Bread and Roses Rapid Response: Update

Thursday 3 May 2012, 16:16

Kate Rowland Kate Rowland BBC Creative Director of New Writing

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To celebrate The Bread and Roses Centennial 1912-2012, we asked for scripts to respond to the themes of the Centennial; workers rights, particularly women workers rights, strikes, protest, immigration and capitalism.

We were looking for bold, engaging and intelligent writing, fresh characters, perspectives and ideas, by writer's, who feel passionate about the stories they want to tell.

Although we were impressed by the range of ideas and approaches, on this occasion we did not feel that any of the scripts were powerful or emotionally engaging enough to capture the spirit of this brief and so we didn't feel that we could select any winners.  But thank you for all your entries.

Please read the full statement below from our judge, Paul Laverty.


Statement from Paul Laverty:

I understood the brief in this competition was to choose a script that best celebrated, even in the most tangential or unexpected of manners, in whatever genre,  the spirit of the iconic Labour dispute in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912. In essence it was about some of the most marginalized of immigrants, mostly women, split among many languages and cultures,who came together (with the help of the Woblies) to take on the might of the Woolen manufacturers who were backed by the national guard and private militia.  It was a real David against Goliath confrontation.  The workers won, an amazing feat for the times, by incredible imagination, bravery, and organisation. The stories of their children being brought up to New York to be supported by Italian workers, met in Grand Central station, singing songs, so the families wouldn't be starved out are quite stunning. In further transportation of children, parents were attacked by the National Guard. There was tremendous violence on the front line and some workers were killed. Some of their supporters were framed with murder and the entire power of the State was mobilized against them. 

The slogan BREAD AND ROSES, came from this dispute too, which has echoed down over a hundred years. In other words, workers having some possibility of not only the basic means to survive, but the right to all the beautiful things in life that make us fully human.

The idea behind the competition, as I understood it, reminded me of the words of the brilliant historian Howard Zinn, who wrote in his magisterial account of the US as follows:

On history, from the introduction to ‘A People's History’.

“I don't want to invent victories for people's movements. But to
think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the
failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators
in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to
anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I
believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden
episodes of the past when, even in brief flashes, people showed
their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am
supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in
the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid
centuries of warfare. That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach
to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know
that before going on."  

I recognize that many of the scripts were skillfully written, but what was striking was the tone. Many ended in betrayal, self defeat, even suicide, and the pointlessness of resistance. Resistance is often ridiculed or easily bought off. Most of them involve characters who are totally isolated in the face of the employer or the State. Empathy is virtually non-existent, and totally unlike the actual dispute, any intelligence and wit in the face of power seems absent too.
I have great sympathy for writers who create a whole story from nothing. It is always an enormous effort.

But I also have the deepest respect for what these men and women, the most marginalized of immigrants achieved in 1912. Their actions do resonate down through the century, and are very relevant today.
It is with great regret, but in my judgment, for what it is worth, none of the scripts I read, wrestled with the spirit, complexity, contradictions, passions, intelligence, imagination and sacrifice in the face of power, that these workers demonstrated in such abundance in 1912.  It might be a relief to the writers concerned, (and to me too) to know that I never intend to be a judge in any writing competition again.
Good luck.  
Paul Laverty.

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    Comment number 1.

    I felt a chill reading this blog. I love Rapid Response competitions and have been short-listed in a couple of them, but I got stuck trying to write a script about the Bread and Roses strike for the exact reason Paul Laverne states: I felt no empathy with the strikers. I had no stomach to write a story about "Underdog vs. Capitalist West." I'm tired of stories about resistance against corporate greed where the Bosses are Bad Guys. I want more stories like the movie 'Margin Call' where we see WHY these bosses create suffering for the 'common people.'

    The Bread and Roses story didn't resonate with me. I felt bad about that because to not feel empathy for minorities suggests I'm a heartless capitalist. What happened to these people was wrong by any human standards, but it didn't resonate with me. And it seems I'm not the only one.

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    Comment number 2.

    It was so disheartening to read Paul Laverty's report.
    There appears to be some sort of a disjoint between the brief that was provided and Paul Laverty's expectations. I found Paul's comments to be far more emotionally inspiring and clear. The notion of those “fugitive moments of compassion” in particular struck a chord. By contrast, the brief seemed dry and detached in it's list of themes and I wonder he emotional power of the stories that could have come out were dulled as a result.
    It is sad that some writers find the theme of struggle against power to be uninspiring. It made me pause for thought when I read that. Equally disheartening is Paul's assessment that the plays submitted portrayed resistance as something futile and pointless.It seems to me a terrible reflection of the way individualism and rampant uncontrolled free enterprise have overpowered our belief in collective action. So much so, that even the artistic expression of this action has been undermined.

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    Comment number 3.

    Interesting decision and comments. Can anyone tell us if the number of entries was down on previous Rapid Response competitions?

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    Comment number 4.

    In the past, rapid responses have felt light, fun, about topical pieces of news and the prizes seemed to reflect that.

    I felt that this brief required a lot more thought and historical research which, I don't think was reflected in the prize.

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    Comment number 5.

    With all due respect, this does seem a very blinkered (not to mention patronising) decision. The brief was not to write about a particular protest but any protest - indeed I believe it stressed the wide range of approaches to the subject that would be welcomed.

    I make no particular claims for my own script, but more than 100 people entered this competition - if not one of their entries chimed with Laverty's view, he must be remarkable arrogant not to consider that he's the one who needs a reality check.

    I welcome his decision not to judge any more writing competitions - a shame it's too late for this one.

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    Comment number 6.

    I have always been a committed trade unionist and anti-fascist campaigner, but ‘impulsively’ offered up something about ‘struggle and defeat’. What’s going on in our psychology? Time to slink away into a corner and do some serious thinking.

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    Comment number 7.

    Perhaps the topic was not best suited to the quick turnaround of a rapid response initiative? To do the subject matter justice would require research and time to get a true sense of what was accomplished in Lawrence in 1912. I think the subject matter is worthy, compelling and inspiring. However, I did feel that trying to write something within a week forced me to fall back on a more instinctive style of storytelling given that there was not enough time to do more than basic research into the subject. I am sure this made my play less compelling as a result. A shame, it is a subject that could do with the telling given the current political and economic climate of despair.

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    Comment number 8.

    I agree with jenharvey's earlier comment that Paul Laverty's statement was much clearer and more inspiring than the original briefing. A couple of days after reading his statement, the image of two children caught up in the hurly-burly of Central Station in 1912 swam into my head and I realised with dismay that I might have written a 'Bread and Roses' story after all.

    But it seemed clear from the briefing that to stand any chance of winning I must focus on portaying strikers as noble and heroic and to betray no sympathy for 'Goliath.' I couldn't do it. It felt like I had to write propaganda rather than a story. And Paul Laverty's decision (and his assertion that the strikers' actions "do resonate down through the century" when it clearly didn't for the majority of entries) just seemed to confirm that feeling.

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    Comment number 9.

    If Paul Laverty could not find a play that he felt was suitable for a celebration of the Bread and Roses Centennial – then he was right not to choose a winner. He felt a downbeat tone was inappropriate and he was the judge.

    I hope that this will not make Writers Room think twice about the rapid response format though. Like most people I fit my writing in around other commitments – kids, home, work. I have folders of stuff that I've felt was too unfinished to send off. To discover rapid response was great for me. I wrote my play, edited it and sent it off. I wasn’t shortlisted but it gave me such a sense of achievement to have sent something off knowing someone else would read it. It has encouraged me to carry on with my writing. I even went back and re- wrote the end of my Bread and Roses play in the light of Paul Laverty’s statement – all good practice!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I guessed this was going to happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    "It is with great regret, but in my judgment, for what it is worth, none of the scripts I read, wrestled with the spirit, complexity, contradictions, passions, intelligence, imagination and sacrifice in the face of power, that these workers demonstrated in such abundance in 1912."

    Alas, Mr Laverty is disappointed....

    Hey ho, looking forward to the next Rapid Response Comp.!

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    Comment number 12.

    Totally agree with superintendentpraline - clearly Mr Laverty had his own ideas about what he wanted to see and no one delivered it. The brief was broad but with one clear message - give them something they hadn't seen before and not the same old same old. I took this to mean that they didn't want to see any done to death stories. I delivered a script on a subject that is still impacting on our lives today; a battle hard won by the determined spirit of a lady of humble background which is now being eroded by the ConDem government. Clearly it didn't resonate with Mr Leverty who must realise, surely, that not all resistence ends in total victory but some battles eventually win the war.

    I think he's made the right decision not to judge any more contest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It may also be worth noting Mr Leverty that the Lawrence mill workers lost all that they gained from their dispute because they were betrayed by their own union....


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