All nineteen nominees for the Wasserstein Prize--an annual award from the Theatre Development Fund for female playwrights that is named for the Pulitzer-winning Wendy Wasserstein--have been turned down this year. In blanket rejection letters, the panel of judges said that no one is receiving the honor this year because none of the entries were "truly outstanding."
The award, which launched in 2007, offers a $25,000 prize to a female playwright that is 32 years old or younger and who has yet to receive national attention for her work. The money is intended to make it possible for the playwright to spend more time on her work. According to Time Out Chicago, nominations are solicited. A spokesperson indicates that it is the play that wins, rather than the playwright--which seems strange given the award's explicit mission of honoring talented but emerging female artists to help dissolve the brutal gender disparity in professional theatre. Last year's winner of the Wasserstein Prize was Chicago-based playwright Marisa Wegrzyn.
The news of this year's no-award decision is going over none to happily. Playwright Michael Lew posted an open letter to the Fund's director, Victoria Bailey, about the matter, a move that broke the news publicly; the Fund has yet to release a statement, though nominated playwrights confirm that they received the rejection letter that Lew quotes. The open letter reads as follows:
This decision can only be interpreted as a blanket indictment on the quality of female emerging writers and their work, and is insulting not only to the finalists but also to the many theatre professionals who nominated these writers and deemed their plays prize worthy. This decision perpetuates the pattern of gender bias outlined in Julia Jordan and Emily Glassberg Sands' study on women in theatre, and the message it sends to the theatre community generally is that there aren't any young female playwrights worth investigating.
I have personally witnessed a vibrant community of emerging female writers whose work is truly outstanding and whose plays are brilliantly realized. If the selection panel can't engage with that community under the current guidelines, then blow up the guidelines. If you can't find a script worth celebrating, then celebrate a production. After all, plays are meant to be experienced and not read on a page. If you can't find a production, then celebrate a body of work. If you can't find a young writer whose body of work is sufficiently expansive, then remove the 32 year old age cap on eligibility for the prize. After all, there are precious few writers - male or female - whose plays have received national attention by the ripe old age of 32. And if you still can't find an emerging writer at any age whose body of work is worth celebrating, then celebrate a vision. Celebrate a promising voice. Celebrate a writer of startling potential. But above all, you must celebrate and not condemn -- you must summon the same generosity of spirit that Wendy herself showed young artists.
Wendy Wasserstein's legacy as one of America's most prominent playwrights is both beautiful and haunting -- a beautiful testament to Wendy's prolific talents and a haunting reminder of how difficult it is for women writers to get the attention that they deserve. I know you're aware of the inequalities that persist in this business -- the dearth of production opportunities for females and for writers of color. This award should help to combat those inequalities by bringing more attention to voices that are continually shut out of the conversation. If this were the Pulitzer Prize, then it might (or might not) make sense to set a bar that compares the most prominent plays in recent American history, and in certain years decide that no play reaches that bar. But this is an advocacy tool - not just a prize - and in an industry that is hostile to providing equal resources for all voices, there can be no bar to advocacy.
I hope that we can have a further conversation about this. I know that you personally have been a tireless champion for playwrights, and the field certainly owes you a debt for your years-long effort creating Outrageous Fortune. This year, the Wasserstein Prize has been used to pass judgment on a generation of talented writers, and that decision perpetuates the very cycle of exclusion that this award seeks to redress.
Now, I get that sometimes the prestige of an award--especially a young one like the Wasserstein Prize--can be enhanced by keeping standards high and sometimes holding back on offering it. But all the same, I agree with what Lew has to say in his open letter, which keeps an eye on the unique stance of this particular prize. It does seem like that it is the award committee's lack of attentiveness and adaptability that is the lack here, rather than the playwrights themselves.
Wendy Wasserstein, whose work I love and who died of cancer at age 55 in 2006, was the author of The Heidi Chronicles (see my review here), Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't it Romantic?, The Sisters Rosensweig, Old Money, and several other plays and works of nonfiction. Besides the Pulitzer Prize, she also won a Tony Award (the first woman to win the award for new play). Wasserstein, one of the most successful female playwrights ever, devoted her career to creating more places and spaces for women in theater (on and offstage) and advocating to make theatre accessible to young people, especially those of economically disadvantaged classes.
In an interview with A.M. Homes for BOMB Magazine in 2001, Wasserstein was asked about what issues she felt America was going to face in the coming years. Her response fuses artistic integrity with a personal-is-political morality that the award in her name is, ostensibly, intended to carry forward. Here is what she had to say:
Because I’m a writer, the question of the NEA and its funding of the arts. There is a fear of individual voices. People don’t want to hear things that need to be said. And the whole thing about family values. What are real ethics? What is real character? You begin to see a lack of it, and a lack of real thinking. It’s almost like the society’s been shellacked. Whereas this country’s legacy was based on a deep understanding of individual freedom. It’s very sad, but that’s what’s at stake here. And I worry about a woman’s right to choose and John Ashcroft’s belief that it is his God-given right to choose for us.
... (As for political correctness, it's) scary both ways, on the Left and on the Right. Either way, it’s saying there’s a correct way to think and if you don’t think this way, you’re lacking. You’re not allowed to attack the establishment anymore, and one should be able to. There’s a lack of leadership. Like an artist, a great leader says, I see this, we’re going there. And that’s not there. It’s scary. I was just thinking about the feminists of the late sixties, early seventies because I started college in ’67 at Mount Holyoke. I took the first women’s history class there and those ideas changed my life, I mean truly changed my life.
About the Image: Wendy Wasserstein, via BOMB Magazine.
UPDATE (11/15/2010): Well, this is surprising and interesting. Because of the widespread criticism of the Theatre Development Fund's decision to not award a winner of the Wasserstein Prize this year, the prize's administrator announced today that TDF would revise the selection process and initiate it all over again for 2010. From The New York TImes:
Amid the outcry, (Victoria Bailey, the TDF executive director) spoke with others involved in the prize, including Heidi Ettinger, the Tony Award-winning set designer and producer, who helped establish the prize through the Educational Foundation of America as a tribute to her friend Ms. Wasserstein. They decided on Monday to spend the next two months refining the selection process and then going back to all 19 eligible nominees (including any of those who have since turned 33) to ask for resubmissions.
Ms. Bailey said she could not say for sure what the new criteria for the award would be but predicted that the nominees would be asked to submit more than one play and perhaps drafts of plays. She also said she did not know when the entire process would conclude. While she didn’t want to prejudge the outcome, she said the hope was that a winner would be selected from the 19 nominees.