And the winner is ... no one?
The 2010 winner of the $25,000 Wendy Wasserstein Prize for playwriting is apparently nobody. The Wasserstein Prize, funded by the Educational Foundation of America (EFA) and administered by Theatre Development Fund, is given to encourage the work of a young, woman playwright in honor of the late Pulitzer and Tony Award winning playwright, Wendy Wasserstein. The prize is supposed to go to a young woman with an outstanding script who has not yet received national attention. This year, apparently, none of the finalists' work was deemed "truly outsanding."
After a lot of criticism, including an online petition, the administrator of the prize announced a "do-over." Now, it looks like the 19 nominees will be reconsidered in a new process of evaluation based on several plays instead of just one. The controversy is articulated best by playwrite Michael Lew, who wrote the following in a letter to the Executive Director of the Theatre Development 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 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."
Wendy Wasserstein was the first female playwrite to win a Tony as the sole author of a play. Her winning play, The Heidi Chronicles, was named best play of 1989 and also garnered the New York Drama Critics Circle award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Wendy Wassterstein is featured on jwa.org in We Remember and in our online encyclopedia. She is also one of the six women in JWA's film about groundbreaking Jewish women in comedy, Making Trouble.
Wendy Wasserstein was one of the first women to write about women’s issues with the astute and comic eye of a social critic. Instead of playing supporting roles, she wrote women as central, complex characters struggling to define themselves in a “postfeminist” America. It's impossible not to wonder what she would think of this debaucle. Michael Lew perhaps said it best in his letter. I think his words capture the feeling of many people who remember and love Wendy and are disappointed by the idea that in 2010, no young woman has written a "truly outstanding" play.
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.