No Wasserstein Prizes for You This Year, Lady Playwrights

The Theatre Development Fund, which awards the annual Wasserstein Prize (named after late playwright Wendy Wasserstein) to a female playwright, has turned down all 19 nominees this year. The selection panel says the entries weren't "truly outstanding." People are pissed!

New York City playwright Michael Lew posted to the Internets a letter he wrote to the Fund's executive director, Victoria Bailey, in which he calls the Fund's decision "a blanket indictment on the quality of female emerging writers and their work ... insulting not only to the finalists but also to the many theatre professionals who nominated these writers and deemed their plays prize worthy." The message the decision sends, he adds, "is that there aren't any young female playwrights worth investigating."

Begun in 2007—the year after Wasserstein died of lymphoma—the Wasserstein awards $25,000 to a female playwright under 32 who hasn't yet received national attention for her work. The size of the purse is intended to "ease financial pressures," as the New York Times explained in an article on last year's winner, Chicago-based playwright Marisa Wegrzyn—who vouched for the prize's usefulness in covering the rent. (We would have probably spent the money on plasma teevees and a jacuzzi, but not all artists spend money the same!)

After being administered by its co-creators the Educational Foundation of America and the Dramatists Guild of America, the prize came under the purview of the Theatre Development Fund, a New York City-based advocacy organization that claims to be the nation's largest performing arts nonprofit. Bailey, the recipient of Michael Lew's angry missive, is the Boss, and also a trustee. How much influence over the selection panel's process she had isn't clear, but the Fund's communications director told theater critic Kris Vire of Time Out Chicago that "[t]he play is what's chosen, not the playwright."

But the selection panel knows that all the playwrights are women; to outright withhold the award implies there's some sort of standard beyond which any of the nominees were capable of reaching—and this seems unlikely. Vire mentions that one of the nominees was Chicago-based playwright Emily Schwartz, who with Wegrzyn won the Chicago Reader's "best playwright" nod in 2008*; given the number of award-winning playwrights in the nation's third-largest city, that's no small feat. The prize is meant for emerging artists, not ones who have already won Puilitzers and Tonys; if that's the standard the panel was using, then they missed the mark.

Shouldn't a competition be based on the nominees and some unknown standard? That's how prizes usually work, isn't it? As one commenter wrote on Lew's irate post about the selection panel's non-selection, "There are years when all of the movies nominated for Oscars are shit, but they still give out the Oscar for 'Best Picture.'" Even if you accept that none of the 19 nominees made the grade, what about the many female playwrights out there who might have? The Fund surely could have found a winner somewhere—sounds like they just weren't looking hard enough.

*Disclosure: I work for the Reader. But didn't in 2008!