Columbia Announces New Kennedy Prize for Historical Theater

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Edward Kennedy and Jean Kennedy Smith
Senator Kennedy and Ambassador Smith

It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster in theater-award news this week.

On Wednesday we learned that, since the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia has dissolved, the Barrymore Awards, which it has administered since 1995, have at least been suspended for 2013 and are potentially permanently defunct. This is a meaningful loss for Philadelphia.

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Better news came from Off-Broadway’s Page 73 Productions. They select playwrights at the beginning of their careers for annual playwriting fellowships, and, beginning in 2013, the cash award associated with those fellowships will double; next year the prize will be $10,000.

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Edward Kennedy and Jean Kennedy Smith
Senator Kennedy and Ambassador Smith

The most dramatically exciting news, though, comes from Columbia University: Columbia has worked with Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith to develop a stratospheric new annual theater award. The Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History (the EMK Prize) is named in memory of the late Senator, who was Ambassador Smith’s brother. The winner will receive $100,000 and the support of The Columbia University Libraries’ Center for New Media Learning and Teaching to develop a website to enhance the play with learning and teaching guides, as well as scholarship about the play and its historical themes. Teachers, students and theater artists will have access to the website.

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The mission statement of the EMK Prize explains that its charge is to recognize a significant new play or musical that, “enlists theater’s power to explore the past of the United States, to participate meaningfully in the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy.” Ambassador Smith emphasized Sen Kennedy’s support for and commitment to the arts, and his particular love of musical theater, as the inspiration for this new award.

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The EMK Prize will be awarded on Sen. Kennedy’s birthday (February 22) to a play that has received its first professional production during the previous year.

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More information from the press release:

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Columbia University Libraries Announce
The Edward M. Kennedy Prize
for Drama Inspired by American History

NEW YORK, September 27, 2012

Columbia University Libraries and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith are pleased to announce the establishment of a significant theater award, The Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, abbreviated as the EMK Prize.

The EMK Prize will be given annually through the Libraries to a new play or musical of merit that, in the words of the Prize’s mission statement, “…enlists theater’s power to explore the past of the United States, to participate meaningfully in the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy.”

Ambassador Smith has created the Prize to honor the life and legacy of her late brother, Senator Ted Kennedy. The first recipient of the EMK Prize will be announced on Senator Kennedy’s birthday, February 22, 2013.

“My brother loved the arts – museums, books, the performing arts. Music was perhaps dearest to him, but he and I shared an enjoyment of theater – especially, for Teddy, musical theater,” says Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. “He admired the discipline and skill that theater demanded of actors, directors and writers. He was intrigued by the theater’s creation of worlds, based on the human imagination, either for purposes of escaping what’s difficult in life or for purposes of confronting difficult truths. He was an insatiable student of American history, and, of course, he devoted his life to public service. My brothers, sisters and I were raised to appreciate how much a society’s culture contributes to the happiness of its citizens and to the health of its civic institutions. I decided to establish a prize for dramatic writing that speaks to this connection between art and civic life as a way of honoring my brother, and also as a way of acknowledging my family’s commitment and indebtedness to the arts.

I also must acknowledge Tony Kushner who, from the beginning, has shown tremendous understanding and enthusiasm for this endeavor to honor my brother. This could never have happened without him and I am forever grateful for his invaluable insights and unwavering support.”

[…]

The EMK Prize consists of two parts. The author of the winning work will receive a bursary award of $100,000. In addition, The Columbia University Libraries’ Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), working with the Prize recipient, will create a website featuring study and teaching guides, including extensive historical research and scholarly discussion and interpretation of the Prize-winning play or musical. This website will be available to any theater artist and any teacher or class studying the work with intent of expanding understanding and research of the winning playwright’s work and career.

[…]

Plays and musicals that have received their first professional productions in 2012 will be eligible for the Prize. The recipient will be determined by a panel of judges from a list of five works selected by a national network of nominators. The judges’ panel will consist of three playwrights, two musical theater writers (book writer, lyricist or composer), two scholars of literature, American history or political science, and the President of Columbia University.

The size of the bursary component makes this among the largest prizes given for dramatic writing, and indeed for writing in America, while the commitment to an in-depth and publicly accessible examination and exploration of content makes the EMK Prize absolutely unique among dramatic and literary awards.

The EMK Prize has potential for contributing to an elevation of the standards of scrupulousness, intellectual rigor and seriousness within which dramatic literature is approached by theater artists, audiences, educators, students and critics. Ambassador Smith hopes that the Prize will galvanize a new and vigorous exploration of American history and the institutions of American politics among dramatists and creators of musical theater.

For more information, please visit http://kennedyprize.columbia.edu.