Better Living Through Criticism

“Everyone in this world has someone else whom he can look down on,” wrote George Orwell in 1946, “and I must say, from experience of both trades, that the book reviewer is better off than the film critic, who cannot even do his work at home.”

Now he can. So that must leave the theater critic (along with dance and restaurant — am I forgetting anyone?) at the bottom of the pile today. Anyway, as Nathan Heller asks in his New Yorker review of A.O. Scott’s new Better Living through Criticism, “what’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews?” A fair question. Scott has a few answers.


NY conference Nov. 7-9 extends Early Bird registration to Oct. 31

Early Bird registration at $165 (members) and $175 (guests), which includes Brunch with the Stars at Sardi’s on Saturday morning, has been extended through Oct. 31, then goes up $20. Brunch alone for member or guest is $65. More here.


Beijing World Congress

At the 37th World Congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics, meeting in Beijing, China, Oct. 15-20, ATCA was represented by three chairs: Jonathan Abarbanel (ATCA excom), Jay HandelmanL-R: Handelman, Jenkins, Abarbanel (Foundation ATCA) and Jeffrey Eric Jenkins (ATCA International Committee). For the congress symposium on “A New World: The Profession of Criticism in the Internet Era,” Abarbanel delivered a paper entitled, “Tweet this: We’re not in charge anymore.”Abarbanel with Turkish delegate Zeynep Oral with student Peking Opera performers

The IATC’s fifth Thalia Prize for critical writing (previous winners: Eric Bentley, Richard Schechner, Jean-Pierre Sarrazac and Kapila Vatsyayan) was presented to Eugenio Barba, an early colleague of Grotowski who founded the Odin Theatret in Denmark. Read more about Barba here


Theatre Hall of Fame announces eight for class of 2014

The eight 2014 inductees into the Theater Hall of Fame include actor F. Murray Abraham (currently in It’s Only A Play), legendary actor Alvin Epstein (original N.Y. cast of Waiting for Godot), Tony-winning actor Blythe Danner (now in The Country House), director Marshall Mason, former N.Y. Times theater critic Frank Rich, chairman of the Shubert Organization Philip J. Smith, Tony-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers) and Tony-winning playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy). The 44th annual induction will take place January 26, 2015, at the Gershwin Theatre, where membersip in the Hall is recorded on the walls in raised gold letters. The electorate of over 300 includes members of the Hall and of ATCA. Click here for more on the Hall and previous inductees.


Playwright Jennifer Haley wins $10,000 Primus Prize for 2014

September 17, 2014— ATCA announced today that 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 congratulated 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 more on the Primus Prize and a full list of winners, 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. (For a full list of winners, click here and scroll down.)

Theater Hall of Fame ballots coming next week

Ballots for ATCA members to vote on 2014 inductees to the Theater Hall of Fame are being mailed. Voting is a pleasure and responsibility of membership, so watch for your ballot. Meanwhile, read about the Hall of Fame on the ATCA site and see the list of members on the Hall’s own site.


Signature Theatre wins 2014 Regional Theatre Tony Award

The Tony Awards Administration Committee announced April 28 that it will present the 2014 Regional Theatre Award to New York’s Signature Theatre. Each year, the award is presented on the recommendation of ATCA, after an internal, confidential process of proposals and balloting. We are delighted that the Tonys have ionce again accepted our recommendation, as they have every year since the award was instituted at ATCA’s suggestion in 1976. Tony announcement here; list of previous winners here. 


Six finalists announced for $40,000 2014 Steinberg-ATCA Award

For immediate release: Feb. 27, 2014

The American Theatre Critics Association (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 2013.

At $40,000, Steinberg/ATCA is the largest national new play award of its kind. The top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each, plus commemorative plaques, will be presented April 5 at Actors Theatre of Louisville, during the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Since 1977, ATCA has honored 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. Last year’s winner, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, opens on Broadway this spring.

Since 2000, the award has been generously funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. This year’s finalists, alphabetically by playwright:

Fear Up Harsh, by Christopher Demos-Brown – The secret backstory behind the awarding of a Congressional Medal of Honor to a wounded Marine emerges in this mercilessly penetrating interrogation about how our need for heroes — a need even among the heroes themselves – can trump the very values of truth, honor and loyalty that they fought to preserve. The play received its world premiere at Zoetic Stage in Miami in November.

I and You, by Lauren Gunderson – Caroline, a cranky high school student in desperate need of a liver transplant, is enticed by classmate Anthony, a level-headed basketball star with a taste for English lit, into a school project deconstructing Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. As their quirky relationship evolves in fits and starts, they explore the meaning of life and death without a shred of condescension or pretentiousness. Delicate, smart and funny with sharp insights, the play grows quietly toward a surprising and overwhelmingly moving conclusion. It premiered in October at Marin Theatre Company as part of the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere program.

Smokefall, by Noah Haidle  — This delightfully offbeat play embraces inventive theatricality and a poetic lyricism to depict three generations of a Midwestern family as they move through time. It combines a compassionate examination of familial unhappiness and the fragility of life with zany humor, such as twin fetuses arguing in their mother’s womb. The work bowed last spring as a co-production of South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

H20, by Jane Martin – Fast and smart and fresh in its intersection of transitory showbiz and enduring faith, this drama depicts a deeply troubled flavor-of-the-month movie idol who is slated to play Hamlet on stage in New York. He woos a talented unknown actress to be his Ophelia after she foils his suicide attempt. Her profound faith in Christianity collides with his dark view of the world as she tries to save his production, his life and his soul in a play that is both terribly funny and deeply moving at almost the same moment. Directed by Jon Jory, the play premiered at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia in July.

Stupid F**king Bird, by Aaron Posner – Unlike almost anything else seen this season, this script was praised as “funny, wonderful, original, smart with a capital S, consistently imaginative but thoroughly grounded.” On the surface, it’s simply a modern retelling of Chekhov’s The Seagull that catches all the humor and wistfulness of the original and the inner reality of a great play. But Posner has transmuted the story, “wrapping new words and ideas around old concepts,” using form-bending theatricality to create a fresh sui generis work of art. The play premiered last year at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington D.C.

Seven Spots on the Sun, by Martin Zimmerman — This meld of magical realism and political issues is an affecting tale that examines whether forgiveness is truly possible, set against the ravages of civil war, lust, plague and a consuming need for vengeance. A widowed doctor in a small village and a newly-married soldier charged with subduing dissent take converging journeys towards redemption in this harrowing play that was unveiled at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in October.  

Wm. F. Hirschman, chair of ATCA’s New Play Committee, says this year’s entries validate the future of a vibrant 21st Century theater that mirrors today’s issues as almost never before. “Far from disconnected and elitist, the plays reflect themes and settings encompassing bullying, racism, sexual identity in a repressive society, a street-level view of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and genocidal civil war. Some works completely re-invent established 20th Century works like The Crucible, The Seagull and The Heiress for a new century and a new audience. They reference how technology is creating previously unimagined ethical questions and ask tough questions about how the economic downturn has challenged what people thought were their unshakeable values. Refuting concerns about theater as a relevant and popularly embraced art form, the stunning array and high quality of scripts we read confirm the enduring commitment of regional theaters and a dazzling diversity of playwrights to be the primary standard-bearers for new works.”

Jonathan Abarbanel, Chair of the ATCA Executive Committee, observes, “Even though theatre critics don’t always give playwrights good news, this awards program has been central to ATCA’s activities for nearly 40 years. We recognize that theatre begins with words on a page, and no one but the playwright is there when the page is empty. We are deeply grateful for the continuing support of the Steinberg Trust and for the opportunity to present the award each year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays.”

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. For a full list of all winners and runners-up, go to and click on Steinberg-ATCA under Awards.

These six finalists were selected from 28 eligible scripts submitted by ATCA members. They were evaluated by a committee of 19 theater critics, led by chairman Hirschman, Other committee members are Misha Berson, Seattle Times; Bruce Burgun, freelance (Bloomington, Ind.); Lindsay Christians, The Capital Times (Madison, Wisc.); Mark Cofta, Philadelphia City Paper; Pam Harbaugh, Florida Today (Melbourne); Lou Harry, Indianapolis Business Journal/; Michael P. Howley,; Erin Keane, Louisville Public Media; Jerry Kraft, (Port Angeles, Wash.); Elizabeth Maupin, Orlando; Julius Novick, veteran critic and professor (New York City); Kathryn Osenlund, CurtainUp, Phindie (Philadelphia); Wendy Parker (Midlothian, Va); Nelson Pressley, Washington Post; David Sheward,,,; Herb Simpson, and (Geneseo, N.Y.), Steve Treacy, Port Townsend (Wash.) Leader, and Tim Treanor, DC Theater Scene (Washington, D.C.).

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 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 ATCA, visit For more information on the Steinberg/ATCA Award, contact Wm. F. Hirschman, chair of the ATCA New Play Committee, at or 954-478-1123; Jonathan Abarbanel, ATCA Executive Committee chair, at; or Christopher Rawson, ATCA communications chair, at or 412-216-1944.

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