35 Years of Women Playwrights’ Voices Center Stage

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Theatres across the U.S. and in Canada and London are in the midst of producing 75 plays by past winners and finalists of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. The ongoing productions are honoring the prize’s 35th anniversary.

Scene from Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit”

The cycle began in May with productions of Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” at London’s National Theatre and Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. It will close July 28, 2013 with the final performance of Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw” at Performance Network in Ann Arbor, MI.

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Marsha Norman, who won the prize in 1983 for ‘night Mother, and then received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year, has said, “The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize has done more than any other single force to get plays by women collected and celebrated, but more importantly, produced.”

When the prize was established in 1978 only 6% of new plays produced, on both sides of the Atlantic, were written by women. That number is now 20%.

The prize’s board asked its “source theatres,” who have been so instrumental in creating the prize’s legacy, to consider producing a play by one of the playwrights honored with the prize over the last three decades.

In Houston alone, (where Blackburn grew up and first became involved in theatre), The Alley Theatre, Stages Repertory Theatre, Main Street Theater, Stark Naked Theatre, The Ensemble Theatre, Musiqa, Theatre Southwest, The University of Houston and Sam Houston State University are all producing plays.

The 35th Awards Presentation Ceremony will be held in Houston at the Alley Theatre in late February/ early March, 2013.

Every year, the prize winner receives $20,000 and a signed and numbered print by Willem de Kooning, created especially for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Each of the additional finalists receives $1,000. The winner is chosen from the finalists each year by six judges, three in the United States, and three in Britain.

2012 prize winner Jennifer Haley

The 2012 prize was awarded to U.S. playwright and Texas native Jennifer Haley for her play The Nether, nominated by the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. This year’s finalists will be announced in January.

The prize is intended both as a personal tribute to Blackburn, who died in 1977, and as an embodiment of values she believed in and devoted so much of her life to. After appearing in productions at the Alley Theatre and Little Theatre in Houston and at Smith College, she studied acting with Uta Hagen and played several leading roles in New York. When she moved to London in 1962, she gave drama classes to schoolchildren while working as a journalist. She believed that society urgently needed more influence from talented women, and she encouraged many women to excel. It is the purpose of the prize to perpetuate the high standards, the creativity and the vitality that were integral to Susan’s life.

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize received the 2010 Theatre Communications Group’s National Funder Award. The annual honor goes to a company, foundation or other entity for “leadership and sustained national support of theater in America.”