The Playgoer: "Emerging Playwrights" Award Committee Can't Agree on "Emerging"

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Emerging Playwrights" Award Committee Can't Agree on "Emerging"

Well, duh.

Any playwright (or any artist for that matter) who has ever been called "emerging" or tried to call themselves that for the purpose of some grant application has ultimately been frustrated by this term. Or frustrated at least by the inconsistency with which it is used, particularly by the people who count, Artistic Directors, Literary Managers and funders.

You may recall the new Steinberg playwriting awards--the ones who gave Tony Kushner its inaugural big lifetime achievement prize last year at this time. Well that's only one of the awards, the others being guessed it... two "emerging" writers.

So, according to NYT, here's what's happened:

Some [judges] thought the prize, created by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, was geared towards writers just a year out of school, while others considered “emerging” to refer to a playwright in mid-career. So when the panel members could not tailor their views to fit the award, they appealed to the board of trustees to alter the award to fit their views. The result was that three playwrights — Bruce Norris, Tarell Alvin McCraney and David Adjmi — instead of two were named the first recipients of the Steinberg Playwright Award, nicknamed the Mimi, on Thursday; Mr. Norris, who is “between emerging and mid-career,” will receive $50,000 while Mr. McCraney and Mr. Adjmi will receive $25,000 each as “emerging, early-career playwrights.”


Defining “emerging playwright” turned out to be like grasping a handful of Jello. Committee members settled on the idea that a writer was still emerging five years after a first production, only to soon note that someone could still be emerging 10 years out, Ms. Carl.
Another debate, reportedly, was effectively whether the point of the award should be to jumpstart some unknown's career or just give further economic sustenance to a "proven" writer who still cannot live off theatre royalties alone.

Now, doesn't that latter category kind of include pretty much every living American playwright other than: David Mamet, Tony Kushner, Terence McNally, Edward Albee, and Neil Simon?

Also, I can't help noticing each of the three winners here all seem to be on a real roll lately, some with clear other sources of funding. In addition to having a big production at the Public this season and appearing on the cover of American Theatre, McCraney, the article notes, is also currently an "International Writer in Residence" for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Norris has had a string of stagings at Steppenwolf and Playwrights Horizons in just the last few seasons. Adjmi indeed has the shortest resume of the three, but LCT3's presentation of his Stunning this summer seemed to give the guy a lot of momentum. While it may seem churlish to consider any playwright over-supported in times like these, isn't there at least something to be said for, you know, spreading the wealth a bit?

I guess this would be unworkable and controversial, but would it be so wrong to have one award for which one of the criteria were "not currently recipient of any other monetary award/grant/commission"? At least consider it a thought experiment.

My point is--as so many playwrights will tell you--that certain "hot" playwrights (at no fault of their own) tend to take up all the oxygen. And that it may not help the profession if all the glories are showered on a select few at once.

No, we should not encourage playwright-envy and resentment of the more successful in the field. But such award-practices don't help.


Monty Cole said...

Of course they're going to give it to playwrights that have shown their promise and have not completely budded into the mainstream. Why would a large foundation give $50,000 dollars to a playwright barely anyone knows with a one hit wonder of which they aren't sure has public appeal? Besides, Norris is personally one of my favorite playwrights and he's barely mentioned anywhere ever. He only has a couple published plays from Northwestern University press. His works are basically just done at Steppenwolf except for The Pain and the Itch, which sort of got out there. I mean...if they had said they gave $25,000 dollars to a NYU Tisch Dramatic Writing Grad student who hasn't been produced yet , an old man who's written a single play and lives in a cabin in New Hampshire, and some other playwright who's never been published, I have to say I'd be disappointed. Because...I mean, that's a lot of money. You have to be SOMEWHAT accomplished to earn that. Besides, if the production of "A Steady Rain" on Broadway proves anything it's that anything can happen for a playwright, even if you still have your day job.

Dr. Cashmere said...

No one said anything about a "one hit wonder." And talking about an old man with one play in New Hampshire (?) is a distraction.

What's dispiriting here is that a bunch of powerful theatre pros have twisted an award to serve an entirely different purpose from the one it was designed for: A prize that might have shaken up the theatre establishment has morphed into a tool of that very same establishment.

Whatever "emerging" means in this context, it's pretty clear that the original point of the award was not to help prevent a 50 year old writer with a dozen regional credits from jumping to TV.

Martha Lavey may think that handing out $50K to an early-career writer is frivilous. But that says more about Lavey than it does about the quality of the writing being done by young writers in this country.

Tony Adams said...

Is is coincidence that two of them are being produced by Martha this year?

Or that Martha is the main AD producing Norris work?

Something seems amiss. I dunno. Maybe it's just the amount of clout she has?

TheEsoCritic said...

"Why would a large foundation give $50,000 dollars to a playwright barely anyone knows with a one hit wonder of which they aren't sure has public appeal?"

Well, Mr. Cole, the simple answer is because that is what any grant foundation is supposed to do. This isn't an investment, it is supposed to be a gift. It is supposed to reward promise, not proven marketability.