By Bill Hirschman
Miami playwright Christopher Demos-Brown received a prestigious citation this weekend from one of the most esteemed playwriting programs in the country, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.
The selection was based on the script for his play Fear Up Harsh that premiered in November at Zoetic Stage. The drama told of two wounded veterans of the war in the Middle East who return home to radically different welcomes.
Demos-Brown received a $7,500 check and a plaque, presented in front of hundreds of theater artists, patrons and industry leaders at the annual Humana Festival of New Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville on Saturday night.
The ATCA critic/judges praised the work as “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.”
Brown said last month, “I consider this one of, if not the most prestigious awards that playwrights can vie for, partly because of its inherent prestige and partly because of who gives it. Being a finalist will be significant in giving me a bump in getting it produced elsewhere.”
Zoetic also received a plaque Saturday for its work because the ATCA competition recognizes and honors the contribution of the theater helping shape the first production;
It was the second major award for Demos-Brown and the play within a week. Fear Up Harsh received the best new play statuette Monday night at the Carbonell Awards. It also led to a best actress Carbonell for Karen Stephens as an emotionally damaged veteran.
Brown, a Miami civil trial attorney by day, is a founding member of Zoetic which also produced his Carbonell-winning play Captiva in 2011. Among his other works is When The Sun Shone Brighter which won a Carbonell Award for best new work when it bowed at Florida Stage. His wife, Stephanie, represented the theater at the awards Saturday as Zoetic’s president.
Zoetic Artistic Director Stuart Meltzer, who directed the show, wrote, “We are extremely proud of Chris and this important play. We hope that being a Steinberg finalist will open more opportunities for audiences to see the play and make connections to the playwrights that live in South Florida.”
Fear Up Harsh was recommended for the award by Christine Dolen, critic of The Miami Herald, and Bill Hirschman of Floridatheateronstage.com.
The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) contest recognizes playwrights for the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2013.
The top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each, makes the Steinberg/ATCA 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. Since 2000, the award has been funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.
The $25,000 award this year recognized I and You, by Lauren Gunderson, which is slated to be produced January 9 – February 1 at The Theatre At Arts Garage in Delray Beach, which mounted her Exit, Pursued By a Bear this season.
In Gunderson’s new play, 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.
The other citation went to 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.
These winners were selected from 28 eligible scripts submitted by ATCA members. They were evaluated by a committee of 19 theater critics, led by chairman Bill Hirschman, editor and chief critic of FloridaTheaterOnStage.com. 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/IBJ.com; Michael P. Howley, theatremontgomery.blogspot.com; Erin Keane, Louisville Public Media; Jerry Kraft, www.SeattleActor.com, (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, ArtsinNY.com, Theaterlife.com, NewYork.com; Herb Simpson, artesmagazine.com/theater and totaltheater.com (Geneseo, N.Y.), Steve Treacy, Port Townsend Leader, and Tim Treanor, DC Theater Scene (Washington, D.C.)
Hirschman said this year’s entries validated the future of a vibrant 21st Century theater that mirrors today’s issues as almost never before. “Far from disconnected and elitist, the plays reflected 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 complete re-invented established 20th Century works like The Crucible, The Seagull and The Heiress for a new century and a new audience. They referenced how technology is creating previously unimagined ethical questions and asked tough questions about how the economic downtown 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 confirmed the enduring commitment of regional theaters and a dazzling diversity of playwrights to be the primary standard-bearers for new works,” he said.”
Jonathan Abarbanel, Chair of the ATCA Executive Committee, said, “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. Last year’s honoree was Robert Schenkkan’s “All The Way.” For a full list of all of the 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 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 www.americantheatrecritics.org.