Theater

Writing An Ocean, And What It Means When The World Takes Notice

It started with blogger Michael Lew, who saw a rejection letter a fellow playwright had been sent two weeks before: A $25,000 cash prize, meant to honor the late Wendy Wasserstein and celebrate the work of emerging female dramatists, would not be awarded this year. The finalists' work, the letter said, wasn't "truly outstanding."

Wendy Wasserstein

Wendy Wasserstein, author of plays including The Sisters Rosenzweig, An American Daughter and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles, died of cancer in 2006. She was 55. Gino Domenico/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Gino Domenico/AP

"On a personal level I was flabbergasted," Lew told me last night. He'd had mentors who'd been particularly outspoken on gender issues in the theater — and he felt that since he would never be eligible for the award, he was well positioned to take a stand about it.

I'm glad he did.

I'm a woman. I'm a playwright. I've blogged about the intersection of those two parts of me before, and I can’t even pretend to frame my thoughts objectively. The only thing I can offer is my own experience, and finding the right words feels impossible.

It's like trying to write an ocean.

All I can do is scoop out a cup and go.

After my parents divorced, my mom and I were on welfare. Then she started working in retail, and when I was about 7, I started helping out after school. I traveled with her when she went to open new stores, because she couldn't afford child care. All of her promotions and transfers meant that I'd been to 12 schools by the time I graduated from high school.

During college, I worked six or more editing jobs at a time. After school, I continued to work multiple jobs. So when I was awarded a MacDowell Fellowship in 2006, I was thrilled — but I was also in a very dark place. I was a year into my career as a playwright and was struggling with what would, three months later, be diagnosed as Major Depressive Disorder. I'd apparently had it for decades.

Two years ago, no longer clinically depressed, I moved to New York, where I've found a surprising amount of stability. I've had a full-time job for two years. I don’t have health insurance, but now I'm working only one gig. And though grad school was once something I only dared to dream of — I never imagined I could afford the tuition or the time — I'm also enrolled in Tina Howe's M.F.A. playwriting program at Hunter College, CUNY.

I'm sharing all of this because my MacDowell residency was a dividing line between two phases of my life. It gave me encouragement, exposure to fellow artists, a place to write, time to think and even money to cover my expenses while I was there. I was profoundly affected by the simple fact that they believed in my work. In a similar way, the MFA program is giving me an opportunity to belong to a community and to earn a degree doing something I love.

My story isn't unique. Many playwrights have had tough upbringings — limited resources, single-parent families — and they struggle with health, job and money issues. I think about my friends' struggles every day.

But you know who I wonder about most? Women I've never even met, who are out there raising children, working multiple jobs, too tired to write anything, much less send their work out. I think of Tillie Olsen, who didn't publish her first book until she was nearly 50 because of the demands of raising children in poverty. Or Annie Proulx, who at almost 60 won the Pulitzer for her second novel, after raising four children.

I think the goal of gender parity for playwrights is important, and I am grateful for the work being done on behalf of female playwrights. And yet I know inequality is but a symptom of a larger societal illness that robs working-class women of their voices — and us of their stories.

Last week, when I heard the news that a $25,000 prize was going to go ungiven, I couldn't help but wonder how hard the adjudicators had worked, considering how very hard all the playwrights I know work. I don't know who the evaluators are, and I don't know why there were only 19 nominees. I can only imagine that, as with so many nonprofit undertakings, resources were thin and time was short, and that the panel really believed not awarding the prize was the best choice at the time.

But I'm glad Michael Lew spoke up. I'm glad the fiercely vocal online wing of the theater community responded. After 72 hours of various news articles, along with protests on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, the administrators of the Wasserstein Prize reversed course, announcing that they'll spend the next two months refining the selection process — and that they will name a winner after all. The whole thing was over in a weekend, and now, once again, a hard-working female playwright will know what it's like to be singled out and celebrated.

I couldn't be more thrilled, because I know what such a thing means.

Callie Kimball is a playwright, a blogger and an M.F.A. candidate at the City University of New York. She has written for Wired.com, Theatre Communications Group, and the Dramatists Guild. Below, some thoughts on the Wasserstein Prize from other playwrights.


Kirsten Greenidge (via e-mail): When I've adjudicated awards, the spirit of the process has often been rather generous. In most instances, while there may have been dismay at the plays that sometimes ended up at the top of the pile for whatever reason, there was usually always the feeling that we did indeed want to give the award to someone and were happy to give an opportunity to someone who was just starting out. Did we have to wade through some plays that should not have ended up in the final rounds? Yes. Almost always. Were there sometimes plays or writers who needed much more time and many more years to grow? Yes. Almost always. But in the end, my job was to give out the award. Not shut the gate. (Greenidge blogged about the controversy over the weekend.)

Travis Bedard (via e-mail): The truly baffling thing about this decision is the fact that it is a grant-based program that is up for renewal after this year. The responsible actions of an award designed to bring notice and support to the unnoticed and unsupported is to, in the face of the end of the grant, tell the world that the process didn't turn up anyone worthwhile?

Mariah MacCarthy (via e-mail): The news that no one would receive the Wasserstein prize was a slap in the face to female playwrights.

Adam Szymkowicz (via e-mail): Since I've started these mini-interviews of playwrights, I've become aware of more and more outstanding writers out there of both sexes and all ages. If you asked me to name 19 female playwrights under 32, I doubt I'd be able to stop at 19.

Michael Lew (via phone): The 32-year age limit is odd. The definition of emerging is really shifty, and I think that it should be about career state and not about age.

Christina Ham (via text message): We are now moving into a dangerous silencing of the female voice on the American stage. No matter what is said to justify the decision, that is what is being done by telling women their work doesn’t "measure up" to some litmus test that changes depending on the gender it's being applied to. This behavior is so ingrained in the American theater now that those who endorse this type of behavior feel completely justified in keeping the Great White Way a men's club.

Brooke Berman (via phone): I was helped by [Wendy] Wasserstein, who passed along a script of mine, which then ended up getting a major production. The question I have is, why were only 19 women nominated? Is there a disconnect between what writers are writing and what literary managers deem worthy of development and production? I’m curious about what these plays were like on the page, stylistically. Did the committee have the idea of a perfect play, and were they looking to fit that ideology? Or can you be generous and adventurous? There are so many obstacles for women writing today, stylistic assumptions. ... What if it’s a sneaky event, or a female protagonist? I studied with Irene Fornes, Paula Vogel, Anne Bogart — what would their plays look like on the page? (Berman also blogged about the controversy over the weekend.)


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