On Saturday, June 22nd, the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) awarded me the 2019 Elliott Hayes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramaturgy for my work on Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries. Throughout my professional career, LMDA has been an invaluable resource; this community has provided me with field-sourced wisdom, fanned the flames of my love for new plays and living writers, expanded my dramaturgical toolkit, and offered structure and support in moments of artistic uncertainty. To be given this award by my esteemed colleagues is an incredible honor. In one way, I received this recognition because of many people, and yet, in another regard, it is primarily because of one person…
Before he was the most produced playwright in the world, before he was used and abused by political agendas, before he was a bane for high school students, before he was an inspiration for countless artists, before he was any of that, William Shakespeare was, to quote his most famous character, “a man, take him for all in all.” More specifically, he was a playwright. Hamlet, speaking about his father, continues “I shall not look upon his like again.” But when dramaturgs consider Shakespeare the playwright (assuming he was anything like the playwrights we know), we get to look upon his like again each time we sympathize with a writer going through writer’s block, each time we trace a script’s lineage back to its foundational stories, each time we track down a draft past-due, each time we share in an audience being moved, entertained, and provoked by how the text comes alive on stage before them.
Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries was born of a premise simultaneously radical and straightforward: that the tools that Shakespeare had when he was writing his plays and the influence that those plays have had since could be used to amplify the skills of today’s living writers and begin to establish their own dramatic legacies.
Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries is creating a contemporary canon of new plays that engage with Shakespeare’s work and embrace Shakespeare’s staging conditions. It produces two world premieres a year, each done in rotating rep with the Shakespeare play that it’s responding to, and awards a $25,000 prize to each playwright.
In today’s Golden Age of playwriting, SNC, in its deceptive simplicity, has the potential to change the landscape of the American theatre.
- By asking playwrights to write for Shakespeare’s staging conditions – including a company of 10-12 performers and universal lighting – SNC pushes writers beyond contemporary theatrical conventions.
- By having an open application process and deep relationships within the theatrical community, SNC is seeding the field with the kind of plays for which there is already a proven demand.
- By awarding a significant monetary prize to the selected writers, SNC empowers playwrights to continue their craft in spite of the precariousness of the industry.
- By committing to full productions of these new plays, SNC breaks the cycle of “development hell,” and by producing them in rep with their Shakespeare antecedents, SNC creates new play fans from Shakespeareans.
In short, Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries is attempting to leverage what we know about the way Shakespeare made plays then to transform the way we make plays now.
The American Shakespeare Center launched Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries on April 21, 2017. Now, just over two years later, we have produced the first two world premieres of the project, are developing and preparing for next year’s productions, and are currently accepting applications for the selection of the next additions to our contemporary canon.
Before I arrived at the American Shakespeare Center, SNC was a thrilling idea, a handful of premature play submissions, and not much else. But the idea was so remarkable that I was compelled to leave an institution devoted to new work, uproot my life from my home in New England, and move to rural Virginia to work for a company that, until then, had produced almost exclusively the work of dead writers. Thankfully, the idea was indeed a good one and the risk of that move paid off.
Since I landed in Staunton, I have dramaturged the institution, the project, and the plays; I have educated artists, audiences, and administrators; I have managed applications, selection, development, and production. At every turn, I have been exploring structure and systems, creating context, and deepening relationships. I am now in the DNA of Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries. My artistic perspective, my dramaturgical practice, and my personal ethos can be felt from the structure of the application form to the script rewrites; from the play selection process to the way audiences are talking about what they’re seeing on stage. I feel so fortunate to have been empowered to do this work, proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, excited about what’s ahead, and grateful to LMDA for this award.
I began this reflection by considering that in one way this recognition was because of one person, and, in another sense, because of many. So to recognize and thank them:
- First, and foremost, our playwrights. Amy E. Witting, Mary Elizabeth Hamilton, Anchuli Felicia King, Emma Whipday, and the rest of the writers whose work I can only imagine at present. They are Shakespeare’s new contemporaries. They are why I do this.
- ASC’s Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny, an indefatigable questioner who has never questioned the value of new plays by living writers. I am a better dramaturg and SNC is a stronger program because of his questions.
- ASC Managing Director Amy Wratchford has provided a rock solid foundation for this project from day one.
- ASC Co-Founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen, a scholar and a gentleman, whose passion for Shakespeare is infectious, and who seems to have been equally infected by my passion for new plays.
- Jim Warren, ASC’s former Artistic Director, articulated the vision of the project and then trusted me to bring it to life.
- ASC’s Associate Artistic Producer Jay McClure, the instigator and unsung hero of this endeavor.
- The entirety of the ASC’s artists and staff. They astound me with their skill, their generosity, and their curiosity, and they are, quite frankly, some of the most talented folks I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.
- My interns who generally make me look way more pulled together than I actually am.
- And on a personal note, I want to thank my inspiring, cheerleading friends and my understanding and supportive family.
And to LMDA, I am so grateful to be a part of this community; I wouldn’t have been able to do all this work without the knowledge and support that I’ve gotten from it.
And so, to close by once again quoting the man who is partially responsible for my receiving this award: “I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.”
Header image by Joe Mazza – Brave Lux.