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.

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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.)

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?


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.