Chronicle of an Award Ungiven
The Wasserstein Prize for young female playwrights caused a stir by not naming a 2010 winner. What happened, and what's next?
By Isaac Butler
In 2008, Chicago playwright Laura Jacqmin checked her voicemail and to her surprise found Christopher Durang's voice on it. He called bearing good news. Jacqmin had won the Wendy Wasserstein Prize, a $25,000 award for an early-career female playwright. She was stunned.
"When I got the voicemail, I'm not ashamed to say I burst into tears of gratitude. It took me an hour to calm down long enough to call him back." Jacqmin became the second person to win the prize, established four years ago by the Educational Foundation of America and administered for the past year by Theatre Development Fund. The prize began as a way to honor Wasserstein by recognizing "an outstanding script by a young woman who has not yet received national attention." In addition to Jacqmin, previous honorees have included Linda Ramsay and Marisa Wegrzyn.
The impact on Jacqmin was immediate and tremendous, though the play she won for, And when we awoke there was light and light, remains unproduced. "Did it make me instantly recognized on a national level? No. Did it get my play produced that season, or the next season, or even the season after that? Again, no." Still, Jacqmin describes the prize as life-changing. "Winning the prize said to me: 'We believe in you. You are worth the resources it will take to support you to get to a certain level. No strings attached.'"
In late 2010, instead of a voicemail from a highly regarded elder statesman (or woman) of the industry, all of the nominees for the prize received the following letter:
Thank you for applying for the Wasserstein Prize. We regret to inform you that of the 19 nominated plays, none was deemed sufficiently realized by the selection panel to receive the Prize. As a result, the Wasserstein Prize will not be presented in 2010.
While the panel thought that many of the scripts showed promise, they felt that none of the plays were truly outstanding in their current incarnation.
This is not a reflection on your talent or potential as a playwright. Indeed, you should know that it is an accomplishment to have been nominated for the Prize by a theatre professional well versed in new play development and production.
We send you best wishes for great success in your playwriting career and hope to see more of your work in the future.
Rejection letters are always difficult to take, but learning the prize was not awarded at all was a particularly hard blow for some. One nominated playwright told me in an e-mail that she "felt humiliated. I have dedicated my entire adult life to theatre. I charged my tuition on a credit card, my sister drove me cross-country to school (because my parents disapproved of a life in the arts) and she signed for my loans, and I worked full time through both undergrad and grad school for playwriting. And I opened that letter and thought to myself, 'I'm an idiot. I spent all that time and money but this system is broken.'"
The public response—fueled by a blog post protesting the decision by playwright Michael Lew—was swift and surprisingly vehement. Lew's post on Nov. 12 led to a Facebook petition, cries of sexism, discussions of gender discrimination and articles in the Guardian, the New York Times and Time Out New York's "Upstaged" blog.
By Nov. 15, TDF surprised observers by announcing that the decision had been reversed and the judges were reconvening to try to find a way to award the prize. According to Heidi Ettinger, a Broadway set designer and producer who sits on EFA's board and oversees the prize, "It was the final year of the grant and we didn't want to prejudice its future, and some of the final judges thought the nominating process could be improved, so we decided to reexamine." Victoria Bailey, executive director of TDF, explains that part of the reason was personal. The tone of the discussion around the judges' original decision to withhold the prize would have made Wasserstein "really, really unhappy," Bailey feels. "It seemed wrong to me. That was part of the motivation [for the turnaround]."
How is it that a little-known prize not given to an unknown playwright caused such an outcry? And is it possible that a group of theatre professionals trying to advance the career of an undiscovered female playwright was guilty of gender discrimination?
The first woman to earn a living from writing in the English language was a playwright, and she became one while in debtor's prison. Aphra Behn—English spy code name and authorial pseudonym "Astrea"—washed up from the espionage racket and wound up in jail in the late 1660s. Though she'd funneled state secrets to the British crown, King Charles paid her at a snail's pace, if at all.
Once freed—to this day we don't know who paid her debts—she became a popular playwright. The production of her first play (The Forc'd Marriage) came in 1670, and from there she went on to pen a number of popular and controversial Restoration dramas and comedies (most famously The Rover) as well as fiction (you might've read Oroonoko in a college class about colonialism). As a result of her success, she was rumored to be a prostitute and regularly condemned. Today she is perhaps best known for her cameo appearance in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and as the subject of Liz Duffy Adams's play Or,.
While Behn wrote in debtor's prison as a way to make a future living, today's young writers—women included—put themselves into debt to become artists. And whereas Behn earned her living largely from production money, today's playwrights earn only three percent of their incomes from royalties.
Where does the rest of it come from?
According to TDF's own Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, playwrights earn roughly 50 percent of their living from sources unrelated to playwriting—in other words, their day jobs. They earn about 20 percent of their living from teaching, and only earn some 15 percent from sources related to playwriting. Of those playwriting sources, grants and awards make up about a quarter of the pie.
Grants and awards become even more vital when one takes into consideration the costs involved in both productions and commissions. The average commission received by playwrights is between $3,000 and $5,000. Commissioned plays frequently take two years to write and are rarely produced by the commissioning theatre.
Given this, grants and awards—which tend not to have many strings attached—become even more vital. Playwright Sheila Callaghan—who won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2007—put it even more bluntly over e-mail: "The largest cash award I ever received allowed me to open a savings account. I also got my teeth cleaned—stuff normal people do as a matter of living." When asked how awards compared to royalties, she explained, "My theatre royalties are quite meager in comparison. As many productions as I've had in the past year, I doubt the royalties would cover even one month of New York rent."
While playwriting has arguably become a less lucrative career since Behn's day, for women it's become far less rare. Susan Bernfield is the founder and artistic director of New Georges, one of America's main theatre companies for (to quote its mission statement) "providing essential resources to a community of venturesome artists (who are women)." When I ask Bernfield about the parenthetical placement of her company's gender politics, she laughs (as she frequently does) and responds in a fast-talking blur of excited run-on sentences (as she always does).
"That's my way of saying we put the work first—of visualizing it. Obviously [the woman focus] is important. But it has to be about the work, about the work, about the work! What happens is, people have their own assumptions, and you cannot dig yourself out from under these assumptions...if you emphasize that the work is by women. So we don't want those assumptions—we want the work to speak for itself."
Bernfield founded New Georges in the early 1990s as a way of responding to the dearth of quality roles for women. She decided to address this problem by producing plays written and directed by women and found—shockingly, even in the 1990s—that this was harder than it looked. "It soon became very clear that it was going to be difficult to find these plays by women. They weren't really published. Even ones that won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. They were done and then forgotten." New Georges was born out of this need, and as a result of building a community of female theatre artists, the woman focus "is not something that we think about that much on a day-to-day basis or emphasize. We just do it. And I think we get a lot of good response from artists because of that."
When I ask her how the field has grown and changed, she says she's optimistic, then bursts into laughter—is a New York artistic director allowed to say they're optimistic about anything? She references the New York State Council for the Arts report on women in theatre from the early 2000s by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett, which noted that while women writers were heavily represented in MFA programs, they weren't represented on America's stages. "I felt to myself then, 'Well, that's gotta break, because you can't have all these people hogging these programs and fellowships and awards and not have these plays come to fruition.'" Pointing to several recent examples—Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Julia Cho, her own company's success with Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear—Bernfield says, "I think while the number still may be less significant, the outliers in terms of the big hits, if you really go through and you see the response to them, you've got to be optimistic."
But according to Outrageous Fortune, there's room for improvement. While male and female writers in the study report being produced at similar rates, men are produced more frequently at higher levels. This creates a serious income gap: The average income for females in the study was $25–40,000, while the average income for men was $40–60,000. "What this means," explains the study's author Todd London, "is that women show up in greater numbers at earlier career stages. Things that indicate the advancement of a career—the size of theatre you are produced at, the size of stage you appear on at that theatre, the size of award you get—that those things come to men in more significant numbers." (London is artistic director of New Dramatists, which competed to give out the Wasserstein Prize, and he has been a nominator for the award in years past.)
Over the past few years, a growing number of theatre artists began to question and protest this field-wide gender disparity. The group 50/50 in 2020, for example, founded by Melody Brooks, Julie Crosby and Susan Jonas in 2009 and endorsed by the League of Professional Theatre Women, touts itself as "a grassroots movement to acknowledge the contribution of women to theatre and to achieve employment parity for women theatre artists by the 100th anniversary of American suffrage."
It was into this environment—one in which the economics of the Great Recession make taking chances on new voices harder, while MFA programs graduate more and more writers with student-loan debt, and everyone has it rough but female playwrights have an especially difficult path—that TDF's decision not to award the Wasserstein Prize dropped like a stone. It is also an environment primed for activism, thanks to several years of agitation on the part of members of theatre community. Ironically, this is the exact same environment the award was designed to improve.
"It's been a long week, as you can imagine."
Tory Bailey, the head of TDF, sounds embattled on the phone. This is the third interview she's done in a week about the Wasserstein Prize, but she's still eager to talk. While Bailey knows the process did not work in a satisfactory manner ("Let's not kid ourselves—this is not the outcome that we would have been looking for"), at the same time she is emphatic that everyone involved with the prize operated in good faith. "One of the things that's really disturbing to me about this is the sense that there's something more [behind this] than what we've said."
Indeed, it appears that in the Internet-fueled Total Disclosure Age in which we live, any lacuna in public knowledge immediately becomes suspect. This cultural reality collided with the normal behind-closed-doors proceedings of the granting world and threw both into sharp relief. For example, none of the players here—not the nominators nor the nominated playwrights nor the readers nor the judges—had been publicly disclosed. And as the grant is quite new—only four years old—there was little information available about how it was supposed to work.
Soon after Mike Lew's open-letter blog post, the Internet was abuzz with claims that TDF had surveyed the entire panoply of young female American playwrights and found it lacking, or that TDF was sending a message that there were no good female playwrights under the age of 32. "A lot of this I think erupted because it was mysterious," Susan Bernfield offered. "They became a target, I think, because it was so mysterious, so odd, because people don't know much about the award. I certainly don't." (Keep in mind, this is coming from someone who read and scored a play for the prize this year.)
As details of how the grant is awarded emerged, however, it became clear that TDF was not intending any kind of national message about the quality of young female playwrights. As Bernfield puts it, "I was not really affronted by the whole 'this is an insult to women, whoever is on this committee is sexist.' You know? They agreed to be on the committee because they were gonna give a prize to a woman. Their guidelines were clearly flawed." As Bailey put it, "It's a young grant. The process needs to be refined."
Indeed, there are several places where the process broke down, and to see them it's important to understand how the prize is supposed to work. The Wasserstein Prize is awarded via a nomination process. Nominators are asked to select a writer who fits the award guidelines (female, under 32, never produced at an Off-Broadway or major LORT theatre with more than 199 seats). Once redundancies are removed, that pool of nominated playwrights is contacted and asked to submit an unproduced play they feel represents their best work. Those plays are then read and scored by two readers each. Those with a high enough score make it to the final round, where they're read and debated by a judges' panel of top industry professionals with personal ties to Wasserstein.
At every stage of the process, there were problems that made this year's outcome more of an eventuality than an outlier. There were simply not enough nominators (fewer than 40) nominating not enough playwrights (19) to have a good shot at getting a winner. Todd London, for example, told me that New Dramatists looks at 2 plays by each of 300–325 playwrights every year to determine its annual class of 5–8 inductees. Said Bernfield, "I could read 25 plays and not like one."
There was also confusion about the grounds for awarding the prize. As one nominator explained, there were key differences between the guidelines she was given and the rejection letter sent to playwrights. "I was asked to nominate a writer, not a script...I was asked to nominate 'a young woman who has demonstrated excellence as a playwright and who has strong potential for future achievement,' not a play that I felt was ready for production, or fully realized, or 'done.'"
This confusion about goals extended into the evaluation process as well, where readers were asked to score the scripts and provide comment explaining the scores. But, as Bailey explains it, "The people are applying their own professional judgment to the score." In other words, there were no guidelines for how to score the scripts to keep the scores in line with the goals of the prize. Additionally, having only two readers for each script may have made it easier for plays to be excluded, because there was no "tie-breaker" vote.
Due to all of the above, when the decision moved into the judges' room, the judges only had four scripts to choose from. Four scripts—as anyone who has had to evaluate worthiness for prizes can tell you—is not many. The judges (Lincoln Center Theater artistic director André Bishop, Second Stage artistic director Carole Rothman, Newsday critic Linda Winer, Broadway producer Robyn Goodman, playwright Bruce Norris and director Daniel Sullivan) produce and operate on a very high level compared to the plays they were evaluating for "excellence."
In conversations about the award with people involved, "excellence," not "potential," is the word that keeps coming up. As Heidi Ettinger bluntly put it, "This [is] an award for excellence, not mediocrity." The nominating instructions, however, asked the nominators to consider a number of factors, including a strong potential for future achievement.
One agent interviewed for this article found the disconnect between the judges and the world of emerging playwrights particularly troubling. Citing the recently created Horton Foote and Steinberg prizes, he said that "the underlying issue with this situation doesn't seem to be about gender—it's not like they tried to give the prize to a man—but about the continuing dismissal of younger generations by the same small group of established artists, while meanwhile new grants keep being created for them to give each other."
But it is here that London sees the most hope for progress. After explaining that he feels that TDF is doing exactly the right thing by reexamining the process, London says that "one of the things that should come out of this is a conversation between playwrights and other professionals in the field, including the funder, about 'What are we seeing differently?' What are the playwrights writing that people are reading as not being prize-worthy? And what do the playwrights have to learn from the people who are reading them? Obviously people are looking at the same plays and seeing very different things."
Whether the conversation London hopes for will happen is an open question, particularly now that the future of the prize is in jeopardy. Its initial funding is up for renewal, and Ettinger hinted in the Times that the recent controversy may have compromised its integrity. "This is a privately funded prize," she elaborated in our interview, "and the general tone of the commentary has been so nasty and entitled that I worry that convincing the board of the foundation to renew the grant may be difficult."
Where Ettinger—whose grandfather Richard Prentice Ettinger founded EFA with his textbook fortune—sees entitlement, those with deep ties to the emerging playwriting community see desperation. This disconnect suggests that even now, the parties are continuing to talk past each other. On the one hand, you have the originators of the prize claiming that it will have no integrity if it must be given out each year, while on the other you have people in the emerging playwrights field saying that if the prize were designed properly, there wouldn't be a year in which there was no playwright to give it to.
When I ask Lew how he feels about going public, he responds by getting back to first principles. "There is a real dearth of substantive production opportunities for females and for writers of color," Lew maintains. "This is not just a fairness thing; this exclusion is costing us in lost talent and lost audience. At its best the prize helps to combat that ecosystem by granting wider exposure to writers who are continually being neglected. But that's not what happened this year."
Isaac Butler is a director and writer. He blogs at parabasis.typepad.com.blog comments powered by Disqus
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