ATCA Event Blog (Archive)


Promising Developments at ASF's Southern Writers Project

A trio of promising works resulted in a stimulating Festival of New Plays for the Southern Writers’ Project the weekend of May 16. Showing patience, Alabama Shakespeare Festival officials offered revised readings of the latest versions of two plays unveiled in 2009. Both Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s “The Flagmaker of Market Street” and Jeffry Chastang’s “Blood Divided” are already booked for full productions next year.

The two works reflect ASF’s renewed focus on regional content, drawing stories from local history that have universal relevance. Next year’s full stagings will form the centerpiece of a Civil War 150th anniversary observance. Wilder already has earned a national profile with “Gee’s Bend” (an earlier ASF debut and winner of ATCA’s 2008 M. Elizabeth Osborn Award), and her streamlined “Flagmaker” should further her hot reputation.

Chastang is an up-and-coming talent — his “Preparations” two years ago provided a warm, evocative comic slice of life — who goes in a new direction with “Blood Divided,” which originally had been titled “A Wide Panorama.”

Audience response also proved strong for “Look Away,” a Robert Ford reading that, like the other works, explores social and racial issues through a historical prism. Development slates tend to be cyclical. It’s rare to see three titles at once that could hit the national circuit.

Jonathan Levine, Pittsfield Gazette 


Pulitzers Reject Drama Jury Choices

Following are some thoughts on the controversy, mainly from our New Plays Committee, with some reference to our Steinberg/ATCA and Osborn awards. If you want to chime in, email Chris Rawson.


Drama Pulitzer, 5

In the dustup over the Pulitzer Committee’s decision to bypass the recommendations of its Drama Panel and give the drama award to (gasp!) a musical, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s searing look at the impact of bipolar disorder on one American family, “Next To Normal,” I noticed a line in the column of Charles McNulty, the Los Angeles Times theater critic who chaired the panel whose recommendations were passed over. While he makes a number of interesting points and I’m not going to get into the “musical or non-musical” debate, I was struck by his comment: “Too bad the board doesn’t have members who are better able to distinguish the merits of a production from the merits of a dramatic work.” Clearly, he thinks such a distinction is justified here and I don’t — the underlying work of Kitt and Yorkey was well served by a superb production but it wasn’t just the production that thrilled me in either the pre-Broadway production here at Arena Stage in their temporary digs in Arlington, Virginia or in performance at the Booth Theatre in New York. But his general point is worth talking about. Can a superb production do more than “accentuate the positive”? If a play hasn’t got that difficult to define element we call quality, can a production do enough to “eliminate the negative”? (Apologies to Johnny Mercer.) Is it our job to be able to detect and describe the balance?

Brad Hathaway, Washington


Drama Pulitzer, 4

Some are wondering if Charles McNulty and other Pulitzer drama panelists should resign in protest. There is precedent. But actually, the jury is reappointed afresh each year — which is not to say that certain critics haven’t reappeared on it often, especially back in the days when it was pretty much all New York. (That was loosened up when some well-known ATCA critics lobbied the board to recognize that there’s a large country out there.) I imagine that Charles’ fine column already lessens the chance he’d be reappointed.

Back at the beginning, a jury of three made one recommendation, which the Board took or didn’t. When overruled in 1934, one panelist wrote, “They don’t want dramatic experts any more. They want office boys. No self-respecting, intelligent critic would serve on such a jury.” All three 1934 panelists refused reappointment the following year. Thereafter, the jury was told to submit a ranked list of three, and most recently, an unranked list, from which the board could pick the one they liked, or, as this year, ignore. Shockingly, 15 years there has been no Drama Pulitzer at all, usually because of its old morals clause which some years ruled out Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Hellman, etc. Frustration with the Pulitzers led to the 1935 founding of the New York Drama Critics Circle, to give its own awards, although those are limited to NYC, while the Pulitzers claim to be national — although they rarely are. A show still running on Broadway has a decided edge, because even board members who don’t go to the theater can rush to see it at the last minute without having to go downtown.

So all along there’s been gradual erosion of the critics’ role in the Drama Pulitzer, with a resulting tendency to blandness. (That Next to Normal is a fine show doesn’t disprove the rule.) To make the best of this familiar uproar, let’s say that theater is a lively, in-your-face art that stirs up controversy — and one about which even amateurs know what they like, or think they do.

Chris Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Drama Pulitzer, 3

Mr. McNulty seems to have assessed the situation all too accurately. I am an unapologetic admirer of “Next to Normal,” but I certainly have to endorse the so-called coronation factor.

I read “Chad Deity” as a recommended entry in the ATCA/Steinberg award process. While I wholeheartedly support the eventual selection of “Equivocation,” I was gobsmacked by “Chad Deity’s” originality, its voice, its concept and its potential in execution. I read it on a plane and kept grinning and making moans of appreciation to the surprise of my fellow travellers and my wife. Some of my colleagues on the committee were less impressed, but it was the only other work that I ached to see besides “Equivocation.”

I concur that two factors were at play. One, some Pulitzer committee members saw “Next to Normal” live. It would be impossible for any filmed version of the other three to measure up. Second, “Normal” has the imprimatur of having played in New York. Someone else asked rhetorically whether the Pulitzer committee would have felt the same about “Normal” if they had been forced to see it only on DVD.

This is why my committee and I work so hard and believe so deeply in the ATCA/Steinberg Award — because excellence in playwriting and new play production is no longer limited to the five boroughs of New York City except in their minds.

Bill Hirschman, chair, ATCA New Plays Committee


Drama Pulitzer, 2

Actually, the foolish choices for Pulitzer for Drama go back further and are more embarrassing than Leonard suggests. In the 1931-32 season, the Pulitzer went to Of Thee I Sing over O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. By the sixties several unlikely musicals had won over significant plays (e.g., Fiorello over A Raisin in the Sun, The Miracle Worker, The Tenth Man, and Sweet Bird of Youth). But my favorite year for Pulitzer decisions is 1947 for which there was no award, although quite a few plays opened then on Broadway which were superior to many previous winners: Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, and Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine. And the musicals included two better than the ones which in other years won the Pulitzer: Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow. Nothing worth the award that year? I’d say that on the whole, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama has a mostly embarrassing record.

Herb Simpson


Drama Pulitzer, 1

It was brave, decent and honest of McNulty to go public. Trouble is — as McNulty knows — the history of the drama Pulitzer has long had a whiff of the ridiculous about it. Yes, I’m back to Harvey and Glass Menagerie, and that old Woolf, as in Virginia, too. I was just looking — there were no awards in 1964, 1966, 1968, 1972 and 1974? Really? The cupboard was that bare? Talk about proof that we ascribe too much weight to certain honors. I’d include the Tonys, bamboozling the world into thinking that only Broadway is honor-worthy. Feh.
I agree with those suggesting that this year’s Pulitzer choice should light a fire under our ATCA asses. I also think it validates ATCA’s work selecting recipients for the new-play awards. Whether we unanimously agree on this year’s recipients really doesn’t matter. What matters more is being on a serious national search for high quality; that we’re not so burdened by a which-way-is-the-wind-blowing-today mentality that we can’t identify quality when we find it. Not that Next to Normal hasn’t some quality. But is it the best piece of year? No, no, no, no. We found better. And so I say: good for ATCA!
Leonard Jacobs, Editor, The Clyde Fitch Report



March 25-28, a gaggle of us were at the Humana in Looavul (as they call it). A few more entries may straggle in late. (ATCA members: send concise prospective entries to Chris Rawson.)


Random thoughts by a Humana veteran from the 34th annual Humana Festival

Living in Louisville, I’ve been at nearly every Humana Festival except for the nine years I lived in San Francisco.  Festival number 34 was neither the best nor the worst but I wish it had offered at least one breakout piece such as “After Ashley” or “Omnium Gatherum” or “Becky Shaw” or “God’s  Man in Texas” from previous years.

It’s odd that there were so many one-word titles this year: “Sirens,” “Heist!,” “Fissures” (though it had “lost and found” as a  parenthetical subtitle), “Ground,” and “Phoenix.” Local friends who go to festival plays are always eager to let me know what they think. This year I was surprised that so many of them despised “The Cherry Sisters Revisited.” They had expected so much more from the  topic. Some left at intermission. ATL has extended the play past the festival until April 11. I wonder if the bad word of mouth will affect attendance.

I’ve been disappointed in the Ten Minute Plays in recent years (ever since that brilliant Pillsbury Doughboy play by Sheri Wilner called “Bake Off” in 2002). But this year’s Greg Kotis offering called “An Examination of the Whole Playwright/Actor Relationship Presented as Some Kind of Cop Show  Parody” was supremely funny and a real winner.

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Humana: How much do you remember?

One of the 2010 Humana Festival shows is a collective work (with its roots in the brilliant folks from the now defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune), Fissures (lost and found), an evocative, poetic piece about memory — teaching us, among other things that each time we try to remember something, we lose half the memory. That’s a scary thought for critics, since the act of writing about theater is heavily dependent on memory and our ability to reconstruct something we’ve seen onstage. Like some of us, I take notes while I watch, although I often don’t refer to them — and just as often cannot read what I’ve written in the dark. How do you remember things you want to write when you’re watching a show? How do you remember anything? I’m always jotting notes to myself as reminders to buy ink for my printer or orange juice for breakfast. If I lose the note, the task is lost, too — until it’s time to print or have breakfast.

Curiously, Sirens, the first show I saw in Louisville on Friday, is about a mature man struggling to remember a melody he heard (or maybe wrote) long before. Deborah Zoe Laufer’s funny romantic comedy was totally unlike Fissures, even though both were presented in the arena-style Bingham Theatre. Memory can be a tricky thing. And can get us into trouble, as Sam (Brian Russell) learns in this winning piece.

Now, where did I put my tickets?

Rick Pender, Cincinnati CityBeat


Humana at last

I’m finally doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time — attend the Humana Festival of New Plays. I can’t wait to go home so that I can start planning on coming back year after year.

This event energizes not only playwrights, producers et al. It also energizes audiences, including critics. There’s a young, exciting vibe here and I’ve been soaking it up … along with a few Guinnesses at nearby O’Sheas, a pub teeming with friendliness and appealing warmth. It’s been fun running into ATCA friends and meeting new theater people. Ask anyone what they think of a show we’ve all seen and they’re happy to launch into honest, intelligent responses. That’s always invigorating.

So far, my husband, John, and I have seen: “Heist,” a site specific play about a, you guessed it, heist. It began late — 11 p.m. — so it was a challenge to stay on our feet and follow actors as they led us from building to building in dreadful weather (cold and rainy). The next was “The Method Gun,” wow … The show really snuck up on me. Unique. “Sirens” late afternoon … charming production. “Fissures” in the evening. More today and tomorrow.

BTW, if you ever get to Humana, be sure to contact their press office. Their staff is professional and friendly. And you might get invited to a cocktail party or two. It’s not exactly cocktails … it’s a party filled with food and drink in a glorious setting.

So, all my ATCA friends: I’ll see you at the O’Neill, for sure … and next year at the Humana for sure.

Pam Harbaugh, Florida


Humana: crossroads of the American theater

Ya gotta love a theater festival that starts with a cocktail party — especially the classy parties at wealthy supporters’ houses that light up the Thursday night start of the Humana Festival’s Special Visitors Weekend (formerly Critics Weekend, but that’s how it is for critics in this new world).

Me, I ran into a director I knew only in passing in college, almost 50 years ago. I may not recall the name of the person I was just introduced to a minute ago, but John Hancock sticks in my mind, and not for its 18th century ring. A couple of years ahead of me then (he’s probably younger now — criticism ages a man faster than directing), John was already a director with professional skills, and I remember most especially that he did NOT cast me in his production of “The Plough and the Stars” my freshman year.

But mainly, John is famous to me as “the man who killed Pittsburgh theater.” He was artistic director at the Pittsburgh Playhouse just after Bill Ball started ACT there and then decamped for the west. (I think they ended up in San Francisco or somewhere.) John was at the Playhouse when I interviewed for a teaching job at Pitt, but by the time I arrived a year later, he’d decamped, too, and the Playhouse was dark. Apparently his theater was too edgy for Pittsburgh royalty: Mr. Mellon didn’t like it when Charles Durning peed on stage in something by Brecht — that’s the story.

You may have seen John’s name attached to some pretty good movies — “Bang the Drum Slowly” is my favorite, partly because I was introduced to it by the author, Mark Harris, who also (later) taught at Pitt. So it’s been fun seeing John … and lots of others. As I always say, the Humana is the crossroads of the (not-for-profit) American theater. Oh, and there are plays to see, too. More about them later.

Chris Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Humana Fest not the only show in town

“Are you here for the show?” the guy on the elevator asked.

Thursday night, around ten o’clock. Cold, rainy. I’d just driven down from Cincinnati and had barely enough time to check into the hotel before heading over to 21c (art gallery, hotel and performance space) for my first Humana Festival play, “Heist!” 

I started to say yes, but then I looked at my questioner more closely. About six-three, 250, trucker cap, work boots, olive green T-shirt with the sleeves torn off from a Sturgis, Ky. bar, bearing the slogan “WHO LET THE HOGS OUT?”   

Maybe he was talking about a different show. 

I seem to be one of perhaps three guests here at the Fairfield Inn in downtown Louisville not connected in some way with a massive annual expo of what’s latest and greatest in the world of the big rigs — an industry upon which we all rely, as Americans. And I’m not just talking about bus and truck tours.  

At breakfast this morning, I talked with a couple of good-looking guys from California (they could have been actors), here working a booth for a company that makes heavy-duty windshield wipers.

“You know, for truckers — they scrape off the bugs and stuff,” one guy explained.

I told them the wipers on my Saturn had squeeked all the way down I-71. Drove me crazy. All I could do was turn up the volume on my “Hair” Broadway revival cast recording. Which is how I handle most of my automotive issues.

“We can help you with that,” my new friends assured me. 

Maybe I should swing by the truck show later, after a few more Humana Festival plays. Clear my head. Pimp my ride.

But I’m not sure I brought the right outfit. 

Julie York Coppens, Dramatics magazine


Humana: Friends in Louisville

Although I have to get in my car and drive 100 miles, attending the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville always feels like coming home. First and perhaps foremost, it’s the hospitality that guests for the annual “Visitors Weekend” are afforded. When we arrive on Thursday, everyone — even critics — are treated like old friends. This is my 13th year to make the pilgrimage, and now when I walk into the theater lobby on West Market Street, the box office staff smile and hand me my media kit even before I remind them of my name. 

A few hours later we board a bus and are transported to the home of one of Actors Theatre’s board members (Tom and Mary Jo Mueller for my busload this year), where we’re greeted by a horde of local supporters and many of the theater’s staff. I’ve been coming long enough that many faces are familiar, and even if they aren’t, they’re friendly and talkative. I have the chance to catch up with some ATCA colleagues, of course, but I also meet a pair of interns (I see one of them a few hours later in Heist, this year’s Festival offering that features the hard-working company of aspiring theater professionals) and chat with attendees from Indiana, Washington, D.C., California, Minneapolis — it’s a wonderful stew of conversations, recollections, expectations — and Kentucky bourbon.

Coming to the Humana takes me back to my early days of ATCA, too… .  (Rick Pender, Cincinnati)

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Honoring Richard Christiansen

Larry Devine and his wife, Lois, made a surprise visit to Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater March 1 to attend the gala ceremony naming the new VG second stage in honor of Larry’s old friend and ATCA colleague Richard Christiansen. Since the new “R. C. Theater,” as it already is being short-handed, seats only 99, the attendees were a select group of “A” list Chicago theater types. Indeed, you couldn’t spill a drink without splashing a Tony Award winner such as Robert Falls (Goodman Theatre), Barbara Gaines (Chicago Shakepeare Theater), John Mahoney, Deanna Dunagan or Gregory Mosher (former Goodman artistic director) who flew in for the occasion. Also on hand: William L. Petersen, Bernard Sahlins (co-founder of The Second City), Harold Ramis and ATCA member Chris Jones, who is Richard Christiansen’s successor as Chief Critic for the Chicago Tribune. Jones and Petersen were among a half-dozen speakers who warmly praised Richard for the support and encouragement which his work—even when critical—always meant to them. Petersen and Emmy winning writer Rick Cleveland said that Richard identified them as theatre artists before they fully realized it themselves. Said “R. C.” himself of the growth and development of Chicago theatre, “I thank my lucky stars that it happened on my watch… . The greatest joy I could have would be to read a review in the future that begins, ‘Last night a wonderful new play by a talented Chicago playwright opened at the Richard Christiansen Theater.’”

Jonathan Abarbanel


Denver: Some New Plays Present Real Design Challenges

When Tang Met Laika (photo by Terry Shapiro)Of the two fully staged productions of new plays as part of the Colorado New Play Summit (see below), Rogelio Martinez’ When Tang Met Laika presented a challenge to the designers that particularly intrigued me. I happened to have an outlet for my curiosity, a monthly feature for the website of Live Design Magazine on designs in regional theaters. The play’s plot involves an American astronaut who meets and is attracted to a Russian Cosmonaut while in orbit above the Earth’s atmosphere. I interviewed set designer Jim Kronzer and projections designer Charlie I. Miller about the problems they faced trying to create the weightlessness of space. Here’s my link to my story for Live Design Online.

Brad Hathaway


ATCA Blogs from the Colorado New Play Summit in Denver, Feb. 11-14

Below is our first attempt at a group blog from an ATCA gathering, with the most recent posted on top. These were all we had time for in three very busy days.

Some ATCA members at the Denver conference: (left to right, in rear) Jim Steinberg, Chris Jones, Christine Dolen, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, Bill Hirschman, Chris Rawson, Jonathan Abarbanel, Lynn Rosen, Barry Gaines, Rick Pender and Brad Hathaway; (left to right, in front) Juliet Wittman, Glenn Loney, Barbara Bannon, Judith Reynolds and Sylvie Drake.As the CNPS broke up Sunday, it actually snowed in Denver, thoughtfully providing a gentle transition for those of us headed back to the snow-girt East.

What a grand weekend it was, the kind to make a theater addict want to return every year. In this, it’s like the Humana Festival, which is fitting, since the Denver Center Theater has hopes of growing it into what you might call Humana West – or perhaps even of turning the Humana into CNPS East.

As at Humana, one of the chief pleasures is the easy and ample interaction with the actors and other theater people. Nor is the CNPS yet overrun with masses of critics or visiting artistic directors. There were even fewer of those than planned, since the snow closed some eastern airports on Feb. 10-11.

We happy few critics who did make it (about 25) got to play a supportive role, with four featured in a well attended Saturday afternoon panel discussion of “Critics and New Work,” expertly and unobtrusively moderated by Jim Steinberg. If we can pull it off, we might have some video clips in a week or so, as we continue to develop the capabilities of this new website.

Chris Rawson


Denver: Looking Back


A few thoughts about the Denver conference, all of them surprises. First, this Floridian found the weather was not half as harsh as I was expecting, although I hear that’s a spin of the roulette wheel. Second, this was as well-run and smooth an event of its kind as I’ve experienced lately. Everyone we met was friendly, collegial and welcoming. The panel discussion on critics and new plays was attended by, who  knows, 200 people or more, mostly civilians. The Chrises (Rawson, Dolen, Jones) and Jeffrey Jenkins did the profession proud, explaining what we do in such insightful terms that it helped clarify in my mind what we’re all about.

Third, burying the lead, five of the six shows were  well-worth the trip. One of the full productions, “When Tang Met Laika,” was  intriguing but it would have fared better focusing on the human themes by eliminating a couple of burlesque characters meant to satirize the geo-political  ramifications of U.S.–Soviet cooperation in space. 

The second production, “Eventide,” was a moving epic about the  character of the people, their connection to the land and the sense of community in Colorado’s ranch land during the 1980s. Told with multiple narrators ala  “Nicholas Nickleby,” it seems at first to be a very parochial play that would  not transfer until you realize that the themes of community and human resilience are not just universal, but that their universality is what would make the show resonate for audiences in SoHo and SoBe. 

One of the plays in the readings was an incoherent, self-indulgent, amorphous, unfocused  mess but we won’t identify it since we’re not supposed to review them. If you were there, you know. But the  other three were promising enough that I asked the artistic director of the DCPA  if he had first dibs on them because I kept thinking, “Okay, this one would be  terrific for this company in my region, and this one would be a good fit for.…” 

A side note: Most of the cast members for the weekend were part of the Denver Center’s stock company, augmented by other local actors and some journeyman ringers from out of state. Point is, this was yet another reminder that the acting bench in regional theater is so much wider and deeper and far more skilled than the folks in NY, Chicago and LA like to acknowledge. There were several stunning  performances, a great deal of unassailably competent work and not a single “why  did they hire that guy” performance. 

Kudos to Rick Pender, Chris Rawson and the staff at the  Denver Center, especially Chris Wiger, for a terrific week. Denver itself was gorgeous, with other theaters worth seeing, art museums and tourist attractions. We were here in 1998, but we might want to think about this for a summer  conference spot after the O’Neill and (tentatively) Ashland.

Bill Hirschman, critic for the South Florida Sun Sentinel and Aisle Say (



Denver: Too Many New Play Festivals?

Few would argue that there are too many new plays, but a case can be made that there are far too many new play festivals, even if they are splendidly-managed affairs such as the DCTC New Play Summit. In March and April alone, one might attend the Alberta Theatre Project playRites Fest, Florida Stages 1st Stage Fest, Humana Fest (Actors Theatre of Louisville), Orlando Shakespeare’s Harriet Lake Fest and the
Southcoast Rep’s Pacific Playwrights Fest to mention a few, and these events only scratch the surface of the complete annual calendar of new work gatherings.

The first obvious question is “How many of these things can any one person attend, whether critic, director, artistic director, producer or agent?” The less obvious question — but far more important question — is “What is the value of such events for the playwright?” If you look at the bios of authors here at the DCTC, you’ll quickly observe that most writers hold multiple commissions at the same time. Three is not uncommon and  I’ve seen as many as five at once. How can any playwright, no matter how gifted and conscientious, possibly juggle three or more overlapping commissions and produce works that are (a) of equal merit and (b) the best writing he/she can do?

For various reasons, and they aren’t simple, we’ve altered the paradigm for playwrights. The old model was income and security based on royalties of an artist’s most successful work, providing the leisure to write at will on subjects of choice. Now — like Verdi in his “years in the galley” — far too many playwrights survive on commissions. Regional theatres are sick with “World Premiere-itis” and they pass the disease on to authors. How many of these hundreds of yearly world premieres ever go on to second, third, 10th or 100th productions? The new play fests helps authors create a volume of work, but not a body of work.

When will three major regionals pool their commission money, commission one new work from an author and guarantee three independent productions? When will we have a Festival of Second Productions? Or a Best of the New Play Festivals Fest? I do not believe the present model of multiplying new play events serves either writers or theatre well in the long run, as exciting as the events may be in the short-term.

Jonathan Abarbanel, Chicago 


Denver: Crossing the Line?

One joy of the watching new play readings is the electricity of discovery.

It’s Saturday morning and day three (or two) of ATCA’s conference at the Colorado New Play Summit. The full staging of the play “When Tang Met Laika” would take a longer entry to review.

We’re rightfully barred from reviewing the works-in-progress readings, but suffice it to say that while one of the three we’ve seen was an unmitigated mess, the other two had me jazzed enough to confer with my Florida colleague, Chris Dolen, about which local theaters would be the best fit for these works. I also asked the Denver Center’s artistic director whether they really had first call on these gems. I can’t wait to share them with some of the regional theaters back home.

I’ve done this before as chair of the ATCA New Plays Committee, passing on a promising script. It worries me a little about where the ethical line is. But I ensure that there is a crystal clear understanding with the theaters that there is no guarantee that I’ll like the final script or be well-disposed to a good review of their unique production.

 I’m curious whether he rest of you think this crosses a line.

—  Bill Hirschman, chair of ATCA new play committee, Ft. Lauderdale