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Verbally Challenged

Rachel Winterbottom is an intrigued spectator at Contact Theatre's monthly contest for new playwrights

Written by . Published on March 3rd 2009.

Verbally Challenged

An X Factor for writers? Just imagine it. Simon Cowell would be replaced by an Anne Robinson-esque J K Rowling, her passive indifference to your creative expression, the literary equivalent of being laughed at by Angelina Jolie, while naked. Flanking her on each side would be the ‘nice guy’; TV hypnotist-turned-self-help-author, Paul McKenna, whom you secretly hope won’t tarnish your chances by standing up for your poetry, and an unexpectedly brutal Alan Titchmarsh. It could happen.

Verbally Challenged is a brand-new monthly writer’s night put on by Contact Theatre where you, the audience, get the chance to vote for the best piece of writing. When the announcer on the tannoy system stumbled, quite accidentally, over the words ‘Verbally Challenged’, I knew I was in a good place. Even if they call their theatres ‘spaces’.

This is a company that declares itself dedicated to nurturing a diverse mix of young talent. Its aim is to provide a versatile platform for creatives from 13-30, and be a passionate environment that encourages the interaction between the various stages of theatre.

As we took our seats in the small, dark room, there was definitely something of a classroom about the place. The helpful leaflet on my chair told me that the writers that evening were premiering their work with the help of a professional director, a team of actors and YOU, the audience. So, no pressure there then.

Our compere for the evening, a Mr Ben Mellor, laid down the rules. Each of the writers competing for the £100 prize had been given the challenge of creating a ten minute script with the theme of ‘promises made, promises broken’, which must contain a narrator that appears in the play as an older and younger version of themselves. Piece of cake.

Then comes the tricky part: as hard as it might be to voice your opinion to a room full of people, it must be harder still to be the person being talked about. When you bear in mind how young these new writers are, and that this is their ‘showcase’, you realise just how much is at stake for them – which makes your role in the evening all the more consequential.

The young actors are all part of Contact’s Artists in Residence (AIR) programme and there were some really promising performances. They did each play ‘script in hand’, due to the short time they had to learn each one, which gave them a raw, work-in-progress edge.

They also only had access to minimal props and staging – not that this mattered. My friend and I didn’t realise quite how important it was to pay attention to the stage directions chalked onto the floor, and at one point stared in confusion as two actors playing a man and a little girl interrupted the quiet drink they were having in a café scene to mime a quick shag – only to realise they’d stepped over the line that indicated 'flashback'.

After the interval (when we trooped en masse to the bar, the Contact Lounge, to discuss, or drink to, the first two plays) we returned for the remaining performances and the vote. The first burgeoning playwrights to find themselves Verbally Challenged were Mwewa Sumbwanyambe, with his play Back Home Contemplation – a commentary on broken expectations, and Promises Made Promises Broken, by Katie Myers, a subtle and very funny play. After a light tipple, these were smoothly followed by Gina Perry’s Polite Society, about a family threatened by change in Manchester’s urban landscape and, lastly, representing a vastly different approach to the theme was Delilah Gyves-Smart’s The Promise Maker (the eventual winner).

When the time came for the audience’s response I half-expected them to bray for blood and tear the writers apart. However this wasn’t quite Beat the Frog at the Frog and Bucket on a Monday night. In interactive theatre it’s imperative, I learned, to have a good compere. Throughout the evening, ours continued to evoke responses from his audience, asking intelligent questions and dealing with each answer sensitively and with a joke always on hand to ease any tension or silences.

The atmosphere brimmed with shared enthusiasm to the point where it really did feel like you were a necessary aspect of the performance – even if that aspect included one audience member who questioned why two central characters were “boshing on the couch”. There’s always one.

This was an utterly unique experience. Try it for yourself – an X Factor where you actually care about the genuinely talented individuals taking part. And while they might not be winning a commission from The National, they’re certainly on their way to somewhere, even if that somewhere is Contact Lounge for a celebratory bevy after the show.

The next Verbally Challenged takes place on Wednesday 4 March at Contact Theatre. 0161 274 0600. £5.

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