No Play (by a Woman) Good Enough for 2010 Wasserstein Prize

Is there gonna be a rumble tonight?

There might be.

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Or at least some eye-scratching and caterwauling.

According to a quickly-going-viral post by playwright Michael Lew (found on the blog of the under-30 theater group Youngblood), no play will win this year’s Wasserstein Prize. The prize, named for the late playwright, is intended to go to a work by a woman under the age of 32 who has not yet won national acclaim/attention/prominence.

The prize is administered by the Theater Development Fund and it has an enviable bottom line: a check for $25,000. (For more on prize’s genesis, here’s the Times’ 2009 coverage.) The idea, of course, is to make it financially easier for emerging promising women playwrights to succeed.

Lew has put his own playwriting career at substantial risk — since everyone knows you can’t speak your mind openly in the American theater, lest you wind up blackballed like certain bloggers — by completely calling out TDF for failing to find, out of 19 plays nominated and submitted, one single work deemed worthy of the prize.

How ironic: this was the year that TDF published the groundbreaking book Outrageous Fortune, which makes it clear in the most detailed, discussion-inducing terms that the process by which new plays are developed and produced in this country, whether for the nonprofit or commercial spheres, is dysfunctional in the extreme. (I loved the book. My only quibble was its glaring lack of named sources, which for me underscores the problem that no one can speak their mind openly in the American theater, lest they end up blackballed like certain bloggers.)

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Not that the selection committees of major theater prizes haven’t stood on the sidelines before, arms akimbo, spittle in need of a bib, moaning about the lack of work good enough to earn their holy conferral of legitimacy. The Pulitzer Prize for Drama is utterly notorious for this, giving no award in 1919 (it’s second year), 1942, 1944, 1947, 1951, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1986, 1997 and 2006. We can debate the stupidity or wisdom of those absent years in some other forum. This is the Wasserstein Prize’s fourth year.

Let me suggest you click over and read Lew’s post, which is an open letter to Victoria Bailey, TDF’s executive director. It’s a pointed, if diplomatic, critique that poses the right question: No play by a woman was good enough this year?

Really?

Here is an excerpt:

…This decision can only be interpreted as a blanket indictment on the quality of female emerging writers and their work, and is insulting not only to the finalists but also to the many theatre professionals who nominated these writers and deemed their plays prize worthy. This decision perpetuates the pattern of gender bias outlined in Julia Jordan and Emily Glassberg Sands’ study on women in theatre, and the message it sends to the theatre community generally is that there aren’t any young female playwrights worth investigating.

…If the selection panel can’t engage with that community under the current guidelines, then blow up the guidelines. If you can’t find a script worth celebrating, then celebrate a production. After all, plays are meant to be experienced and not read on a page. If you can’t find a production, then celebrate a body of work. If you can’t find a young writer whose body of work is sufficiently expansive, then remove the 32 year old age cap on eligibility for the prize…

…I know that you personally have been a tireless champion for playwrights, and the field certainly owes you a debt for your years-long effort creating Outrageous Fortune. This year, the Wasserstein Prize has been used to pass judgment on a generation of talented writers, and that decision perpetuates the very cycle of exclusion that this award seeks to redress.

As you might imagine — and speaking of spittle and bibs — the theater press is licking its chops over this one. Time Out New York, specifically:

…I understand the argument that sometimes the prestige of an award can be strengthened by withholding in the absence of an obviously worthy winner. And, not having read the submissions in question, I obviously can’t judge their value. That said, I tend to agree with the thrust of Lew’s argument: Unlike the Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Wasserstein Prize seems intended to encourage writers of promise more than to recognize accomplishment. …[Wasserstein] might disapprove of what looks like a slam.

There is also somewhat more formal Time Out reportage, which includes the fact that TDF hasn’t issued a statement yet on the apparent vast wasteland of un-Wasserstein-worthy women playwrights.

Time Out also included a squib on the Wasserstein Prize process:

Nominations are solicited, and then when a playwright is nominated we ask the playwright to submit a play,” [director of communications David] LeShay said when I asked him to explain the process. “Those plays are read by a larger panel and narrowed down to four finalists that are reviewed by the final selection committee. It’s not that a playwright wasn’t picked,” he emphasized. “The play is what’s chosen, not the playwright.”

I’ve been very careful in this post to refer to a play, not a playwright, being chosen. I’m not sure there’s very much of a difference here (what, plays write themselves?), but the important thing is for the community to respond — to ensure that Lew doesn’t twist in the wind. (There are 16 comments as of this writing.)

Shouldn’t the scores of women involved in 50/50 in 2020 weigh in on this?

Bravo to Michael Lew. The American theater’s bravest person of the week.

CATEGORIES: Identity, Rants, Theater

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  • Bravo, Mike! Bravo!

  • Thank you Leonard. As I understand it from the Time Out Chicago Blog, it is the Dramatists Guild and the Educational Foundation of America who subcontracted to TDF the task of selecting a recipient of the Wasserstein Prize. If TDF’s selection process is incapable of identifying a single woman playwright under 32 who needs $25,000 and who has an outstanding script, then maybe the funders should choose another entity to administer the prize. The flaw clearly lies in TDF’s organizational process–which considered only NINETEEN nominated plays– not in the lack of great unrecognized scripts by women playwrights. Maybe they should allow open submissions!

  • Kate

    Thank you to all who go to bat for deserving women (that number many) in the theater. As strong as we are, we need all the help we can get.

  • Jenny Greeman

    Leonard, THANK YOU as usual for being the voice of reason and courage! I have personally worked with three young female playwrights this year whom I would happily describe as having enormous potential and whose unique voices WILL emerge, although I’m sure they could use a little money along the way! Maybe TDF should get around a little more…I encourage them, and everyone, to check out the New Perspectives Theatre Company Women’s Work LAB and Bluebox Production’s Sticky Series. Both provide opportunities to see exciting, original plays by young women.

  • Even if 50/50 by 2020 turns out to not be a realistic goal, TDF should have been able to find ONE play by a female playwright deserving of the award. Just looking at Adam Szymkowicz’ blog, there are clearly hundreds of women playwrights in America getting their work produced in America, and I am sure quite a few of them are still under 32 and have only a few productions on the fringe circuit– yet not one is deemed worthy of a prize?

  • EJ

    What I just wrote to Victoria Bailey in response to this:

    To Whomever Fields This Letter,

    Can you please see that it gets to Victoria Bailey?

    Dear Victoria,

    I’m not one to write letters often, but once I read Michael Lew’s
    response to what is going on with the Wasserstein Prize, I had to
    write. As a female playwright–or as I like to just say: playwright–I
    think TDF did the right thing. The fact that this situation is being
    inflated into being a blanket indictment against women is just absurd.
    Do I think this situation could have gone differently if the
    submission policy was beyond just a nomination? Sure. However, just
    because it wasn’t, doesn’t mean that $25,000 (in this economy!),
    should be given out to subpar work, just because it was kind of/sort
    of at the top of the pile of kind of/sort of okay work. I think people
    should be thrilled about this. I am.

    A couple of years ago, when the NY Times covered that female
    playwright summit downtown, all I could think of was here were a bunch
    of women whose work wasn’t good enough to be produced, pulling out the
    gender card as a reason as to why this was happening. At this time
    Young Jean Lee and Sheila Callaghan were two women whose work was
    successfully being produced downtown. Never did I think of them by
    their gender, only by their trade and that they were creating
    exceptional, interesting and exciting work. This is the way it should
    be. If women really want progress, they need to realize that progress
    is reaching the top regardless of gender. The goal here for these
    women, is equality right? My goal is just to be taken seriously as a
    playwright, without some sort of feminine modifier in front of the
    word. This is why I fundamentally disagree with the Wasserstein Prize
    ….and think it should be something that is accessible to both genders,
    but that is neither here nor there at this moment (and hopefully a
    means to convey that I’m writing with sincerity and not a way to suck
    up for future nomination, which is something I would personally not
    accept, no matter what the monetary value). To isolate the here and
    now though, since this is a woman’s prize, wouldn’t all of these women
    want to be represented by something spectacular? Wouldn’t giving the
    prize out to subpar work make the prize less valuable?

    Not settling is an important thing. In all aspects of life. Next
    year, when this prize is awarded, everyone can rest assured that this
    organization did not settle for subpar work and that the woman who
    luckily gets this money will be worth every penny and will feel that
    way.

    So, if you are fielding a lot of hate mail at this point in time,
    know there is one in the pile that says “well done.”

  • Hang in there, Victoria. The shit is gonna hit the fan real soon. Every bleeding heart in the theatre world is gonna cry, cuss and moan and use your name in vain. They’re gonna scream bloody murder, they’re gonna demand that whoever hired you fire you asap (or at least cut your tits off). They’re gonna put your name up at the top in boldface on one of those full page ads in the New York Times with a petition and it’ll be signed by George Soros, Daw Aun San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandella, Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama and the entire cast of Glee. At first glance, it seems like your ass is grass.

    So I’m gonna give you some advice. Five words, girl. Here it is. Ready? Take it like a man.

  • I suppose I can respect the TDF indirectly admitting that the finalists’ work was subpar by not giving the prize, but the question is are they willing to admit that their methodology for discovering new work is itself flawed? What are the vested interests that shaped the nomination process? Can the TDF (or any other organization that could, in the future, take over the Wasserstein Prize) introduce a new, more effective discovery methodology without clashing with the current regime of cultural gatekeepers?

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  • Will Ditterline

    Ian,

    Yes, that’s what I’m thinking. Someone in this country qualified for this prize and the people in charge of deciding who should win failed to find the right person. The right thing for them to do is to come out with a statement couching it as their failure. Their process failed, so it needs to be fixed.

    Will

  • Bruce Norris, one of the judges weighed in over at The Young Blog:

    What we all agreed on, however, was that the process of winnowing scripts was not working correctly. I don’t know the details of that process, but by the time the 4 finalists arrived on our desks (as opposed to the 10 finalists from last year) they had already gone through it. The fact that from among those 4 there was no consensus as to a favorite (last year 3 of those 10 plays quickly emerged as favorites) led the committee to consider the question of whether the process itself was in need of repair. Thus, the decision to take a year off from awarding the prize so as to realign the system.

    Sounds a lot more believable than some of the accusations going around.

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  • Thomas Garvey

    Well, thank God for EJ. And Leonard – I’m not sure what you’re thinking here. I don’t really see how the Wasserstein prize people dissed all female playwrights; that’s just a ridiculous claim. They found 19 scripts wanting. That’s it. I find it QUITE POSSIBLE that out of 19 scripts, they couldn’t find a piece they wanted to give $25,000 to. If a prize for male playwrights came to that conclusion, I wouldn’t be surprised either. But that’s because I see a lot of new plays, by people I don’t know (I always find that the people most up-in-arms about this kind of thing don’t actually see much new work they’re not personally connected to).

    To those who critique the Wasserstein methodology – you probably have a point, and I think the committee would do well to at least open up the competition a bit (particularly to emerging playwrights older than 32 or whatever). But that’s a different argument, isn’t it? An argument for NEXT YEAR, if you will. But for the Wasserstein people to simply turn around and find somebody, anybody, they can give the money to is simply embarrassing, and means they’ve fallen right into the affirmative action trap that conservatives are always pointing to – we’ll all know whatever playwright is eventually selected wasn’t “good” enough to win it the first time around.

    And I do wish all the blogosphere would stop jumping up and down in hysterics whenever some event occurs that doesn’t align with its standards of political correctness. (I realize, yes, that’s a pipe dream.) By now people have been screaming for, what, three years, that female playwrights are underrepresented on our stages. And there has been a guilty response from many regional theatres and non-profits. In Boston, at least, we’ve seen a virtual tidal wave of work from female playwrights, some of it terrible, much of it mediocre, some of it good but flawed. Only one play – Lydia Diamond’s “Stick Fly” – proved really memorable, I think. And it was a sensation and sold out and maybe some day might make it to New York (which is always late to the party these days).

    Would “Stick Fly” never have seen the light of day without the ongoing drum beat for female playwrights? Maybe – but somehow I doubt it; Diamond’s script is perhaps most interesting because it challenges the identity-politics crowd to think about CLASS in America rather than race or gender. That’s part of why people liked it so much (besides the fact that it’s just very well-written).

    At any rate, now we have several female American playwrights getting serious attention – Lydia Diamond, Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Theresa Rebeck among them. I’d say only half of these writers are of any serious interest, but I’m happy to have that half and put up with the rest. The point is that I can tell this isn’t going to be enough for most of the blogosphere. Because I learned long ago that as a minority gains power, the spokespeople for that minority only grow MORE numerous and vocal, not less. Plus consider what we’re seeing here is a kind of car-crash between an academic theatrical culture – which keeps churning out playwriting graduates heady with politically-correct ideas – and what’s left of a declining popular theatrical culture. There’s a whole horde of wannabe playwrights out there by now who can’t find places in this shrinking industry, and they’ve got racism and sexism to explain why. Well, maybe. But when a prize devoted to female playwrights – administered by people to whom this is a commitment – simply cannot find a script worth giving the money to, I think any disinterested outside observer might feel that perhaps this particular political intervention in the marketplace has gone about as far as it can go. Legitimately go, I might add.

    • Sorry, in this case I think you’re completely insensitive and in error. Sorry.