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Critics conference journal #4: Who gets to participate as a playwright in American theater?

March 24, 2013

As part of the American Theatre Critics Association conference in Indianapolis, playwright Tammy Ryan accepted the 2012 Francesca Primus Prize on Friday at the Columbia Club. The $10,000 award was for her play "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods," which was developed, in part, at Indiana's New Harmony Project.

Given annually, by ATCA and the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, the Primus Prize goes to an emerging woman theater artist and is open to playwrights, artistic directors and directors.

One hope, of course, is that Ryan's visit to Indy is the first of many. And that perhaps next time it will be to see a production of one of her plays.

In the meantime, here are the words she shared at the gathering, which was hosted by the Cabaret at the Columbia Club.

“One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t control what other people think. You only control what you do and if you’re a writer, what and how you write. But what people think often comes into play on whether or not someone gets to participate in the American theater. Someone has to say yes to produce your play, give you a grant or a prize. Sometimes, out in the hinterlands, a playwright can feel a little left out of the party. The people who get to participate are often Ivy-League-educated, with connections and MFAs costing the price of a mortgage, and with theater tickets over $100, economics comes into the picture. You begin to wonder who’s able to participate in the American theater anymore; is it only the 1% who can afford to educate themselves or buy season subscriptions?

“But the American theater is thankfully not just in New York; it’s in the regions, the smaller cities, towns and universities, and I think that’s one of the things the Francesca Primus Prize recognizes. For though I don’t think any playwright in this country male or female does this work for fame and fortune (unless they’re deluded), when fortune comes, or a bit of fortune, and recognition, it does feel good. It’s both validating and encouraging not just to the playwright, but to her friends and family who’ve often blindly supported her in this endeavor. And it also validates her community – the place where she makes theater.

“OK, I’m going to stop talking in the third person now. Pittsburgh, the place where I make theater, is also recognized by this award. I’m blessed to have a home at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Without that family of theater artists holding me up there, or the many enormously generous, talented and willing actors in Pittsburgh who’ve participated in readings, workshops and productions often for little or no compensation, I don’t believe I’d have this thing I call my career.

“Critics, I’ve come to realize, are also important. Not just because they sometimes give out awards to playwrights, although that’s nice and I encourage that practice, but because the good ones that I know, I’m talking about the ones who love theater – they validate the theater experience, not just with their opinions, which they’re entitled to have, but just by the act of going to the theater and taking the time, energy and heart required to respond, to fight for shrinking space in newspapers, or to make time to blog on the internet. The practice of going to and writing about the theater keeps theater relevant in the mind of the public, even if that public doesn’t always buy a ticket to see a show. Playwrights would no doubt keep scribbling away at their desks without critics. But I do think audiences need that cheerleader in the desert telling us this is important, that theater is worthwhile.

“So I want to thank our cheerleader in Pittsburgh, Chris Rawson. He’s been a supporter of my work since my first production in Pittsburgh — even when he didn’t always like it… . And thank you all for awarding me the 2012 Francesca Primus Prize and for adding me to this intimidating list of gifted writers. I am truly honored and humbled. The fortune part of the prize is past tense now, but was very much appreciated. The recognition I hope to parlay into writing more plays with more confidence, and continuing to work in my community however I can to make sure good plays and playwrights from Pittsburgh continue to contribute to the American theater."

More information on the Primus Prize can be found here.

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