Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Newry playwright Abbie Spallen awarded $150,000 literary prize

“Lifechanging” is how Abbie Spallen describes her unexpected win. “It comes completely out of the blue.”

The Windham-Campbell Prize eschews application and open submission processes and does not tease with public shortlisting. Instead, a set of experts make nominations which are whittled down by specialist juries before a nine person selection committee makes the final decision.

Some winners find the email notifying them of the award in their spam folder; others think the phone call or answering machine message is a prank.

The sizeable literary grants ($150,000 or just over £100,000) are administered by Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and annually bestowed upon nine authors who write in English – three fiction, three non-fiction and three drama – as a result of a gift from the late novelist Donald Windham in memory of his partner Sandy M Campbell.

Pumpgirl, while not her first play, launched Spallen’s career back in 2006, being performed in Edinburgh and London before transferring to New York and returning to the Lyric Theatre for its Irish première in 2008. Spallen wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation. She was awarded The Stewart Parker Trust New Playwright Bursary in 2009 and has been supported by a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council Northern Ireland (who also fund venues and companies who have commissioned her work).

The playwright is currently working on a number of “huge” projects including a 25 character historical Swiftian satire, an all female country and western musical set in South Armagh for the Lyric (with Conor Mitchell) alongside plays on topics as diverse as the Irish financial crisis and pharmaceuticals used for the purposes of torture.

“They’re all coming to fruition now. There could be a glut of plays in the next couple of years!”

The award provides security that few artists ever achieve.

“It gives me the freedom to do the work that I want to do, and not to have to do a money gig, which is the most beautiful thing a writer can have … I went through a period last year where I was ill, and I did start to think we don’t get any sick pay, we don’t get any holiday pay and we don’t get any pension, and if we can’t work we don’t eat. This means I don’t live in fear of my boiler packing in and I don’t live from day to day any more. I’m not used to that yet.”

Spallen will use part of the prize to fund the production of a short film.

“I’m going to take a small amount off the top to write and direct my first short film. I’ve written a short film before, but I’m going to direct [this one] myself. I’m really excited about that … no interference from anybody and greater control over the edit. That’s a joy: nobody gets a chance to do that.”

She adds:

“I really love the idea of branching into film as well because as a canvass it allows me to be as big as I need to be because my work is getting bigger and bigger and bigger and I can play so much more on film that I can in theatre, though I’ll always love theatre and I will always work in theatre.”

While scripts for plays can be published, there’s a sense that the work finishes when the actors walk off the stage. Spallen feels that with film “you have a finished product at the end of it and it stays alive”.

She describes Tinderbox Theatre Company’s approach to producing Lally the Scut in The MAC as “brilliant”, casting twelve local actors (rather than using seven and doubling up characters). Tinderbox dramaturg Hanna Slattne says that the play “is without doubt the strongest script I received on my desk … and we at Tinderbox are very proud to have been part of her journey”.

Reviewing the play last April, I wrote:

“Abbie Spallen is like an angry prophetess shouting at us through the dialogue about much of what’s rotten in our society ... starting with the fact that the child at the centre of this drama is never named …

There are no sacred cows unwilling to be sacrificed: family, church, media and politicians all get chopped off at the knees by the playwright’s satirical pen as she amplifies the failings of society …

Lally the Scut is a complex, multi-layered play that shocks, challenges and blackly entertains. Tragedy mixed with moments of pantomime and horror. Abbie Spallen shares her dark and sinister imagination (terrorist puppets and that mincer!) and twelve capable actors drag the audience through the stinking mud of institutions and society to disturb us into addressing the rot. I can think of no good reason not to see Tinderbox NI’s production.”

Spallen hopes to stay herself and not be too affected by the award.

“I’m over the moon. It’s life changing. When they told me about the award I think I gibbered for ten minutes.”

It will have sunk in my the time she travels to Connecticut in the fall September for the award ceremony and the associated four day literary festival. After that, Spallen fancies fulfilling a long held dream of travelling across the US on the Amtrak, visiting colleagues in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

While you can read about the award in the Irish Times and the Guardian, local media seems slower to celebrate Spallen’s success. And while local politicians flood social media with commentary on boxers and sporting team results, few if any have raised a tweet or updated Facebook to toast the Newry playwright.

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