Friday, February 24, 2012

Awards Watch: Judging the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize

I received my invitation today in the mail.  The directors of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize say they cordially request my company at the English Speaking Union at Dartmouth House in London on Tuesday, February 28th for the 34th annual presentation of the 2011-2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the world's most important award for outstanding female playwrights who write in English.

How I wish I could go! (Can you apply for a grant to attend an awards presentation?)

Let's pause for a moment and applaud this year's 10 finalists, chosen from more than 100 submitted plays, are:
  1. Johnna Adams – Gidion’s Knot (U.S.); 
  2. Alice Birch – Many Moons (U.K.); 
  3. Madeleine George - Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England (U.S.); 
  4. Jennifer Haley – The Nether (U.S.); 
  5. Nancy Harris – No Romance (Ireland); 
  6. Zinnie Harris – The Wheel (U.K.);
  7. Jaki McCarrick – Belfast Girls (U.K.);
  8. Molly Smith Metzler – Close Up Space (U.S.);
  9. Meg Miroshnik - The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls (U.S.); 
  10. Alexis Zegerman – The Steingolds (U.K.).
Last year I did get to attend the Blackburn Prize presentation in New York. That was when the American playwright Katori Hall received the 2010-2011 Blackburn Prize for her play Hurt Village, which was nominated by Signature Theatre Company in New York where the play premiered on February 7 and is now performing. It was a beautiful and exciting evening. None of us knew who would win. I've known Katori ever since she was a budding playwright at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. I knew she was short-listed for the award, and it was great to be there when her name was called by Judith Ivey, one of the judges.

I remember that night, too, because it was the first time I had the courage to come up to John Guare, the distinguished playwright. He is a frequent guest of the Blackburn receptions. We had met briefly at a number of events over the years, but I don't think he ever remembered me. Usually he's always hanging out the glamorous people. Anyway I felt that I had to come up and tell him that I thought his play A Freeman of Color is a triumph in almost every respect.

To serve as a judge of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize this year is a dream come true. Past winners of this prize have been some of the most extraordinary playwrights whose's work I've come across. Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Behzti (Dishonour), and Cheryl West’s Before It Hits Home stand out in my mind as hard-hitting works that deal with great themes. Palace of the End dealt with the Iraq War. Behzti caused outrage among young Sikhs. Before It Hits Home looks at the effects of AIDS and HIV and is still a difficult play for many members of the black community.

I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of past winners. I still remember sharing a cab with Sarah Ruhl, who won for The Clean House, after a photo session in Chelsea; I put her on the cover of the magazine. I've known Susan Miller, who won for A Map of Doubt and Rescue, when she performed in her solo play My Left Breast. Naomi Wallace, who won for One Flea Spare, gave me advice and comfort when I found myself being attacked for an issue I edited and prepared on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I first interviewed Jessica Goldberg, who won for Refuge, when she was straight out of Juilliard. I took Paula Vogel's course on playwriting, and I still keep the letter of encouragement she gave me weeks after the course. This wonderful playwright won for How I Learned to Drive. Someday I will tell the story of how I first met Caryl Churchill (Serious Money) at an opening night party. I was in heaven.

It was a learning experience for me to be a judge. On the day the U.S. judges met here in New York, I had to confess to everyone that I found myself hunting down biographies and googling every single one of the playwrights who were shortlisted this year. I knew the work of several of them already, but a majority of them were new to me. I felt I wanted to know more about each of these playwrights. Then, of course, I was told that the judging is strictly on the merits of the play. That the extra work I did was completely superfluous and unnecessary. Well, that may be true. But now that I have to come to know a little bit more about each of these writers, I greatly look forward to encountering their work again, this time onstage.

Especially the winner of this year's prize. She is a first-rate writer, and the play she wrote is visionary. (Ask Imogen Stubbs; she knows exactly what I am saying). That winner's name is....  --RG



“The emergence of women playwrights over the history of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize has spear-headed a change in the position of women in every realm of the theater.”
– Wendy Wasserstein, 1988 winner for The Heidi Chronicles

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize has announced 10 Finalists for its prestigious playwriting award, now celebrating its thirty-fourth year.

The 10 Finalists for the 2011-2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, chosen from over 100 submitted plays, are:
  1. Johnna Adams – Gidion’s Knot (U.S.); 
  2. Alice Birch – Many Moons (U.K.); 
  3. Madeleine George - Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England (U.S.); 
  4. Jennifer Haley – The Nether (U.S.); 
  5. Nancy Harris – No Romance (Ireland); 
  6. Zinnie Harris – The Wheel (U.K.);
  7. Jaki McCarrick – Belfast Girls (U.K.);
  8. Molly Smith Metzler – Close Up Space (U.S.);
  9. Meg Miroshnik - The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls (U.S.); 
  10. Alexis Zegerman – The Steingolds (U.K.).
The Winner of the 2011-2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize will be named at the Awards Presentation on February 28th in London.

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, co-founded by Emilie S. Kilgore and William Blackburn, annually honors an outstanding new English-language play by a woman. For over three decades, the Prize has encouraged women playwrights and drawn attention to notable new works. Many of the Winners have gone on to receive other honors, including Tony Awards and The Pulitzer Prize. The Finalist plays also benefit from the exposure, which generates interest and productions at theater companies across North America and the United Kingdom.

The 2011-2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Winner will be awarded $20,000, and will also receive a signed and numbered print by renowned artist Willem de Kooning, created especially for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Each of the additional Finalists will receive $1,000.

The international panel of judges for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize includes U.S. judges Randy Gener, Nathan Award-winning writer/editor/critic; Martha Lavey, Artistic Director of the Steppenwolf Theatre (Chicago); and Frances McDormand, Oscar and Tony Award-winning film and stage star.

U.K. judges are Jonathan Church, Artistic Director of the Chichester Festival Theatre; Ben Power, Associate Director of the National Theatre; and Imogen Stubbs, Actress/Writer/Director and stage and screen star.

Former judges of The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize over the past thirty-three years are a Who’s Who of the English-speaking theatre and include, Edward Albee, Eileen Atkins, Blair Brown, Zoe Caldwell, Jill Clayburgh, Glenn Close, Harold Clurman, Colleen Dewhurst, Ralph Fiennes, John Guare, A.R. Gurney, David Hare, Doug Hughes, Judith Ivey, Tony Kushner, Janet McTeer, Marsha Norman, Joan Plowright, Marian Seldes, Fiona Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Meryl Streep, Jessica Tandy, Paula Vogel, Wendy Wasserstein, August Wilson and Joanne Woodward among nearly 200 artists in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The Houston-based Susan Smith Blackburn Prize received the 2010 Theatre Communications Group's National Funder Award. The annual honor goes to a company, foundation or other entity for “leadership and sustained national support of theater in America.”

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize reflects the values and interests of Susan Smith Blackburn, noted American actress and writer who lived in London during the last 15 years of her life. She died in 1977 at the age of 42. Over 300 plays have been chosen as Finalists since the Prize was instituted in 1977. Over 80 of them are frequently produced in the United States today. Seven Blackburn Finalist plays have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. The authors of those plays, Margaret Edson, Beth Henley, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Paula Vogel and Wendy Wasserstein are the only women to have done so since the Blackburn Prize was first established.

Each year artistic directors and prominent professionals in the theatre throughout the English-speaking world are invited to submit plays. Plays are eligible whether or not they have been produced, but any premiere production must have occurred within the preceding year. Each script receives multiple readings by members of an international reading committee that then selects ten Finalists. All six judges read each Finalist’s play.


Johnna Adams (U.S.) Gidion’s Knot
Submitted by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
She is the 2011 recipient of the Princess Grace Award and a 2012 graduate of the Hunter College Playwriting MFA program, led by Tina Howe. On her wild ride as a playwright so far, she has mingled with an all-inmate cast at the Iowa Women’s Correctional Institution’s production of her play In the Absence of Angels,(2006) and participated in a fully nude talkback in front of a nude audience at the Naturist Society’s Western Naturist Gathering at the Lupin Naturist Club (Nude on the Beach, 2002). Other plays include Nurture; Alcestis in Baghdad; The Anguisher; Hripsime; Hued Moll; Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens; The Angel Eaters Trilogy (Angel Eaters, Rattlers, and 8 Little Antichrists); Sans Merci, Cockfighters and The Sacred Geometry of S&M Porn. She is a past Reva Shiner Award winner, winner of the OC Weekly’s Best Original Play award (twice), finalist for the Christopher Brian Wolk Award, finalist for the William Saroyan Prize and New York Innovative Theatre Award nominee. Johnna’s plays Angel Eaters, Rattlers, 8 Little Antichrists, Sans Merci, Cockfighters and The Sacred Geometry of S&M Porn are published by Original Works Publishing (

Alice Birch (U.K.) Many Moons
Submitted by Theatre 503
Her debut full-length production, Many Moons, played at the Theatre 503 to excellent reviews in the Spring of 2011. She has previously been part of the Royal Court Theatre Young Writer’s Invitation Programme (2005-2007), BBC 24 Degrees writing scheme (2008-09; for which she was selected by the BBC and Royal Court) and was on attachment to the National Theatre Studio in the Spring of 2010. Her work has also been included in the Old Vic 24 Hour Plays and the Paines Plough-produced Come to Where I’m From Season, both 2010. Alice is currently part of The Big Room project with Channel 4 and Paines Plough; a nine month project for five writers. In 2010, she was on attachment to the Royal Court Theatre. Previous writing credits include Jess/Jim (24 Hour Film Project 2011), Contact (Rose Bruford), PLAYlist (Theatre 503), Bonfires(Arcola/Miniaturists), Come to Where I’m From (Paines Plough), 24 Hour Plays (Old Vic New Voices), andLimbs (nabakov Present:Tense). Alice is currently working with East 15, Curious Directive, RashDash and is developing her play with the National Theatre. Her play, Little Light is in development and she will be attached to the Royal Court Theatre later this year.Alice graduated from Exeter University with a First Class degree in English in 2009. Many Moons is her first full-length play.

Madeleine George (U.S.) Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England
Submitted by Clubbed Thumb
Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England just enjoyed an extended run at New Jersey’s Two Rivers Theatre Co. Other plays by George include The Zero Hour and Precious Little. Her work has been produced and developed by 13P, Clubbed Thumb, Soho Rep, Playwrights Horizons, New York Theatre Workshop, City Theatre in Pittsburgh, About Face Theatre in Chicago, The Playwrights’ Center/Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and the O'Neill Playwrights Conference. Madeleine has received a MacDowell Fellowship, the Princess Grace Playwriting Award, the Jane Chambers Award, as well as commissions from Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons. She is a resident playwright at New Dramatists, an alum of the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab and the Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, and a founding member of the Obie-Award-winning playwrights collective 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.: She lives in Brooklyn.

Jennifer Haley (U.S.) The Nether
Submitted by Center Theatre Group
Jennifer Haley is a Los Angeles-based playwright whose work has been seen around the U.S, most recently at the Lark Play Development Center in New York and the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, where she workshopped The Nether. Her plays include Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville 2008 Humana Festival and continues to see productions nation-wide, and Breadcrumbs, which premiered at the 2010 Contemporary American Theatre Festival and enjoyed an extended run this summer at Theater 150 in Ojai, CA. Plays in development include Froggy, workshopped at the 2011 Sundance Theatre Lab. Her work has also been seen at Summer Play Festival in New York, PlayPenn Playwrights Conference in Philadelphia, Lincoln Center Director's Lab, Geva Theatre in Rochester, Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, and the Page 73 Productions Summer Residency at Yale. She is a former fellow at the MacDowell Colony and Millay Colony for the Arts, and her work is published by Samuel French and Playscripts, Inc. She lives in Los Angeles, where she founded a network of dramatic writers called the Playwrights Union. You can find out more about her at

Nancy Harris (Ireland) No Romance
Submitted by the Abbey Theatre
A hit at the Abbey Theatre (Dublin) in 2011, No Romance is Nancy’s first original play. It was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre. It is nominated for “Best New Play” in the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, which will be announced at the end of February. Her new play, Our New Girl, is currently enjoying an extended run at the Bush Theatre (London). In April/May, The Man With The Disturbingly Smelly Foot, adapted from Sophocles’ Philoctetes, will open at the Unicorn Theatre, London. Other theatre credits include The Kreutzer Sonata (Gate Theatre, London), Little Dolls (Bush Theatre Broken Space Season) and Love in a Glass Jar (Abbey Theatre 20 Love Season). The Kreutzer Sonata is due to tour to the U.S. where it will run at La MaMa in March of 2012. She has also been a writer on attachment at the Soho Theatre and National Theatre Studio. Her radio credits include Love in a Glass Jar and the five part Woman’s Hour drama series Blood in the Bridal Shop co-written with Louise Ramsden, both for BBC Radio 4. Nancy has also written for television. She is currently the Pearson Playwright in Residence 2011 at the Bush Theatre, London.

Zinnie Harris (U.K.) The Wheel
Submitted by National Theatre of Scotland
Zinnie Harris is a playwright, screenwriter and theatre director. Her plays include The Wheel (National Theatre of Scotland, 2011) joint winner of The 2011 Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and a Fringe First Award, The Panel (Tricycle Theatre, London 2010); The Garden (Traverse Theatre, 2009); Fall (Traverse Theatre, 2008); Julie (National Theatre of Scotland, 2006) Solstice (RSC, 2005); Midwinter (RSC, 2004); Nightingale and Chase (Royal Court, 2001); Further than the Furthest Thing (Royal National Theatre/Tron Theatre and then British Council tour to South Africa 2000 / /1) winner of the Peggy Ramsay Playwrighting Award, and John Whiting Award and Fringe First Award, and By Many Wounds (Hampstead Theatre). She also wrote a new version of A Doll’s House for the Donmar Warehouse in 2010. Zinnie also writes for television and radio. Her directing work includes While You Lie (Traverse Theatre), Julie (National Theatre of Scotland); Solstice and Midwinter (both RSC); Gilt (7:84); Dealers Choice (Tron Theatre Company); Master of the House (BBC Radio Four) and Cracked (2001 Edinburgh Fringe First Award). She was a Writer in Residence at the RSC from 200-2001.

Molly Smith Metzler (U.S.) Close Up Space
Submitted by Manhattan Theatre Club
Molly Smith Metzler grew up Kingston, NY. She is the author of Elemeno Pea (South Coast Rep, Humana Festival 2011), Close Up Space (Manhattan Theatre Club), Training Wisteria (SPF, Cherry Lane Mentor Project) and Carve. Her work has been developed by The O’Neill Theatre Center, MTC, Chautauqua Theater Company, Williamstown Theatre Festival, hotINK, Playwrights Horizons, and The Kennedy Center, where she was the winner of three KCACTF awards including the Kennedy Center National Student Playwrighting Award. Molly is a member of EST, Ars Nova Play Group, and Primary Stages writing group; she holds graduate degrees from Boston University, NYU Tisch, and The Juilliard School, where she was a two-time recipient of the Le Comte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center. Molly lives in Brooklyn and is currently working on new plays for South Coast Rep, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and Manhattan Theatre Club.

Meg Miroshnik (U.S.) The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls
Submitted by Alliance Theatre
Meg Miroshnik’s plays include The Droll {Or, a Stage-Play about the END of Theatre}, The Tall Girls, and A Portrait of the Woman as a Young Artist. Her play The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls (Or, девушки) is the winner of the 2011-2012 Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award and will open at the Alliance Theatre in February 2012 (directed by Eric Rosen); in a Russian translation by Maria Kroupnik, the play is the winner of the Masterskaya na Begavoi and will be produced by the Moscow Playwright and Director Center (directed by Ilya Shagalov). The Droll was featured in the 2011 Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory (directed by David Chambers). Her work has been produced or developed by South Coast Repertory, the Kennedy Center, Lark New Play Development Center, Yale Cabaret, the Carlotta Festival at Yale, Perishable Theatre, WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory, One Coast Collaboration, and published in Best American Short Plays, 2008-2009 (Applause, 2010). She has taught playwriting at Wesleyan University and New Haven’s Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. Upcoming projects include an adaptation of the libretto for Shostakovich’s opera Moscow, Cheryomushki (re-orchestration by Gerard McBurney, directed by Mike Donahue) for Chicago Opera Theater in April 2012 and a commission for a new play for South Coast Repertory. She holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama where she studied with Paula Vogel.

Jaki McCarrick (U.K.) Belfast Girls
Submitted by King’s Head Theatre
Jaki McCarrick is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. Her first play, The Mushroom Pickers, won the 2005 Scottish Drama Association's National Playwriting Competition, and premiered at the Southwark Playhouse in London in 2006 and in New York in 2009. She has published poetry, and short stories in The Dublin Review, Irish Pages, Verbal Arts Magazine, Cyphers, Brace - published by Comma Press, The Frogmore Papers, Wasafiri Magazine. She was Writer-in-Residence at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre for the Pushkin Trust in July 2007. She won first prize in the 2009 Northern Ireland Spinetinglers Dark Fiction competition and was selected for the 2009 Poetry Ireland Introduction series of emerging poets.

Her play, Leopoldville, selected by David Hare as a Finalist in the 2010 Yale Drama Series Playwriting Competition; the play won the 2010 Papatango New Writing Award and in 2010 was staged at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London to much critical acclaim. In 2010, Jaki was awarded a bursary in Literature from the Arts Council of Ireland and also received a Peggy Ramsay Award in recognition of her playwriting. Her short story, The Visit, won the 2010 Wasafiri Short Fiction Prize and will appear in the 2012 Anthology of Best British Short Stories. She also recently won the first Liverpool Lennon (Paper) Poetry Competition for her poem, “The Selkie of Dorinish”. Her most recent play, Belfast Girls, was staged at the Kings Head Theatre, London, to much acclaim in 2011. In 2012 she is on attachment to the National Theatre Studio (London).

Alexis Zegerman (U.K.) The Steingolds
Submitted by Playful Productions
Alexis is a writer and actress. She studied at Edinburgh University and the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Alexis began writing on the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme. She became Pearson Writer-in-Residence at Hampstead Theatre in 2007, where her play Lucky Seven premiered in November 2008. It has since received further productions in the UK and abroad. Her new play The Steingolds recently workshopped at the National Theatre Studio. Short plays include I Ran the World for the Royal Court, and Noise at Soho Theatre, London (winner of the Westminster Prize for New Playwriting 2003). Her play Killing Brando opened at the Young Vic as part of Paines Plough’s Wild Lunch in 2004, and was later produced at Òran Mór in Glasgow for their ‘A Play, a Pie and a Pint’ season.

Her short film The Honeymoon Suite won the Pears Film Fund Award and received further funding from Working Title. The film premiered at the opening gala of the UK Jewish Film Festival at Leicester Square and has since played at international festivals including Palm Springs, New York City Film Festival, Encounters in Bristol and the London Short Film Festival. Alexis was recently selected as one of 25 up-and-coming talents in British film, taking part in Think-Shoot-Distribute, an initiative set up by the London Film Festival.

Her plays for BBC Radio 4 include Ronnie Gecko (Richard Imison Award nomination), Are You Sure?, The Singing Butler, Jump and Déjà Vu (special commendation Prix Europa 2009). She also wrote the Radio 4 comedy series School Runs and a second series Mum’s on the Run.
As an actress Alexis has worked with Mike Leigh both on stage and screen – in his play Two Thousand Years at the National Theatre, and on film in the part of Zoe in Happy-Go-Lucky for which she won a British Independent Film Award for Best Supporting Actress and a London Film Critics’ Circle nomination. Other feature films include Storm and Albatross. TV work includes Strange and U Be Dead. Other theatre work includes plays at the Royal Court and the Bush.

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