ATCA has selected six finalists for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, recognizing playwrights for the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2012.
The six are Johnna Adams, Ayad Akhtar, Lucas Hnath, Mia McCullough, Dan O’Neil and Robert Schenkkan (for the scripts specifically honored, see below). The top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each, plus commemorative plaques, will be presented April 6 at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays. At $40,000, Steinberg/ATCA is the largest national new play award of its kind.
In 1977, ATCA began to honor new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City, where there are many awards. No play is eligible if it has gone on to a New York production within the award year. Since 2000, the award has been generously funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.
The finalists, alphabetically by playwright:
“Gidion’s Knot,” by Johnna Adams, is a complex, powerful and gripping drama in which the mother of a dead student visits his teacher seeking the backstory behind his death – with each woman discovering profound secrets as layers of truth are exposed. Described by judges as “a perfect piece of theater” that is both exhilarating and devastating, the play puts in direct conflict two cherished values — freedom of expression and the safety of our children. Adams’ script includes numerous Pinteresque pauses that eloquently stand-in for very specific but unspoken thoughts as two human beings realize that words are an insufficient venue of communication. The play received its world premiere in July at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
“The Invisible Hand,” by Ayad Akhtar, is a taut and unsentimental political thriller with economic overtones that is rooted in the real and artificial barriers to human connections. It posits an international banker kidnapped by terrorists in Pakistan and forced to earn his own ransom by helping his captors manipulate and master the world commodities and currency markets. The evolving, almost intimate relationship between the banker and his chief interrogator raises what one judge called “morally queasy” questions about how all societies are forever imprisoned in the system of global economics in which financial measures are ultimately meaningless. The work bowed last March at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
“Death Tax,” by Lucas Hnath, is a tough-minded drama about dying in America in the 21st Century. Set in a nursing home, an elderly woman is convinced that her daughter wants her to die quickly enough to take advantage of an inheritance tax loophole and tries to bribe a nurse to prevent her murder. Without positing easy answers, the play dissects greed, dysfunctional human relationships and the potential implications of a medical paradigm that can keep people alive indefinitely. Hnath’s heightened language, using the rhythm of repetitive phrases in lengthy monologues, was mesmerizing when the play bowed last spring at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival.
“Impenetrable,” by Mia McCullough, is a multi-angled rumination on the price and social cost of our obsession with youth and beauty. A Middle-Eastern fashion model’s body is splayed on an enormous billboard with arrows pointing to the “imperfections” that a spa could help customers correct. In revolt at how her image was used, she ultimately decides to wear a hijab, sparking a complex range of reactions from the world around her. It examines our complicity buying into standards of attractiveness that are impossible to meet. Judges were moved and intrigued by a work they saw as authentic and compelling. The play was first seen in September at Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit in Chicago.
“The Wind Farmer” by Dan O’Neil, nearly resembles a fable set in the middle of nowhere on a nearly lifeless farm inhabited by an old man and his daughter. The only living thing remaining on the land is the ceaseless wind and a city man, Leo, has come to make them an offer on taking that away for a corporation. The issue of wind energy as an alternative energy source is secondary to larger issues about the durability of such values of holding on to property, family and history in a mercilessly pragmatic world. The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. developed the play for its premiere in October.
“All The Way,” by Robert Schenkkan, is an engrossing, epic depiction of Lyndon Johnson’s struggle to get the Civil Rights Act passed through Congress. This masterfully constructed tale is an unblinking look at the gritty nature of compromise and pragmatism in a good cause that thrusts us into the deepest, darkest corners of a political firestorm. Schenkkan creates a hero who is complex, obscene, brilliant and ruthless. It premiered July 25 as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions commission program.
These six finalists were selected from a record-setting 43 eligible scripts submitted by ATCA members. They were evaluated by a committee of 15 theater critics, led by chairman Wm. F. Hirschman, FloridaTheaterOnStage.com. Other committee members are Misha Berson, Seattle Times; Bruce Burgun, Bloomington Herald Times and Back Stage (Ind.); Lindsay Christians, The Capital Times (Madison, Wisc.); Mark Cofta, Philadelphia City Paper; Michael Elkin, Jewish Exponent (Pa.); Pam Harbaugh, Florida Today (Melbourne); Michael P. Howley, theatremontgomery.blogspot.com; Elizabeth Keill, Independent Press (Morristown, N.J.); Jerry Kraft, www.SeattleActor.com, (Port Angeles, Wash.); Julius Novick, veteran critic and professor (New York City); Kathryn Osenlund, Curtain Up (Philadelphia); Wendy Parker, The Village Mill (Midlothian, Va.); David Sheward, Back Stage (New York); Herb Simpson, totaltheater.com (Geneseo, N.Y.) and Tim Treanor, DC Theater Scene (Washington, D.C.)
Hirschman said this year’s entries validated the future of a vibrant 21st Century theater. “Despite renewed concerns about the prognosis for theater as a relevant and popularly embraced art form, the stunning array and high quality of scripts we read confirmed the enduring commitment of regional theaters and a dazzling diversity of playwrights to be the primary standard-bearers for new works,” he said. “Far from disconnected and elitist, the plays reflected themes and settings ranging from the economic challenges faced by real people in this country to the moral questions created by American involvement on the world stage.
Since the inception of ATCA’s New Play Award, honorees have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Moises Kaufman and Craig Lucas. Last year’s honoree was Yussef El Guindi for “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.” For a full list of 36 years of winners and runners-up, go to www.americantheatrecritics.org and click on Steinberg-ATCA under Awards.
The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust was created in 1986 by Harold Steinberg on behalf of himself and his late wife. Pursuing its primary mission to support the American theater, it has provided grants totaling millions of dollars for new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.
ATCA was founded in 1974 and works to raise critical standards and public awareness of critics’ functions and responsibilities. The only national association of professional theater critics, with several hundred members working for newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and websites, ATCA is affiliated with the International Association of Theatre Critics, a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors seminars and congresses worldwide.
ATCA also presents the $1,000 M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, honoring emerging playwrights. It also administers the $10,000 Francesca Primus Prize, funded by the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, honoring outstanding contributions to the American theater by female artists who have not yet achieved national prominence. Annually, ATCA makes a recommendation for the Regional Theater Tony Award presented by the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League and votes on inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame.
For more information on the Steinberg/ATCA Award, contact Wm. F. Hirschman, chair of the ATCA New Play Committee, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-478-1123; Jay Handelman, ATCA chair, at email@example.com,or 941-361-4931; or Christopher Rawson, ATCA communications chair, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-216-1944.