The Playgoer: Prizes for Playwrights

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Prizes for Playwrights

Also while I've been gone...

The arguments continue over why the new $200 Grand playwriting mega-prize from the Steinbergs went to someone who's already one of the most propserous American dramatists.

As you may recall, Tony Kushner was selected by the select committee to inaugurate this uber-Pulitzer--slash--lifetime achievement award explicitly because of his already "high profile" status, thus ensuring good pr for the prize itself.

Michael Riedel has devoted not one but two columns to fuming about the perceived insularity of this.

They could have given the $200,000 to a young, unknown playwright, one who might be even more hard-up than Kushner. But instead they made the bold decision to select a writer who has only two Tonys, a Pulitzer, an Emmy and an Olivier Award on his shelf in his Upper West Side co-op.

As Zabel said, "We wanted to make a splash!"

Did they ever! They got a stand-alone story in the Times, which hardly ever covers the playwright (only 56 mentions in 2008).

I am 74 percent certain that getting a plug in the Times wasn't a factor in selecting Kushner.

Buried in the Mimi press release is the news that in 2009 some "emerging" playwright will get $50,000.

That's a nice gesture, but let's be honest: You can't "make a splash!" if you give money only to obscure writers who really are struggling

Interesting point that about the Times coverage specifically. Perhaps. But I suppose even I have to give them enough credit to consider it newsworthy if an organization gave even an unknown writer that much money.

Riedel also draws an illuminating contrast with the much quieter yet perhaps more efficacious Kleban awards for lyricists which explicitly rules out anyone whose shows have cumulatively run longer than 2 years on Broadway. (Ok, granted, in this economy, that's a pretty safe limit for even the famous today.)

But what looks worst of all are the grotesque hypocrisies and needless excesses of professional philanthropy these days.

The Mimi [as the award is called], which hoped to "make a splash!" by enriching Kushner, is throwing a big party later this month at Rockefeller Center....If they can give Tony $200,000, think of how much they'll spend on hors d'oeuvres.

And remember, private philanthropy is all the assistance the theatre's going to get for a long while.


Anonymous said...

Re: your last sentence: really? Won't a President Obama and a Democratic congress increase arts funding? In the midst of a severe recession this would be essential -- and expected, given Obama's stated positions.

Theater of Ideas said...

I just wrote an entry on my blog (OK, small plug there) that partially addressed that question. But if you want to go right to the stated positions of the candidates on the arts visit a site called ArtsVote2008. Of course, what Obama says he will do and what he will actually be able to/want to do in this economic climate are two very different things.

Anonymous said...

Clearly one of the goals in giving the award is to make the profession itself seem more prestigious. Having a prize that's in the same league as the Pritzker (given to architects) should get press and remind people that playwrights actually exist.

Tony Kushner came to speak to a class I was in and stated that he earned NOTHING from Caroline or Change. Not one cent. Because producers can ask playwrights to give up their royalties but have a harder time taking pay away from actors and crew, if the show isn't doing well.

It may be hard to believe for struggling playwrights (and I'm one of them), but we should really take Tony at his word that he doesn't earn enough from his plays to live on.

It's unsettling news for anyone trying to "make it" as a playwright. but that seems to be the state of our profession.

Anonymous said...

Why do you think Tony Kushner could afford to take a pay cut for Caroline, or Change?

1) His previous successes in Hollywood and with "Angels in America" and

2) He knew a Broadway transfer would result in international and regional productions for which he WOULD receive money; without that Broadway production those subsequent productions would have been much less likely.