The Wasserstein Award is an annual award given to an emerging female playwright who has yet to receive recognition for their work. Nominations were solicited for the award, but this year, the committee rejected all of the nominees because, in their words, none were “truly outstanding.”
Anna Clark at Isak shares an open letter from Playwright Michael Lew to the committee charged with giving out the award. Michael says:
This decision can only be interpreted as a blanket indictment on the quality of female emerging writers and their work, and is insulting not only to the finalists but also to the many theatre professionals who nominated these writers and deemed their plays prize worthy. This decision perpetuates the pattern of gender bias outlined in Julia Jordan and Emily Glassberg Sands’ study on women in theatre, and the message it sends to the theatre community generally is that there aren’t any young female playwrights worth investigating.
Obviously the ins and outs of the arts community, the awards systems and the people in charge of handing them out are complicated. Many reproduce hierarchies of privilege they are meant to rectify–it’s often those who are already have many accolades who are likely to receive more of them. But the fact remains that in an industry with almost no business model (the arts), these opportunities can make or break someone’s ability to pursue their artistic passions, or not.
This particular award comes with $25,000, a significant sum for a struggling playwright. It’s also named for Wendy Wasserstein, herself an influential playwright who died young, at the age of 55, from cancer.
In her obituary in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood says this about Wasserstein’s experience of women in theatre:
Ms. Wasserstein, who grew up in New York, recalled attending Broadway plays as a young woman and being struck by the absence of people like herself onstage: “I remember going to them and thinking, I really like this, but where are the girls?” she once said. Ms. Wasserstein would fill the stage with “girls” — a term she used with a wink despite taking flak for it — in a series of plays that pleased loyal audiences even when the critics did not always embrace them.
I can’t imagine she would be all too happy that an award meant to carry on her legacy of supporting women in playwrighting would be so dismissive of the female playwrights nominated this year.