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Owain and the Golden Inkwell

playwright Owain Johnston-Barnes with the Golden Inkwell (File photograph)

Owain Johnston-Barnes submitted so many scripts to the Famous for 15 Minutes writing competition that the jokes started rolling within the Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society.

Ever the wit, he responded accordingly: if he were invited to judge the festival, he’d have no choice but to stop sending his plays in.

“And in 2019, they called me on my bluff,” said Mr Johnston-Barnes, who was asked to keep his appointment quiet until after his job was complete.

Of course, no one foresaw the Covid-19 pandemic which kept the curtains closed at Daylesford Theatre for two years and stymied any thought of holding the Famous for 15 Minutes play-writing competition until now.

Hamstrung, Mr Johnston-Barnes decided there was only one safe course of action.

“I proceeded to lie to people. I figured I had to keep everything on the down low. I had to keep everything very, very quiet about it because I didn’t want to be influenced. But I also figured it would only be a couple months and then it would all be done.

“One of the writers and I became friends in the intervening three years. I had to awkwardly message them this weekend and say, ‘By the way, I've lied to you the entire time. I know all about your play. I read it. I've judged it.’”

The prolific playwright, who is a senior reporter with The Royal Gazette, has won the Famous for 15’s Golden Inkwell five times in the 15 years he has been involved.

“It’s very interesting being on this side of the fence just because there's not really an instruction manual as to how to pick a winner,” he said. “It needed to entertain me, absolutely, that was one of the highest priorities. But it also needed to mean something because that's sort of the difference between a play and a skit. Do the characters learn anything from the experience? Do they come out different characters than they went in? Obviously, if the play doesn't entertain me then learning something is almost a moot point. But if they don't learn anything, why did you take 15 minutes of my time?”

A panel narrowed down the submissions to six. Mr Johnston-Barnes alone determined the winner of the Golden Inkwell.

“That was early 2020 that I picked the winner. And since the years have passed it's been hilarious because I’m friends with a lot of people in the theatre community so I've gotten tip-offs if you will from people: ‘Oh, yeah, the play is absolutely hilarious.’ And I had to pretend I knew nothing about it.

“I had one of the directors call asking me if I had a source for taxidermied animals. I had to pretend I had no idea what she was talking about.”

Fascinating to him is that all of the plays were written just ahead of a global upheaval.

“It's weird in a way, kind of a time capsule. They had no idea what was going to happen in the next few years, the next few months.”

Aside from the handful of people who make up the BMDS Charitable Trust, the only person who knew he was the judge was his mother, who he told just as she got on a plane to leave the island for good. He has “not told a single soul” who the winner is.

“The only place I've written it down is in an envelope, which has been in one of the members of the BMDS Charitable Trust’s kitchen, sealed since 2020.

“At this point, I'm starting to fear a bit because obviously I haven't read these plays recently. Three years ago I made this decision. I'm a different person now. I don't know if I would make the same decision again.

“People were reaching out to me about things in their play and someone dropped the line that I am mentioned in one of the plays – I had completely forgotten it.”

BMDS hoped to run Famous for 15 last year. Mr Johnston-Barnes auditioned for one of the shows and “would have auditioned for it again” had a fire on board a plane not delayed his return from holiday.

“That trip spoilt it. Otherwise I would have been backstage, undoubtedly being pressured by everyone to tell them who the winner is.”

He will make that announcement at the gala on April 22.

“After everything has been performed I will get up on stage dragging the suspension out as long as I can,” he laughed.

“As far as the award’s concerned it doesn't matter if you have the best cast or the best director. It all comes down to the written word. We’ve done shows where the written word was incredible but a different show on the night had perhaps the best acting performance. And so it's very easy to be swayed, watching the shows, when you're focusing on one particular aspect, an aspect that most of the audience isn’t [going to be as concerned about]. Most of us are not going to sit down and read the play.”

Despite all that he’s thrilled to have had the opportunity.

“I have been involved in Famous [for 15 Minutes] for 15 years. And so it is an honour to be selected to be trusted with this. I certainly took it as an honour. I hope they meant it that way and not just a way to get rid of me for a year.

“I do have new ideas though. So next year, I won't be a judge. I will 100 per cent be entering. I have no idea what I'll be writing but I'll be writing something.”

Famous for 15 2023 opens tonight at 8pm at Daylesford Theatre with plays by Jonathan Young, Heather Conyers, Helen Jardine, Friday Night Collective, Jan Quinn and Jonathan Land Evans. The show continues tomorrow and Saturday and April 19 through 22. Tickets, available at ptix.bm, are $35 except for April 22 when they are $75.

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Published April 13, 2023 at 7:58 am (Updated April 13, 2023 at 7:58 am)

Owain and the Golden Inkwell

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