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Welsh writer’s star continues to rise as she wins prestigious award for new writing

11 Dec 2021 6 minute read
Emily White, winner of the 2021 George Devine Award for her play Atlantis. Photo: Wolf Marloh

A playwright from Wales is celebrating after winning a prestigious new writing award for her play set in a Welsh village facing climate crisis.

Emily White, who was raised in Powys, has been announced as the recipient of the 52nd George Devine Award for most promising playwright for her play Atlantis.

Atlantis follows the inhabitants of a seaside village in north Wales, who discover they are to become Britain’s first climate change refugees, as the council plans to abandon the town to the waves.

The play follows four generations of the same family over a fifty-three-year period, as they grow older and find ways to cope with the crisis hanging over their heads.

The George Devine Award which was formed in 1966 in memory of the founding artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, is worth £15,000, and is recognised as one of the most prestigious in new writing.

Talking to Theatre Weekly about receiving the award, Emily White said: ‘I cannot express how honoured and grateful I am to receive this award after being shortlisted alongside such incredible talent, I did not expect to win and to say I feel overwhelmed is an understatement.

“The list of previous winners is full of writers I admire and to see my name sit alongside them is a surreal experience.

“Writing this play was my lifeline during lockdown both creatively and financially and I would like to thank Tamara Harvey, Raphael Martin, and Theatre Clwyd for supporting me and my work throughout such a difficult period. I couldn’t have written Atlantis without them.”

“Big enough lungs”

Tamara Harvey, artistic director of Theatr Clwyd produced and directed Emily’s 2019 debut Pavilion set in “a small forgotten corner of Wales.” Following the news of the award she paid tribute to the playwright and called on reviewers to remember to also look outside of London for talent.

“Emily White has just won the prestigious George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright. When we produced Emily’s first play Pavilion at Theatr Clwyd, we couldn’t persuade a single national reviewer to make the two-and-a-half-hour journey north.

“It was the debut play by a female Welsh playwright with big enough lungs that we’d programmed it in our main house but no, the run was too short we were told. So, no-one came – not to Clwyd and not to Newport, where it played for a week at the end of its run with us.

“I felt so guilty. Reviews aren’t everything of course but they are important exposure for a playwright just starting out and I had failed Emily. She was lovely about it – as well as being a brilliant writer, she’s a generous and beautiful human being – but still what kind of artistic director was I if I couldn’t give a writer the launchpad they deserved?

“Now Emily has won the George Devine. And I’m so proud. And so relieved. A little bit of that guilt is eased. And as well as hopefully making the world take note of Emily.

“I have to believe that next time we produce a piece of new writing, the reviewers (or perhaps more accurately the editors) might think it’s worth the journey out of London to maybe discover a new and important voice – to discover writers of ‘extraordinary ambition and humanity’, like Emily.

“Because the chroniclers of our time are to be found across the length and breadth of our country, not just on the stages of London.”

On social media Emily shared her excitement tweeting: “Umm so I won – and I was temping all day so couldn’t tweet a response. I made a very eloquent statement in this article which is all true but what I also want to say is: Wooooooohoooowowowowwow holy shit no way whoopwhoopweeee!!!! Thank you and goodnight.”

Ambition and humanity

Raised in Powys and now living in London, Emily initially trained and worked as an actor before going on to study for an MA in theatre writing, directing and performance in York.

In 2018 she won a place on Channel 4’s 4Screenwriting Course to develop her pilot Land of My Fathers about a Syrian refugee coming to live in a small Welsh town. She was selected to be part of the BBC Wales Writersroom group ‘Welsh Voices’ in 2019 and contributed Homework to the Sky Open Theatre series

In an interview with Guy O’Donnell, she attributed her long love of theatre to involvement in Powys dance and youth theatre encouraged by her mother, and to theatre trips with her father.

“When I was three, he got us cheap seats to see Peter Pan at the National Theatre and I was totally enthralled by it and apparently when we left the theatre I said ‘that’s what I want to do dad.’

“So, from then on whenever I went to visit him in London he would take me to the theatre, he’d take me to see Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tom Stoppard, Samuel Beckett and I just loved it, not that I totally understood everything that was going on but there was something magical about it all the same.”

The judging panel for 2021 included playwrights Luke Barnes, James Graham and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, directors Justin Audibert and Lisa Blair and actress Kate O’Flynn.

2021 Award judge Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti said: ‘The writers on this year’s shortlist explore a rich variety of stories and forms, highlighting that British playwriting is in rude health. Each piece impressed us and inspired a lively and provocative debate.

“However, one play stood out because of its extraordinary ambition and humanity. Atlantis is at once intimate and epic, fearless and tender, it is family drama and devastating global commentary.

“This play’s sheer brilliance moved and thrilled every single member of the panel. Emily White is an outstanding talent, and we are delighted to announce her as the winner of the 2021 George Devine Award.”

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