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Winning still a shock for five-time victor

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Owain Johnston-Barnes has won the Famous for Fifteen Minutes playwriting contest for the fifth time — but this year's victory still came as a surprise.

“To quote [director] Jim Brier, ‘OK, just give me a dice'. It all comes down to one person's opinion,” hesaid.

A veteran of the competition, the 34-year-old Bermudian has entered eight times and won five, but when it came to accepting the coveted Golden Inkwell prize, he was full of nerves.

“This year, the competition was fierce,” he said. “The second half of the show particularly was very, very strong.

“I don't know what it is [about accepting the award]. Watching the show, I have absolutely no problem, being in the show I have no problem, but going down to accept the award is the most nerve-racking thing.”

His play, The Deep End, tells a fictional story about the real-life partnership of Otis Barton and William Beebe and their record-breaking dives in a bathysphere. Maxwell King played Barton, alone in the bathysphere, while the parts of Beebe and his assistant Gloria Holster, played by Nick Walker and Natacha Kneeland respectively, were read from offstage.

It takes place about a week or two after their actual last dive — they separated after personal disagreements in the summer of 1934.

Mr Johnston-Barnes called it “Otis Barton's worst day”.

“Nothing is ever finished. If someone handed me the script today, I'd be covering it in red pen. There are dozens of little things I would tweak,” he said.

“But at some point you have to submit it, you have to hope that somebody likes it.”

Somebody clearly did. This year's judge, American playwright Ian August, is responsible for two of Mr Johnston-Barnes's wins.

The idea for the play came to him while at work as a reporter for The Royal Gazette, with the conclusion inspired by his own “bad day”.

“There's Owain in everything that I write,” he added. “If you cannot empathise with the characters that you write, then they're worthless.

“I inject myself into absolutely every character. The darkest villain needs to have a bit of you in it.

“I find with writing that if you're open and honest and put that idea out there, it's amazing how many people will respond to that.

“There are many things that we all feel that we don't verbalise, necessarily.

“I used to joke that all of my shows are confessionals. I have a bad thought, even if just for a moment, and it's one of my character's thoughts now.”

When he set about writing the play, Mr Johnston-Barnes didn't know his protagonist — “not initially”.

“You have ideas in your head and they roll around like stones in a tumbler where it just gets polished and polished and eventually you start realising.”

One of his early realisations came when he gave Barton the label of “techie”.

“I do a lot of theatre. He's the guy in the black shirt. He's the guy who does all the work and doesn't get any of the credit,” he said. “And then I had a particularly bad day and I suddenly realised that's something that Barton would feel.

“The big thing in this one is, why is life unfair? Why is it I work so hard and don't accomplish what I think I deserve?

“I see someone else doing nothing and getting everything — why is it this way?

“What he discovers in this case is that he doesn't actually want the things that he thought he wanted. The fame isn't what he needs. What he needed was to prove to himself. Once he knows that he has accomplished something he's content.

“It wasn't necessarily about beating someone else, it was about doing something for himself.”

The character's personal victory comes after discovering that he has broken all of Beebe's records in this fictional final dive, but he keeps it to himself.

“There he is in a glass ball in the middle of the ocean,” Mr Johnston-Barnes said..

“The gods in this world — in this case, the people keeping him alive — are just voices on a megaphone. He has to trust their word and there's a degree of helplessness to that.

“It's when he realises that he's accomplished something that he's able to regain that degree of control.

“He doesn't necessarily want what he thinks he wants.

“That's what it's really about — discovering yourself in the direst of situations.”

As a writer, he said he always has beloved lines, but watching his words performed often brings new favourites.

“There was a little scene that I didn't write with this in mind, but the actors found it,” he said.

“There's a moment of confusion where Otis thinks he's talking to Gloria but he's actually talking to Beebe and Nick Walker decided he was going to respond in a girlie, feminine voice.

“I didn't expect it. I didn't see it coming, but it got that extra laugh. I hadn't written it that way, but it worked.

“That's one of my favourite things. You hand off your script to someone else and you see what they do with it, how they interpret it. Especially when someone sees something in your show that you didn't see.”

“I got really lucky with my cast. Max was a scene-stealer.

“The show is entirely him on stage so we needed a strong actor for that post.”

He already has a few ideas for next year's show. An inspirational trip to Japan last month yielded some potential stage fodder.

“It's a very different community and culture and sometimes that does yield real interesting stuff. Sometimes you can only see your own community when you take a peek on it from outside.”

The thespian's next venture will be in the Gilbert and Sullivan Society's Magic of the Musicals next month.

Owain Johnston-Barnes

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Published August 24, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated August 23, 2016 at 11:30 pm)

Winning still a shock for five-time victor

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