Playwright Jennifer Haley has been awarded the 2014 Francesca Primus Prize for her play The Nether. Haley will receive the $10,000 award check immediately and be officially celebrated at an upcoming ATCA conference. Jointly sponsored by ATCA and the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, the Primus Prize is given annually to an emerging woman playwright.
[For a history of the Primus Prize, click here.]
The Nether is set in a futuristic world where virtual reality has become more seductive and engrossing than daily life. An admitted pedophile, Sims, has set up a Victorian site called the Hideaway … . where a child avatar named Iris entertains male guests. Its chief client is a science teacher named Doyle, whose whole life revolves around Iris and the Hideaway. But the site also attracts the attention of Morris, a female detective who questions both men about its implications. Sims argues that allowing men to indulge their fantasies in the safety of a virtual world keeps them from acting them out in reality, but even if that is the case, does that make their behavior acceptable?
The play’s clever plot twists turn it into an Internet whodunit. Beneath its surface story, however, The Nether asks provocative questions about the limits of freedom, creativity, and imagination. “These ideas really came from a subconscious place, but when I started researching, I found so much material about this theme of living out our imaginations,” Haley says. “Should people be allowed to live in a place of imagination even if it’s a very horrible place? … our imaginations are so powerful. And we spend a lot of our time in daydreams or imagining the future. In some ways, it’s what makes us human. [Carl Jung says] the world of dreams and imagination is a different reality, but it’s just as real as our physical reality.”
The Nether was workshopped at the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference in 2011 and received readings at the Lark Play Development Center and the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The play won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2012. The Center Theatre Group staged The Nether’s world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles in March 2013, and Headlong gave it a subsequent production at the Royal Court Theatre in London in July and August of 2014. It is slated to play at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York next winter. Both Northwestern University Press (USA) and Faber & Faber (UK) are publishing the play.
Haley studied playwriting with Paula Vogel at Brown University and is the founder and director of the Playwrights Union, a Los Angeles organization that supports both local and incoming theater artists. She has received commissions from Center Theatre Group and South Coast Repertory and has participated in the Ojai Playwrights Conference and the Sundance Theatre Lab, among others. She is also a playwright at New Dramatists. In 2009, her play, Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, received a special citation from the Francesca Primus Prize committee. Other plays include Breadcrumbs, Sustainable Living, and Froggy.
Haley was selected from 28 award applicants by a nationwide committee of critics, chaired by Barbara Bannon (Salt Lake City, UT) and composed of Julie York Coppens (Juneau, AK), Marianne Evett (Arlington, MA), Michael Howley (Montgomery, AL), Lynn Rosen (Bellingham, WA), and Herb Simpson (Geneseo, NY).
“The Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation was established to recognize and support emerging women artists who are making a difference in the theater community in which they work,” observed Barry Primus, the foundation administrator. Founded in 1997 in memory of actress and critic Francesca Primus, the Primus Prize was originally administered by the Denver Center Theatre Company. ATCA began overseeing the award in 2004.
Previous Winners of the Francesca Primus Prize
1997 Julia Jordan, playwright, Tatjana in Color
1998 Brooke Berman, playwright, Wonderland
1999 Melanie Marnich, playwright, Blur
2000 Brooke Berman, playwright, Playing House
2001 S. M. Shepard-Massat, playwright, Some Place Soft to Fall
2002 Alexandra Cunningham, playwright, Pavane
2004 Lynn Nottage, playwright, Intimate Apparel
2005 Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theatre Company, Minneapolis
2006 Karen Zacarias, playwright and founder/artistic director of Young Playwrights’ Theater, Washington, DC, Mariela in the Desert
2007 Victoria Stewart, playwright, Hardball
2008 EM Lewis, playwright, Heads
2009 Jamie Pachino, playwright, Splitting Infinity
2010 Michele Lowe, playwright, Inana
2011 Caridad Svich, playwright, The House of the Spirits
2012 Tammy Ryan, playwright, Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods
2013 Stefanie Zadravec, playwright, The Electric Baby