Just last week, What’s On Stage posted a playwriting competition with the winner receiving a prize of £500. After much aproar over this insulting sum, it was cancelled and taken down. As one of many writers angered by this, Alice Flynn discusses why it is part of a much larger problem.

Imagine a world without stories – it’s not a nice thought. Whether they’re plays, books or spoken word, stories have an immense power to shape who we are. They are the manifestation of humans trying to understand the world around us, from Aesop’s fables, to Ibsen, to Alice Birch. A good story has the power to change someone’s beliefs and teach them to empathise with people they may not have understood before. All of us, whether avid theatregoers, or casual Netflix bingers, train journey readers, or paid up cinema members, hold at least one story close to our hearts.

Stories do not, however, happen for free. They do not spring from a clam shell, naked and fully formed and even the fairy tales that your granny told you are made up by somebody. Despite the cultural and personal importance stories have, the value placed on the writers of these stories is extremely low. Although established writers are widely celebrated, new writers are often met with discouragement, and well-meaning relatives telling them that ‘writing is a hobby, not a job’.

Recently, What’s On Stage posted an ‘opportunity’, asking people to write an entire play in a month, for free. Entrants were challenged with writing a 60-90 minute script titled ‘Lockdown: Week Six, Day One’, with no guarantee of it ever being staged, a chance to win a single grand prize of £500 and ‘exposure’ for the runner-up. To somebody who has never written a play, this sounds doable – like a NaNoWriMo for plays with the added bonus of a sweet prize. Anyone who seriously considers a career in writing will tell you that the criteria set by What’s On Stage is unrealistic, patronising, and further perpetuates the idea that our work is not of value.

As well as the time it takes to write a play, the process itself is mentally draining, exhausting and frustrating, and once it is completed, new writers often have to go straight into working overtime at day jobs to make up for lost income. The time that writing consumes takes away from what could be spent earning an hourly wage and subsequently, new writers (especially working-class ones) who don’t have the option to live off savings, either end up financially or mentally depleted. Sacrificing income, sacrificing sleep, or sacrificing mental stability is not a choice that new writers should be encouraged to make.

The counterargument to this is, of course, that during lockdown, many people are furloughed and apparently therefore have the time to write a play without losing money. This, for some, is true, but during a global pandemic, finding the motivation, not only to write a story, but have a final draft of said story ready for an audience within a month, is a tall order. William Shakespeare supposedly wrote 40+ plays and lived to 52, however based on these figures, it would have taken him roughly 1 year and 2 months to write a first draft, let alone a competition ready submission. Even if somebody’s full-time occupation is writing, a month is not enough time to have a piece of work ready for an audience, and £500 is not adequate enough pay to cover the average rent + bills price of £886 per month, according to Zoopla Properties. For an unemployed person or freelancer during lockdown, even if they were lucky enough to win that grand prize, it wouldn’t compensate them for the time spent writing when they could have been job hunting, and for the 99% who don’t win? Well, exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

What’s On Stage are right to have cancelled the competition, but the fact that they confidently advertised it as an ‘opportunity’ hints at a much larger problem; they are not the first for-profit organisation guilty of ‘paying artists in exposure’ when they can afford to pay in actual money. Gaining exposure and having a platform are both invaluable to early-career writers, it’s true, but again, it’s not terribly helpful for paying the bills. The most innovative voices come from places of adversity, yet we can’t hear them if the only opportunities perpetuate elitism. Fair payment, or payment-in-kind in the form of career development if the organisation is non-profit, is something that writers are entitled to.

For a large, corporate-owned brand like What’s On Stage who can afford to commission new work, ‘challenging’ new writers to work for free is the kind of opportunism that I hope to see die out after COVID-19 passes. Now, more than ever, the theatre industry has been made acutely aware of how precarious we are on a financial level, and how many of us were not being paid fairly before the lockdown began. In the post-coronavirus world, I hope to see big arts organisations like What’s On Stage making bigger strides to support new and developing artists, rather than exploiting us for publicity stunts.