By Bill Hirschman
The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has selected Robert Schenkkan’s meditation on power and pragmatism, All The Way, as the recipient of the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, recognizing playwrights for scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2012.
Schenkkan’s play about Lyndon Johnson’s dogged campaign to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 received the top award of $25,000 and a commemorative plaque during the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville on April 6.
Two citations that carry $7,500 each were also presented to Lucas Hnath for Death Tax and Johnna Adams for Gidion’s Knot.
In 1977, ATCA began to honor new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City, where there are many awards. Since 2000, the award has been generously funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. At $40,000, Steinberg/ATCA is the largest national new play award focusing on regional theaters as the crucible for new plays in the United States.
All The Way was described by ATCA’s judges as an engrossing, epic depiction of Johnson’s struggle to get the Civil Rights Act passed through a recalcitrant Congress while simultaneously balancing an imminent election campaign. 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 flawed hero who is complex, obscene, brilliant and ruthless and committed to using his power in a pivotal moment in this country’s social evolution. All the Way premiered July 25 as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions commission program and has already been picked up for future productions including opening American Repertory Theatre’s season in September.
Schenkkan won the Pulitzer Prize for 1991’s The Kentucky Cycle, the first time a work won the honor without having premiered in New York. The Seattle-based writer is the author of 12 full-length plays, two full length musicals, screenplays and a collection of short plays.
Gidion’s Knot, by Johnna Adams, is a complex 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. The play received its world premiere in July at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Death Tax, by Lucas Hnath, is a tough-minded drama about dying in America in the 21st Century. 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. The play bowed last spring at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival.
The winners were selected from a record-setting 42 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, 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 hundreds of 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 presented the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, which recognizes emerging playwrights, to Keri Healey of Seattle for her play Torso. 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 www.americantheatrecritics.org.