Press & Media
Playwrights are well acquainted with the device of ironic reversal: the surprise turn, the unintended consequence, the sweet intention's sour fruit. And in this week's micro-brouhaha surrounding an annual theater prize, some of them may have written themselves into just such a twist.
On Friday, we reported on brewing anger at the decision by Theatre Development Fund —administrators of the annual Wasserstein Prize, designed to support emerging female playwrights—not to award its $25,000 grant to any of its 2010 candidates. Over the weekend, the outrage went viral and spawned a Facebook petition asking TDF to reconsider its decision.
This campaign, inaugurated by an open letter by playwright Michael Lew to TDF's executive director, Victoria Bailey, appears to have succeeded. Yesterday, TDF agreed to revisit its rules and consider the rejected contenders under a new set of guidelines. Patrick Healy's article on the issue on the Times website was titled "A Do-Over for the Wasserstein Prize," and the feeling of celebration among the protesters was typified by a post on Youngblog : "Check out the New York Times' Arts Beat blog post about TDF's decision to reconsider the nominees for the Wasserstein prize. Big props to Mike Lew for his fantastic letter, and to the petition signers!"
But this apparent victory may be Pyrrhic. Healy's article raised a detail that had not been a subject of general discussion earlier: that the Wasserstein Prize is a four-year project whose future funding is not assured. Toward the end of the piece is an ominous statement from Heidi Ettinger, a key figure in the establishment and funding of the prize: “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.”
In pitting the values of "high standards" and "integrity" versus the threat of "outside pressures," Ettinger seemed to be signaling serious doubts about the viability of the Wasserstein Prize after this year's blowup. In insisting that it give an award this year, might activists have inadvertently put the program in peril? Has the power of the grassroots put the flower at risk?
In the interest of getting a fuller account of the complexities involved, we spoke by phone yesterday with TDF's gracious and determinedly fair-minded Bailey about the controversy. While stressing that she understood where the protesters were coming from, Bailey also expressed frustration with the way that events had played out, as well as concern about the possible ramifications of the protest. "You don't honor an award by making it easy," she maintained. "If people are looking for a funder to commit to a prize no matter what, then you put that grant in jeopardy, because there’s not a foundation in the world that would do that."
After the jump: a full-length Q&A with Victoria Bailey, drawn from yesterday's conversation.
Time Out New York: What are your feelings about the protest movement that greeted the administrators’ decision not to award a prize this year?
Victoria Bailey: The way we communicate now kind of lends itself to short, declarative sentences. Things move so quickly, and people think very quickly. But the process here is complicated. For instance, it’s very hard to create a selection process for a young, unknown writer. The definition makes it difficult, and there’s an important commitment to anonymity. You could say, “In addition to the script, let’s have some kind of redacted summary of, you know, X number of commissions or Y number of fellowships,” but then you’re really disadvantaging someone who’s 22 or 23 years old and has a striking voice. There have been questions about why [certain specific] writers were not considered; but it was a nomination process, and there are pretty strict guidelines about who can and can’t be nominated, because of who the prize is intended for. At the end of the day it also goes back to Wendy, who certainly understood complex thinking. And what makes me sad is that it became a lot of “Well, this is what she stood for”—and that’s not what it is. But I also understand that the power of the medium now is that information can travel very, very quickly.
And people get angry very quickly.
And people get angry very quickly. There’s a kind of assumption that “There must be something wrong here,” as opposed to “There must be something I don’t understand here.” I’m sure I do that, too! I think we all do that. And the whole issue of the challenges facing women writers and women in the theater is a hot button right now. But the thing that’s very painful about it all is that it took off with an assumption that somehow people had intended to be dismissive or not honor the work of folks.
That is something that comes up often with the Drama Critics' Circle. We’re bound by our bylaws in ways that can yield unexpected results, and sometimes we can't give a prize.
And also, you don’t honor a prize by making it easy. Again, I think people were angry, I think they were hurt. But there are also guidelines, and a grant is—there are issues related to the funder, or the bylaws in your situation, that have to be dealt with, because if you don’t maintain the integrity then you’ve really lost. But I think that the conversation that we had [in the past few days] and where we’ve ended up is a place that honors everybody’s input. We’re at the end of the grant, and rather than postpone for a year, let’s work out the selection process, let’s see now what we can do so that as they consider renewed funding they know what it might look like.
What I didn’t know last week is that this award was funded as a four-year plan, which raises some questions. When this story broke, my first reaction was that maybe the controversy might help the award by bringing attention to it and getting more people to make submissions.
That’s our hope! [Laughs] Though of course it’s not a submission, it’s a nominator process. But maybe more people will step forward [as nominators]—because the first challenge if you’re trying to cast your net very wide is to make sure that that you have a really wide group of nominators, and that you’ve got geographic diversity and you’ve got diversity in their professions so that you’re reaching as large a group of people as you can to come up with possible candidates.
But now that we know more about the specifics of the funding and process, I wonder if the grassroots protest in this case might have been counterproductive. Could that movement actually have undermined the possibility of the prize being able to continue at all?
It’s not at all unusual for there to be a grant cycle like this. Our hope had been that it would be renewed. But I don’t know that the process of the last few days has necessarily.… I think it’s a challenge for the funder. If you look at what Heidi said in the [Times] article, I think her quote suggests that she’s concerned about setting up a situation in which you are in fact able to—how did she put it?
“To insure the integrity of the prize and provide selection panels the freedom they need free of outside pressures.”
Right. She feels really strongly about that. And I think at the moment that appears severely challenged. I don’t think there’s any award that is mandated that you give it every year. But one interpretation of the outcry is that you have to do that. And if that were to continue to be a point of view, I think that would be a problem. Let’s be clear: It’s not appropriate for me to put words in people’s mouths. But I don’t think this kind of uproar helps necessarily; you can’t have a conversation with 500 people, and you can’t have a conversation with 500 people when they’re upset. Obviously there may be people who think you have to give a prize no matter what. But if people are looking for a funder to commit to a prize no matter what, then you put that grant in jeopardy, because there’s not a foundation in the world that would do that. That wouldn’t be responsible.
So where does that leave the prize at this moment?
It’s complicated. But this is a grant whose purpose the funder feels really deeply about: It’s about acknowledging young women. So we will look at adjustments and, I’m sure, implement some adjustments. And we’ll see where that puts us.