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‘It all starts with an idea!’ | Monica Newton on the Distell National Playwright Competition

In just a few days, the finalists of the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition will be announced. Following a call for entries the competition, which is managed by the National Arts Festival (NAF), received more than 200 scripts. From these entries, a panel will choose five finalists, each of whom will receive a cash prize and the opportunity to further develop their script for final adjudication with an industry mentor.

playwright competition South Africa applications

Ahead of the finalists announcement, we spoke with CEO of the NAF, Monica Newton, about this year’s competition, the challenges faced by writers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what kinds of stories are being told by South African scriptwriters.   

Hi Monica, thank you for always taking the time to speak with us. We’ve spoken a lot over the past two years about what it’s meant for the performing arts to reinvent and redefine itself in the absence of stages, but how have the past two years impacted the ones penning the plays – the scriptwriters?

Monica Newton CEO National Arts Festival Makhanda 2021
National Arts Festival CEO, Monica Newton

It might be expected that the COVID-19 lockdowns gave writers the space and time to think and write, and to some extent that’s true, but writers have also been hit hard by the economic impact of the pandemic. Not having an income isn’t always conducive to creativity, added to which, grants and opportunities were scarce. Despite this, we’re seeing great stories emerging and the reflection and searching we have all navigated during these last two years has seen a record number of submissions this year.

The Distell National Playwright Competition was founded by Distell in 2018, and is managed by the National Arts Festival. Over the years, what kinds of stories have we seen emerge as a result of this partnership and competition?

Our first winner Koleka Putuma was already well-known as a poet but her winning play No Easter Sunday for Queers saw her expanding her range and bringing interesting new facets to her extraordinary writing. For Amy Louise Wilson, the award came on the eve of COVID-19 and saw her needing to adapt her winning work Another Kind of Dying for the online space. Her heartbreak at a dream deferred mirrored the shattered dreams of the play’s central character and resonated beautifully in her live web experience Another Kind, presented at the 2021 National Arts Festival online. It’s also been very fulfilling to see the work of some of the competition’s finalists come to be presented in theatres in South Africa to much acclaim.

Distell Playwright Competition National Arts Festival No Easter Sunday for Queers
Koleka Putuma’s play No Easter Sunday for Queers

The competition seeks specifically to discover new talent and to reach writers who have not yet seen their works published or produced. What are some of the main challenges for emerging writers when it comes to getting their works published or produced? 

You need to present a play in order to be recognised as a playwright, but in order to do so,  someone has to take a chance on your script. Because there are such uncertain outcomes for scripts, many writers just can’t spend all of their time creating them. We really need more platforms for developing and showcasing new scripts, supporting playwrights and developing networks for connecting producers and directors to new scripts.

Could you speak on the work of this year’s submissions? What kinds of scripts are you seeing shine through?

We received 245 entries this year which is up on the previous years. One of the most exciting things we’ve seen in this round of submissions is the dramatic increase of scripts in multiple South African languages. This is really encouraging because ultimately these scripts are South African stories, and they need to be told in our own languages.

Amy Louise Wilson on AnotherKind

Each finalist also receives the opportunity to work with an industry professional on the editing of their script. Why is this kind of mentorship experience vital to emerging writers?

This really is one of the most beneficial aspects of this competition. Few writers have access to a strong mentor who can help them shape their idea, refine their work and interrogate their plot. The Distell National Playwright competition pairs each finalist with an experienced writer, academic or theatre maker who can really help shape and polish the raw script towards production. 

Then, of course, the winning work is provided a production budget and is scheduled to premiere on the National Arts Festival’s main programme. What are the benefits of debuting at the NAF?

The winning work is given all the support, experience and infrastructure that the NAF team provides and a chance to see their vision realised. The Festival is also an important platform for new work to be seen by audiences, artists and other professionals. Visiting producers, theatres and festivals come to the Festival looking for new work so it is often at NAF that a piece of work will start its journey.

Lastly, any advice for aspirant scriptwriters who are looking to enter next year’s competition?

Start creating the stories in your head, write them down, rewrite them and reimagine them again. Entries don’t have to be complete scripts, we ask for an outline and samples so you will have the chance to evolve the work if you are a finalist. It all starts with an idea!

Keep an eye on Creative Feel’s website and social platforms for a full breakdown of this year’s Distell National Playwright Competition finalists.

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