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A Do-Over for the Wasserstein Playwriting Prize

Date: Nov 15, 2010
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Mounting criticism and attention over word that the $25,000 Wendy Wasserstein Prize for playwriting would not be awarded this year because no script by a young female writer was deemed worthy has led to a turnaround: The administrator of the prize announced on Monday that the selection process would be refined and then done over in hopes of finding a winner.

A mini-firestorm erupted among writers, teachers, and theater artists as word spread last week from some of 19 award nominees that there would be no 2010 recipient of the prize, one of the most financially meaningful to young playwrights. More than 800 people have signed an online petition to the prize committee and the administrator, the Theater Development Fund, asking for reconsideration of the decision. The playwright Michael Lew (“Roanoke”) also wrote a letter of protest to the fund.

“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 theater professionals who nominated these writers and deemed their plays prize worthy,” Mr. Lew wrote. “This decision perpetuates the pattern of gender bias outlined in Julia Jordan and Emily Glassberg Sands’ study on women in theater, and the message it sends to the theater community generally is that there aren’t any young female playwrights worth investigating.”

Accusations like that, in turn, infuriated some of those involved with the prize, who said the criticisms were based on incorrect information and off the mark. Nevertheless, Victoria Bailey, executive director of Theater Development Fund, a nonprofit group that runs TKTS and a variety of arts education programs, said on Monday that 19 nominees would be reconsidered in a new process that would probably involve evaluation based on several plays by each instead of just one apiece.

Ms. Bailey provided a detailed description of the process that led to no winner of the prize, now in its fourth year, given in honor of the late Pultizer Prize-winning playwright of “The Heidi Chronicles.” Thirty-two nominators from across the country — a mix of writers, teachers, dramaturgs, theater literary managers and artistic directors — each put forward the name of a female playwright under the age of 32. A total of 24 were nominated (some people nominated the same writers); of those, 19 were deemed eligible for consideration.

Besides meeting the age and gender requirements, eligible contenders had not previously had a commercial Broadway production; an Off Broadway run in a theater with 199 seats or more that receive attention from national media; a mainstage production at a major regional theater; or success writing for television or film. Each of the 19 eligible nominees was asked to submit a play of her own choosing. The playwrights’ names were redacted from the scripts, which were then read by a pool of judges without regard to identity; two judges read and scored each script, a process that yielded four finalists. A panel of six judges — theater artists, both female and male, Ms. Bailey volunteered — read and discussed the plays by the finalists. A majority of the judges, Ms. Bailey said, did not believe “there was a play at the stage ready to win the prize.” She declined to identify any of nominators, judges, or playwrights, saying she wanted to protect their privacy.

Amid the outcry, Ms. Bailey 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 late 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 re-submissions.

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 did not want to prejudge the outcome, she said the hope was that a winner would be selected from the 19 nominees.

The prize is financed from a four-year grant, now in its final year. Ms. Bailey said that she hoped the prize would still be available for female playwrights in the years ahead. Previous recipients were Marisa Wegrzyn (2009), Laura Jacqmin (2008) and Linda Ramsey (2007).

Ms. Ettinger said in an e-mail on Monday: “This is the final year of the grant for the prize, and it will be up for reconsideration next year. All along, we have been changing and refining criteria to insure that the objectives of the prize honoring Wendy and her high standards were met. We have also managed to increase the amount of the award. As a funder, we must be able to insure the integrity of the prize and provide selection panels the freedom they need free of outside pressures.”

Some of the outcry was off point. Some critics have held up the 29-year-old playwright Annie Baker as an example of a young, deserving woman writer, considering her two critically acclaimed Off Broadway plays this year, “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Aliens.” But Ms. Baker was not eligible for consideration because “Circle Mirror” had been produced at the Studio Theater in Washington and reviewed in The Washington Post.