Friday, November 12, 2010

No Wasserstein Prize in 2010; Selection Panel Cites Lack of Outstanding Plays

According to one of their rejection letters, the Wasserstein Prize will not be awarded in 2010 because the selection panel could not find a play they thought was "truly outstanding." As a member of Youngblood and Ma-Yi and the Old Vic network I see truly outstanding plays by emerging female writers on a pretty much daily basis, so as you can imagine I'm outraged by their decision (not to mention the slap in the face it lands on our many talented peers who were nominated).

This is the response that I sent to TDF (c/o Executive Director Victoria Bailey), who adjudicates the prize.

-Mike

Dear Ms. Bailey,

I recently had the chance to review one of the rejection letters for the Wasserstein Prize. As stated in the letter, "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 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.

Respectfully,
Michael Lew
Playwright

72 comments:

rey said...

An amazing response, Mike. Bravo.

Nandita said...

Thank you for speaking out on behalf of emerging playwrights. This was an eloquent response to an outrageous situation.

epfeffin said...

Well put, sir.

Mariah said...

*applause*

I have no words. Just, thank you.

joshcon80 said...

Oh.


My.


God.

nadarine said...

Well-said indeed.

Anonymous said...

GO MIKE! Thank you for such a forceful and elegant response! - Sharyn

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for this, Mike!

Naveen

Anonymous said...

TDF claims that "the Wasserstein Prize is intended for a writer to whom $25,000 will make a substantial difference in her professional life. It is hoped that the prize will ease financial pressures on the recipient and provide her with national exposure and encouragement."

It is a shame that they chose to withhold the prize altogether despite finding work that showed promise. These weren't 19 plays being considered for production--they were 19 playwrights being considered for support.

Kate Powers said...

Sing it!

Anonymous said...

There are other options as well -- they could have chosen to support their Top 5 that showed promise if they did not want to give all $25,000 to one person...

Avi said...

Michael,

Thanks so much for this. The idea that there are no emerging female writers with plays worth $25,000 is ludicrous and I think you hit the nail on the head in focusing on the idea of "emerging." When did it become equated with being young - which seems to be defined as "under 30" nowadays. Which is why...

I find it somewhat ironic that you're writing this on the blog for Youngblood - a group that restricts membership to people under 30. As someone who came a little later to playwriting (and by 'later' I mean I'm in my early 30s), I've found myself shut out not only from various prizes, but from many great development opportunities simply because I am past a certain age. I am a huge supporter of promoting diversity in the field through offering prizes, opportunities, etc. exclusively to women, minorities, or other underserved and underrepresented groups. But when did age become one of those groups? We want youthful, energetic, vital writing to fill our theaters. Who cares if that kind of new writing is coming from people in their 30s, 40s, or otherwise?

joshcon80 said...

Avi,

It's felt by a lot of us that theaters aren't producing young playwrights and that the institution is mostly by and for older people. Theaters may say they want younger audiences, but mostly they just use an edgier font on their posters for whatever dusty old thing they're producing for the billionth time. Hence, Youngblood.

There are plenty of writing groups for people of all ages.

Anonymous said...

Can I further add that the age restriction makes it difficult for many women who often live on a different time-line than men because of raising children, etc. I know many female playwrights who would be considered "emerging" in their late 30s - 40s because they couldn't really start focusing on their art until then. I also suspect Wendy would have been their biggest champion.

Anonymous said...

The topic at hand is an extremely important one for women playwrights. There are other places to discuss agism--which is definitely a problem that many writers face.

But to do so here is to distract from the issue at hand which is the shameful decision on the part of an elite group of successful theater professionals to not support an emerging playwright when they had the rare opportunity to do so.

Steven Boyer said...

There are years when all of the movies nominated for Oscars are shit, but they still give out the Oscar for Best Picture. This award would mean the world to someone, and to withhold it just seems so precious. Wendy Wasserstein was a wonderful woman, but to put her writing on a pedestal, to act as if no play could compare to the genius of Wasserstein is ridiculous. How many years will they withhold this money? How many years before a play is found that is worthy? So it seems it's not really a prize; it's a fund for doling out whenever the panel deems it appropriate. It's a lot of bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Ditto on much of the commentary regarding the above letter and non-awarding of the Wasserstein Prize. But as I came to this site from a link from another writer's site, I too found the age limit both on the Wasserstein prize and then this group as reductive. I'm wondering if as your members pass the magic line of 30, you get kicked out of the group or not? Made me think of the Neil Young song:
"You can't be twenty on Sugar
Mountain
Though you're thinking that you're
leaving there too soon
You're leaving there too soon
You're leaving there too soon"

joshcon80 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
joshcon80 said...

Hi, anonymous. I'm a member of Youngblood who is turning 30 in December. I'll be allowed to finish the season, which ends in the Spring. Luckily for me, they don't give you the hard out when you turn the big 3-0.

I've been a member since I was 27. It has been amazing. I knew the drill when I applied, as does everyone in the group.

Also, ageism in the theater? The whole industry is completely controlled by middle aged people and older. This is a non issue, unlike the issue this post is about.

Anonymous said...

Don't kid yourself, kid. There is as much ageism in the theater as elsewhere. Every theater loves to find the hot, new, young writer. The age cap is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Mike!!!
Let's REMOVE the AGE CAP!!!

Andre Barron
Producer/Director

Leonard Jacobs said...

Bravo for your post, Michael.

http://www.clydefitchreport.com/2010/11/no-play-by-a-woman-good-enough-for-2010-wasserstein-prize/

With best wishes, LJ

liz duffy adams said...

Well said, Michael. I mean, ugh. Something went badly awry in this process, and I'd be curious to know what went on behind the scenes. But however it happened, choosing not to award the prize smacks of abdication of responsibility, and is surely miles away from anything the generous-of-spirit Ms Wasserstein would have wanted. It's painful to think of all the gifted young playwrights for whom $25K and the attendant prestige would mean the world - damn, I'm teaching undergraduates and have a couple of young women in my class whose work deserves that kind of encouragement! I hope the administrators of the award will engage in this conversation, openly reply to your letter, and, frankly, reverse course, even if it means reopening the submission process. As it is, this is just... insulting, dispiriting, a big sad drag.

LucyAlibar said...

Thanks, Mike!

dtrain said...

Shadow shit going on. Is it that there is no writer worth giving the money to or is it that there is no money to give to the writer?

Call it what you will, I bet TDF is saving $25,000 in their endowment and is significantly worse off financially than we imagine.

Isaiah Tanenbaum said...

So disappointed to read this. $25,000 represents an entire Off-Off-Broadway production budget: you could put on a well-produced show in a top-notch 99-seat house and not charge a cent for the tickets. $25K is a YEAR'S worth of dayjob money. A third of the sticker price for an MFA from the top school in the country. To not award it is... words fail me. It's just such a huge lost opportunity.

Heck, even giving each of the top four finalists $6,250 (nothing to sneeze at!) would have been a way to recognize and reward emerging, worthwhile, but "not fully realized" work. Nobody would have thought any less of the Wasserstein Prize next year. It wouldn't have become an MTV Best Kiss award just because every single winning work wasn't The Heidi Chronicles.

And speaking of this failure to find a worthy play, I personally know a dozen amazing, outstanding, moving, female playwrights; heck, Flux is doing a season with plays by three of them (including previous commenter Liz Duffy Adams -- hi Liz!). How did TDF arrive at a situation where, from across the country, they couldn't dig up even ONE decent play, let alone 19, by a talented young female playwright?

If that's happening, then the nomination system is broken, because to say that amidst the hundreds of plays and playwrights out there NONE are worthy is, on its face, ridiculous.

It's their prerogative, I guess, to not issue an award if they don't feel that there's a play/playwright out there worthy of recognition (even if, as I said, they're wrong). But in that case, it's incumbent upon them to use that $25K in some other way to advance the cause it's supposed to advance -- namely, serving an incredibly and woefully underrepresented group: young, female playwrights.

Send that money to a theater company that's advancing the 50/50 by 2020 initiative. Grant it to a college that's ready to hire a female playwriting professor but can't afford it. Give it to a high school that's cutting arts funding (shouldn't be too hard to find one of those).

It's sad enough that the nomination/award system is clearly so broken. It would be the height of shame (in all senses of the word) to see that $25K, and its attendant publicity, sit in a vault doing nothing until 2011.

joshcon80 said...

It's not fair that only Asian playwrights get to be in Ma Yi!!!!

Anonymous said...

Maybe they're broke and too embarrassed to admit it...

John Hudson said...

As I understand it from the Time Out Chicago Blog, it is the Dramatists Guild and the Educational Foundation of America who a subcontracted to TDF the task of selecting a recipient of the Wasserstein Prize. If TDF's selection process is incapable of identifying a single woman playwright under 32 who needs $25,000 and who has an outstanding script, then maybe the funders should choose another entity to administer the prize. The flaw clearly lies in TDF's organizational process--which considered only NINETEEN nominated plays-- not in the lack of great unrecognized scripts by women playwrights. Maybe they should allow open submissions.

Karla Jennings said...

Mike's comments were spot on, especially noting that the prize can address more than a single play, and is vital to an emerging playwright. I'd like to add that a 32-yr-old age limit and nomination from only 19 sponsors (probably the usual suspects, Yale/Brown/Goodman/NYU/Juilliard/Public Theater/UTAustin etc.) indicates that the Wasserstein Prize is perpetuating the hermetic cultural inbreeding that's contributing to theater's genetic collapse. It indicates the board's focused on playwrights who've recently graduated from one of the few sacred programs and have spent their adult lives solely in theater, moving through established networks, and that they are not interested in writers with diverse life experience. Then, then when they find submissions lacking in depth, variety, or cultural scope, they are shocked, shocked that this would occur. Perhaps guidelines that venture outside academia and the major theaters would help them find more diversity and depth (consider the Susan Smith Blackburn sponsor guidelines). I'd suggest they widen their net by: 1. raising the age cap to 40; 2. broadening the number of nominating entities, and; 3. reading the submissions blind (which I hope they're doing now-- I couldn't find the guidelines online). We all read scripts in context. The author's name has a significant effect on how we judge the work (for instance, it's possible that they were subconsciously assuming they'd receive certain kinds of plays from certain authors, and didn't, and responded accordingly). Anonymous submissions level the field by putting all focus and context on the play alone. Our national theater would be healthier if anonymous submissions were routine. It would strip out the context that comes from names and networks and put the focus on the script itself, which is the heart of theater.

Avi said...

I just want to clarify what I originally wrote. I was NOT advocating the disbandment of groups like Youngblood or Young Vic. I love the work those groups do and do think young voices need to be heard more. My point was that age restrictions are just that - restrictive. And that "emerging" should not be synonymous with "young" or "under 30" or "[insert age here]". Certainly not in the case of this prize, in which both the fact that theaters have to nominate playwrights and the fact that there is an age restriction - as opposed to an open submission process - result in myriad emerging female voices going unnoticed. Yes, there are administrative considerations with open submissions, but they could work around that. That is what I meant. I am simply questioning the wisdom of restricting the pool of selections.

That said, I do think the choice to award zero dollars to zero playwrights this year was an extremely poor decision that sends a really bad message.

Kat said...

Thank you for responding with such eloquence, my good sir. Taking on opposition with articulate, supportive conversation is exactly what this world needs more of. Bravo and many many kudos!!!

Carson said...

Mike Lew, you are my hero. A prince among men. And one articulate !@#$%. Thanks for having your colleagues' backs like this. Truly moving, and the one good thing to come out of this. (Thus far. I have hope your letter will inspire a cascade of good things. I really do.)

Thanks for upping my often-flagging hope quotient,
Carson

Jeanmarie said...

I want to know who makes up that panel. This is insulting and pretentious and so typical. It makes my blood boil. DAMN!

Jeanmarie said...

PS - Great letter, Mike! Blessings on your house forever.

chavisory said...

A friend asked me to blog on this topic, but I'm going to have to decline, as I don't think I could say anything better or more eloquently than you have here.

I live with an outstanding young female playwright, so I know they exist...she leaves her dishes all over the kitchen....

Either the panel didn't range very widely in their call for nominees, or they didn't know how to read what they got, but I guarantee that there were outstanding plays written by young women this year.

Jenny Greeman said...

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your courage and eloquence. The idea that TDF - an arts advocacy organization! - would withhold financial support from any artists given the current economic climate and the usual disdain for the arts that exists in our country is unforgivable. I have personally worked with three young female playwrights this year whose work shows enormous potential and resonance. If our own community is willing to undermine the process of making art, how can we ever hope to compete with film, video games, iPods, etc?

Jenny Greeman
Actor/Director; Resident Director, Dark Lady Players; Artistic Associate, New Perspectives Theatre Company

GregM said...

Dear Mike,
Many thanks for this. I cannot BELIEVE that TDF couldn't find one play worthy. Something is seriously awry. I can think of five women I knew at Iowa who'd all be worthy: Jen Silverman, Sarah Sander, Mary Hamilton, Morgan Sheehan-Bubla, and Mel Leilani Larson. (Jen Fawcett just misses the age limit.)
That's insane. As commenters have suggested, they could've split the money two or three ways if there wasn't one outstanding play, or they could've asked for new nominations, or they could've selected a non-nominated play (as the Pulitzers did with "Rabbit Hole.")

Something is rotten in the state of TDF. Thanks for fighting the good fight.

Anonymous said...

Total bullshit. The world is made of popsicle sticks and somewhere there is NY Times Review that says that is "haunting, lyrical, etc." Sad to see that the arts are as corrupt as Enron.

EJ said...
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EJ said...
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EJ said...
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EJ said...
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EJ said...

What I just wrote to Victoria Bailey in response to this:

To Whomever Fields This Letter,

Can you please see that it gets to Victoria Bailey?


Dear Victoria,

I'm not one to write letters often, but once I read Michael Lew's response to what is going on with the Wasserstein Prize, I had to write. As a femaleplaywright--or as I like to just say: playwright--I think TDF did the right thing. The fact that this situation is being inflated into being a blanket indictment against women is just absurd.
Do I think this situation could have gone differently if the submission policy was beyond just a nomination? Sure. However, just
because it wasn't, doesn't mean that $25,000 (in this economy!),
should be given out to subpar work, just because it was kind of/sort of at the top of the pile of kind of/sort of okay work. I think people should be thrilled about this. I am.

A couple of years ago, when the NY Times covered that female
playwright summit downtown, all I could think of was here were a bunch of women whose work wasn't good enough to be produced, pulling out the gender card as a reason as to why this was happening. At this time Young Jean Lee and Sheila Callaghan were two women whose work was successfully being produced downtown. Never did I think of them by their gender, only by their trade and that they were creating exceptional, interesting and exciting work. This is the way it should be. If women really want progress, they need to realize that progress is reaching the top regardless of gender. The goal here for these
women, is equality right? My goal is just to be taken seriously as a
playwright, without some sort of feminine modifier in front of the
word. This is why I fundamentally disagree with the Wasserstein Prize
....and think it should be something that is accessible to both genders, but that is neither here nor there at this moment (and hopefully a means to convey that I'm writing with sincerity and not a way to suck up for future nomination, which is something I would personally not accept, no matter what the monetary value). To isolate the here and now though, since this is a woman's prize, wouldn't all of these women
want to be represented by something spectacular? Wouldn't giving the prize out to subpar work make the prize less valuable?

Not settling is an important thing. In all aspects of life. Next
year, when this prize is awarded, everyone can rest assured that this
organization did not settle for subpar work and that the woman who
luckily gets this money will be worth every penny and will feel that
way.

So, if you are fielding a lot of hate mail at this point in time,
know there is one in the pile that says "well done."

All the best,
EJL

Melanie said...

Thank you so much Mike for such a thoughtful letter. Thanks to all including those in disagreement for such intelligent responses.

As a community if we disagree with the decision that TDF has made in this matter, in the midst of our incredibly busy (nay frantic) lives as artists trying to scratch out life in NYC and beyond, lets keep this conversation open. Lets remember it when we interact with decision makers, and financial backers and all the other people who shape what we do.

We all know it takes money to make theater happen. The most frustrating part of this for me is that there is actually a sizeable amount of money available to feed the arts being which is being witheld thereby starving the very artists TDF purports to support. Even those who agree with EJL's very intelligent argument in favor of TDF's decision may see the empowering possibilities of using this 24K to support a better outcome next year without lessening the value of such a prize. Lets keep the pressure on TDF to re-allocate this money. There are several good suggestions right here on this blog, starting with Mike's original ideas.

How can we move this agenda forward with the decision makers at TDF?

Adam said...

A petition has been put together to ask the decision makers to reconsider their decision--

http://apps.facebook.com/petitions/1/tdf-please-reconsider-2010-wasserstein-prize/

Emily Chadick Weiss said...

I'm proud to be in your writer's group, Mike. Thanks for saying something.

Emily

Diana Grisanti said...

Thanks so much for writing this and for being an ally, Michael. Receiving that rejection was A) bizarre and B) sort of humiliating.

Your letter is articulate, accurate, and deeply heartening.

Anonymous said...

So well said. Thank you.

~Catherine Castellani

Keith Enrique Beck said...

The four items here are quotes from a letter by Michael Lewis posted on www.youngblood.blogspot.com - probably not going to make a lot of friends with my comments but it just seems this business lives on rejection and the collective always seems to be frustrated by that. Its why those who once walked in these shoes who learn how to survive it and learn from it and are lucky can create an “Outrageous Fortune”

1. "After all, plays are meant to be experienced and not read on a page."

The experience begins on the page. If it doesn't move you at least a little, if you can't see the potential or gain a vision then how can it grow to anything that will have breath and life on a stage.

2." 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."

Celebrations are for parties, weddings and if your Irish funerals. The only way anyone grows is from failure, the only way any learns is by missing the mark and learning what missed. Why is it required to have encouragement for 3rd place?

3. 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.

Dearth of opportunities in any business, is it harder for minorities? Yes. Does it mean they should expect a paved road? The award functioned as a business. It found no script (not writer) close to being ready. How many of the scripts were tested, read, worked, re-written etc. If the award functioned as a business did the product meet the criteria of a business? If not then maybe the product should.

4. 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.

Where does it say advocacy tool? I thought it said cash prize 25K. Interesting how the author writes industry to avoid using the word business again.

Godfrey Simmons, Jr. said...

Wow Mike! Well done! Thanks so much for writing, because this is some shit here.

theresa said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this letter.

Jack Worthing said...

Re-posted from commenter 'EJL' on Kris Vire's blog. No, I'm not female and no, I didn't write this.

Dear Victoria,

I’m not one to write letters often, but once I read Michael Lew’s
response to what is going on with the Wasserstein Prize, I had to
write. As a female playwright–or as I like to just say: playwright–I
think TDF did the right thing. The fact that this situation is being
inflated into being a blanket indictment against women is just absurd.

Do I think this situation could have gone differently if the
submission policy was beyond just a nomination? Sure. However, just
because it wasn’t, doesn’t mean that $25,000 (in this economy!),
should be given out to subpar work, just because it was kind of/sort
of at the top of the pile of kind of/sort of okay work. I think people
should be thrilled about this. I am.

A couple of years ago, when the NY Times covered that female
playwright summit downtown, all I could think of was here were a bunch
of women whose work wasn’t good enough to be produced, pulling out the gender card as a reason as to why this was happening. At this time
Young Jean Lee and Sheila Callaghan were two women whose work was
successfully being produced downtown. Never did I think of them by their gender, only by their trade and that they were creating
exceptional, interesting and exciting work. This is the way it should be. If women really want progress, they need to realize that progress is reaching the top regardless of gender. The goal here for these women, is equality right? My goal is just to be taken seriously as a playwright, without some sort of feminine modifier in front of the word. This is why I fundamentally disagree with the Wasserstein Prize and think it should be something that is accessible to both genders,
but that is neither here nor there at this moment (and hopefully a
means to convey that I’m writing with sincerity and not a way to suck
up for future nomination, which is something I would personally not
accept, no matter what the monetary value). To isolate the here and
now though, since this is a woman’s prize, wouldn’t all of these women
want to be represented by something spectacular? Wouldn’t giving the
prize out to subpar work make the prize less valuable?

Not settling is an important thing. In all aspects of life. Next
year, when this prize is awarded, everyone can rest assured that this
organization did not settle for subpar work and that the woman who
luckily gets this money will be worth every penny and will feel that
way.

So, if you are fielding a lot of hate mail at this point in time,
know there is one in the pile that says “well done.”


Read more: http://www3.timeoutny.com/chicago/blog/out-and-about/2010/11/no-wasserstein-prize-in-2010/#ixzz15NArw4XR

Jack Worthing said...

She posted it already. Oh well. Worth repeating. Sorry.

S.P. Miskowski said...

Michael Lew, your response is eloquent and thoughtful. And maybe the people who administer the prize need to change the rules.

What I want to add is that the fellowships and awards I received when I was "under 32" helped to build my confidence. Writing is beautiful, but the business of writing is incredibly tough and it's made tougher by the fact that so few people understand what writing is about, and how writers do what they do. Everywhere in America the art of writing is denigrated. For the judges of such a high profile prize to refuse to award that prize further denigrates the art.

The group administering the prize has not been asked to raise the bar on theater writing and make everyone reach for it. They have been asked to select a recipient from a list of nominees. Which is the most exciting, on that list? To say that no one meets their high standard also makes theater look precious and snobby and elitist at a time when theater professionals should be doing all they can to reach new audiences.

In short, this is BS. The judges ought to choose a writer from the list and give that woman the f---ing prize, already. It isn't the Holy Grail. It's just some money to help buy a writer more time to write.

Isaac said...

Brilliant and well put, mike.

Ian Thal said...

I just can't help but wonder if the reason the TDF did not find a play they felt to be worthy of the award is that they were relying on a discovery and nomination process that was inherently flawed.


Wasn't part of the argument of Outrageous Fortune that the current development process and cultural gatekeepers are not necessarily delivering great work to American stages? Are these the same institutions that TDF is relying upon to identify finalists for the Wasserstein Prize?

I'm certain there is a play out there, maybe even 19 plays out there that were worthy of the Wasserstein, but I have no idea if any of them were nominated!

RJ said...

For those who haven't seen the other thread, the NYTimes reports that TDF will reconsider the 19 nominees and have them submit more plays, in the hopes of giving out the award. Mike's letter here gets no small share of the credit (Link). Good work Mike, and good work to everyone who helped shine a light on this.

What becomes clear is that the selection process was critically flawed - 19 (closed) nominees were narrowed to just 4 final scripts. Only those 4 went in front of the final panel of judges for consideration.

It's relatively unsurprising that the attempt to narrow "all female playwrights under 32" down to just four scripts turned out to be reductio ad absurdum. Sincere thanks to TDF for being willing to reconsider the mechanics of this decision.

Anonymous said...

Okay everybody: God knows I hate this blog bullshit but I guess the time has come to weigh in.

I was one of the evil judges on the panel that made this decision - a decision which strikes the majority of you as misogynist and/or elitist or whatever. For the record, the judges (predominantly women) were split as to whether or not to give out the award, some of us said yes, some said no. (I'm not going to tell you my position) The question raised was whether the prize was originally established to honor a specific play or simply to encourage the career of one female playwright. We had no easy answer to that question.

What we all agreed on, however, was that the process of winnowing scripts was not working correctly. I don't know the details of that process, but by the time the 4 finalists arrived on our desks (as opposed to the 10 finalists from last year) they had already gone through it. The fact that from among those 4 there was no consensus as to a favorite (last year 3 of those 10 plays quickly emerged as favorites) led the committee to consider the question of whether the process itself was in need of repair. Thus, the decision to take a year off from awarding the prize so as to realign the system. But to call that decision a slap in the face to women writes is the precise opposite of the truth. The truth is we all know there are highly brilliant plays and writers out there - we just didn't get them somehow this year, and that's a problem with the system, a problem that they're trying to correct.

However - and sorry to contradict Michael Lew - no one connected with the prize has ever considered it an "advocacy tool". Wendy was a friend of mine - she was a woman who loved the theatre and wrote plays out of that love. Wendy was complicated - she variously promoted certain agendas in her life (specifically women's causes) but I would have never called her a strict advocate of any single position or constituency beyond that. She was a kid from Flatbush who died a rich woman and she sought to help some young woman like herself by making a gift. That was an act of generosity on her part - not some calculated act of agenda-driven politics. So before we get all huffy about the absence this year of an award that is - what? Five years old? Let's all take a step back and be glad that Wendy set up the prize in the first place, and likewise that the administrators of the prize are trying their level best to get it right, not to perpetuate "a cycle of exclusion".

Yeesh. Now, calm down.

Bruce Norris
NY

Ian Thal said...

The fact that from among those 4 there was no consensus as to a favorite (last year 3 of those 10 plays quickly emerged as favorites) led the committee to consider the question of whether the process itself was in need of repair. Thus, the decision to take a year off from awarding the prize so as to realign the system.

Thank you for the explanation, Mr. Norris. I suspected it was something like that.

joshcon80 said...

Yes, everybody just be glad for the crumbs that you get!

Keith Enrique Beck said...

Bruce Norris Rocks!

ejl said...

thanks for reposting Jack!

Alexa said...

Outrageous!!

I could show show you at least 3 female playwrights worthy of the award RIGHT NOW! I'm really disgusted! Thank you for the letter.

Ian Thal said...

I could show show you at least 3 female playwrights worthy of the award RIGHT NOW!

That may be the case, Alexa, but there's also a good chance that those three playwrights' works never got to the Wasserstein panel-- and that's the problem.

Anonymous said...

I agree with EJ.

It's ridiculous to argue that their panel refused to award the prize because they have something against women, because the prize is only awarded to a woman.

It's more realistic to argue that the judges have aged and are no longer able to decode works meant for younger audiences, but (a) you didn't argue that, and (b) you would need to grill the panel further and perhaps refer to the 19 plays to argue that convincingly. It might also be worth complaining education isn't accessible, and while one can produce a play that shows ``promise'' without an education it's really hard to write something produceable without buying yourself some rehearsal time and attention from other writers at a uni, and maybe if you're only awarding a prize to young people and your goal is to make more new playwrights be good, it makes sense to think nurturingly about where they are in their careers and how they might use this money to get further, instead of devising yet another authoritarian lottery to heap praise on good playwrights that already exist (and would have existed without your prize). but, that's a very different kind of argument because it doesn't mean it was a mistake not to give the prize if their prize never claimed to consider career position or have an intent for how the recipient would spend it. OR maybe they didn't have the money for the prize because their investments underperformed, so they blamed it on the applicants rather than admit their falliability, but you'd have to actually know something rather than speculate wildly in an anonymous comment to argue that.

It's NOT reasonable to argue that their panel ought to make what they think is the wrong decision because a special interest or its enemies might interpret the right decision in a way that most of us wouldn't like. They need to do their job first, and worry about covering their ass from others' misinterpretations later. Your letter to them has in it the makings of a PC world of 90's-academia Kafka-esque repression from which we are all slowly recovering, and I think if anything's out of date, it's what you wrote.

I also see great new plays by women all the time, but the fact that *A* good new play by a woman of any age exists somewhere doesn't mean it was among their 19 choices. Where does that idea come from?

I also think (and here is where the gender bias comes into it) that the structure of your argument is (1) whine about something you don't like, (2) skip thinking about WHY you don't like it, (3) brainstorm for reasons why SOMEONE wouldn't like it, (4) write down the one that sounds most politically acceptable to you. This is how one ``plays the gender card'' as EJ said, and is among the worst things women's style of writing has to offer (one of the best might be making room for the first person, and deliberately writing to share experience in a way that helps other women without apologizing for not reaching toward some pretentious universal abstraction). so, what's really awesome here, is that we've got a woman stepping up against the kind of unreflexive self-serving bad-faith logic for which women are notorious. I find this invigorating and have a big grin on my face as I feel myself becoming less biggoted and self-hating.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

Your letter is so beautiful. The wonderful part about this is TDF has decided to "go ahead" and reward the prize. The unwonderful part is the women who were nominated this year have been marked by this fiasco. This prize nomination, if nothing else, could have been CV/resume worthy. Did TDF not realize they were doing more to hurt the ones who were nominated simply by adding another mark to our writing, our ethnicities, our careers that are already embellished with labels? From this point, the 2010 Wasserstein nominations will be the known as "the wrtiers who were not good enough."

This act was so full of privelege, pretention, and thoughtlessness that it is ridiculous.
Nevertheless, it reminds me of why I write. It reminds me that
Gatekeepers continue to reward opportunity based upon their experiences, their singular perspectives.

Again, thank you Mr. Lew. I hope to shake your hand one day. May the best of everything go to you. You are absolutely fearless, absolutely awesome.

Ian Thal said...

From this point, the 2010 Wasserstein nominations will be the known as "the wrtiers who were not good enough."

But is this distinction entirely the fault of the TDF or are the folks who accused the Wassetstein committee of misogyny (sort of absurd since they are clearly dedicated to awarding a prize to a woman) to blame for demanding the award be given anyway, even if the committee had misgivings about the quality of the final four nominees?

Anonymous said...

Thal,

I cannot respond to the comment about misogyny because I did not make that point.

However, I've thought about this "media fiasco" a great deal.

I continously return to this understanding: If TDF had never sent out the premature and possibly immature correspondence, this whole matter could have been avoided. Yes, I understand the committee had "probably" begun to revise the guidelines for the prize. Could they have not done this without performing the gesture of sending the letter?

I don't feel as though the actions of Mike Lew and other concerned fellows in the community have been too drastic. I feel as though the actions TDF performed were too drastic. They seem symptomatic of a problem which may have arisen before the summer of 2010.

Ian Thal said...

Anonymous,

Michael Lew (and others) did make charges of misogyny against the Wasserstein committee. Quite bluntly, it's a ridiculous charge because the committee was never going to be awarding the prize to a man under any circumstances.

Is there gender-bias in theatre? Sure there is, but the Wasserstein committee isn't the villain.

Is there a problem with the gatekeepers? Absolutely: if the gatekeepers that nominated the works in question (and then winnowed the nominees) could not provide the committee with a play that excited them, then there is a problem with the gatekeepers. You judge gatekeepers by the work they produce or recommend. The gatekeepers failed the committee as much as they failed the community.

But much of the grassroots response has not been so mature either: calling the committee sexist or misogynist, demanding they just give the award to somebody (anybody) without actually reforming the selection process first, isn't healthy.

RJ said...

Ian:

Nowhere does Mike accuse the committee or anyone of misogyny. Nor has anybody demanded that they give the award to just anybody without reforming the selection process. In fact Mike's letter specifically refers to three or four different ways the selection process could be revised. I'm not sure where you're getting your assertions.

Mike's letter states that the committee's actions risk perpetuating gender bias in the theater by implying "we looked everywhere and nobody was extraordinary." That's not an accusation of misogyny, that's pointing out the unintended consequences of a flawed selection process.

The basic message of the grassroots response was "if you didn't find anyone, look harder." The committee, to their lasting credit, agreed to do just that. The whole thing has moved in a positive direction, in part because of the response - which seems entirely healthy for all involved.

Ian Thal said...

When the committee is told that their actions perpetuate gender bias, simply because they determined that their own search processes are not working properly and that their decision to not give an award until they fix their process is a "slap in the face" (metaphorically violent) of women playwrights, that's a charge of misogyny.

If it is insulting to anyone, it's insulting to those who have been managing (or mismanaging, depending on your point of view) play development in American theatre.

If we are going to figure out who exactly was insulted, we'll have to compare the old process with whatever TDF hatches up in an attempt to reform the process.