage to submit your precious work to a bunch of strangers and I did feel rather a pang of regret at having to disappoint so many writers. After all, we all know:

kill darling gif

But the winners stood out. The two pieces were polar opposites. ‘Etta’s Letter’ by Penny Jones, was fabulously performed by the wonderful Gerri Smith. The monologue summed up one woman’s life in so few words, was emotionally gripping without being melodramatic, and the performance actually brought a tear to my eye, sitting in this little theatre in Wales on a Sunday afternoon, listening to lines like:

I remember the whips and the dogs, the Nazi guards with their guns and dogs. After all those years, I still remember.  Dogs, straining at their leads, teeth bared. Vicious they were. Made us take our clothes off…not the dogs…all our clothes. Such a biting wind. I was fourteen, standing with my mother in the biting wind; I’d never seen her naked before.’

The other winner, ’Marjorie meets Gareth, Gareth meets Marjorie’ by Mark Hibbert was certainly lighter, dealing as it did with the issue of cold calling. A beautifully done portrayal of revenge (something I’ve longed for many a time when I answer the twentieth call of the day from a PPI firm), this was outstanding in the way the writer managed to make the voice of Gareth, who never actually speaks, so clear through the responses of Marjorie.

One of the things that really struck me about the day was the way the organisers had given up their time for this, for no material reward whatsoever (apart from coffee and some rather nice lemon cake). Their dedication and enthusiasm was contagious and actually quite touching. And I know that all over the country, all over the world, there are small groups of people, in reading groups, writing groups, just groups of like-minded people doing the same thing, who have got together to help promote and reward writing and creativity.

The other thing that struck me was the resilience of writers. This wasn’t a big competition by any means. The prize money wasn’t enormous. But these writers put their hearts and souls into it. They all clearly had a real passion for what they were doing. And I don’t think they worked that hard for a small shot at the prize money. I think that what they were looking for was validation, for someone to say, you’re good at this, what you wrote spoke to me, I get it. And isn’t that why we do it? Surely by now we all know that we’re probably not going to make a huge living from writing, that we’re not going to be J K Rowling or Hilary Mantel. But there is something so pleasurable, so gratifying about events such as these – celebrating the creativity and the passion that’s out there. Penny Jones, the writer of ‘Etta’s Letter’ is unfortunately unwell so couldn’t be there on Sunday, but Mark was there. He was absolutely thrilled when he won – the joy on his face was wonderful to see. I apologise if that sounds melodramatic or overly emotional, but it’s true. The whole day was an absolute pleasure – it was wonderful to experience so much great writing and so much dedication.

I’m delighted to have been asked to return to judge again next year.

If you’re interested in entering the competition next year, details will be available from January on the Sandalle website: http://www.sandalle.co.uk and at Gwyn Hall.

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