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You could win $25,000 for your Shakespeare fanfic

The American Shakespeare Center will ultimately spend $1 million producing works that “vibe off” the bard’s 38 plays.

Constance Swain as Benvolio and Cordell Cole as Mercutio in the American Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
Tommy Thompson / American Shakespeare Company
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

If you’ve ever written or thought about writing Shakespearean fanfiction, you now have a chance to win $25,000 for your efforts and see your work produced onstage.

The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, has long been a source for contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays. Now, in conjunction with the Bard’s 453rd birthday, the theater company has announced a wildly ambitious 20-year project: to find and produce one new companion piece to each of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

The Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries program is seeking plays that, to use the program’s own words, “vibe off of and are inspired by Shakespeare’s work.” The ASC’s goal is to stage its first two selections in 2019 (the deadline for submitting plays for the first round of staging is February 15, 2018), followed by two more each year after that.

How close to Shakespeare’s canon the “vibe” needs to be is a matter of interpretation, but Jim Warren, artistic director of the ASC, makes it clear in the press release announcing the New Contemporaries program that the goal is not to simply retell old stories:

We’re looking for partner plays that are inspired by Shakespeare, plays that might be sequels or prequels to Shakespeare’s stories, plays that might tell the stories of minor characters in Shakespeare’s stories, plays that might dramatize Shakespeare’s company creating the first production of a title, plays that might include modern characters interacting with Shakespeare’s characters ... plays that not only will appeal to other Shakespeare theatres, but also to all types of theatres and audiences around the world.

In other words, fanfic — fanfic that’s good enough to take home the $25,000 prize awarded to each new play.

While there’s nothing in the official contest wording calling the exercise an explicit search for fanfiction, and while plenty of people would argue that offering a cash prize negates the “fan” part of the equation, it’s important to note that what Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries is looking for — additional stories, drama about the Bard himself, and new characters interacting with old ones — is precisely what fanfiction already does.

In fact, a quick glance at the more than 2,000 works of Shakespearean fanfic on the fanfic website Archive of Our Own reveals plenty of ideas that might fit the ASC’s bill, from massive works queering the reign of Henry the Fifth to a Romeo and Juliet/Frankenstein crossover written entirely as a scene from a play in iambic pentameter. There are even works that imagine what it would be like to spend a day with Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and their friends.

So while Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries is an opportunity to seek out groundbreaking works that use Shakespeare as influence, it’s also an opportunity to highlight the fact that fanfiction works and functions in much the same way as works of perceived greater legitimacy. Many of the bard’s fans are already rethinking and re-canvassing his plays, and doing it out of a love for and fascination with the man himself.

There’s also one significant thing that sets Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries apart from both fanfiction and a typical play contest: The company requires that submitted plays be written with the aim of being produced at the ASC’s Blackfriar Playhouse stage in Virginia, meaning that each work must be written with Shakespeare’s original production conditions in mind. For instance, each play must have a medium ensemble cast, parts that can easily be gender-bent, and sound effects that can be performed by actors onstage.

The ASC also hopes to receive submissions from both established and new playwrights, and that confront contemporary issues through a Shakespearean lens.

“Like Shakespeare himself, who was inspired by earlier dramatists, these playwrights will help us grapple with the present while shaping our future,” Columbia University professor and Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro said in a statement.

Again, this kind of contemporary reimagining is the work that Shakespearean fanfiction is already engaged in. Perhaps the chance to have their work performed will entice such amateur writers to turn their pens to the stage.

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