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The Urge to Emerge by Matthew Murray

  • MatthewFace.jpgThe ongoing assault on the English language continued last week, and was documented in—of all places—the Theater section of The New York Times. There, in Patricia Cohen's article "Trust Tussles Over Playwright Award Eligibility," we learned that the people who award the Steinberg Playwright Award are incapable of understanding the definitions of even the simplest words.

    The first paragraph alone reveals a mind-boggling game of linguistic Twister:

    After awarding Tony Kushner a record-breaking $200,000 for distinguished playwriting last fall, the Steinberg Trust suddenly realized there was a problem with its plan to present its other newly created award to two emerging playwrights this year. "What we immediately discovered was that we all described 'emerging' differently," said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York and a member of the selection committee. Some of his colleagues thought the prize, created by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, was geared toward writers just a year out of school, while others considered "emerging" to refer to a playwright in midcareer.

    While we pause to consider any possible way in which someone in the middle of his or her career could possibly be emerging, let's see how dictionary.com defines "emerging":

    1. to come forth into view or notice, as from concealment or obscurity: a ghost emerging from the grave; a ship emerging from the fog.
    2. to rise or come forth from or as if from water or other liquid.
    3. to come up or arise, as a question or difficulty.
    4. to come into existence; develop.
    5. to rise, as from an inferior or unfortunate state or condition.

    How odd—Dictionary.com seems to believe that "emerging" means, well, "emerging." Of course, it isn't giving out a major playwriting award, is it? Clearly, the people who are, some of whom define "emerging" as "not emerging," have other ideas. Let's return to the next paragraph of the Times article to see how they plan to distribute the money:

    So when the panel members could not tailor their views to fit the award, they appealed to the trustees to alter the award to fit their views. The result was that three playwrights—Bruce Norris, Tarell Alvin McCraney and David Adjmi—instead of two were named on Thursday as the first recipients of the Steinberg Playwright Award.... Mr. Norris, who is "between emerging and midcareer," will receive $50,000 while Mr. McCraney and Mr. Adjmi will receive $25,000 each as "emerging, early-career playwrights."

    So the Steinberg trust is giving its award for emerging playwrights to one it admits is not emerging, and two it believes are. But it's giving twice as much money to the playwright it describes as being "between emerging and midcareer."

    How exactly did all this come about? Again, we turn to the Times:

    The restructuring of the award followed a heated discussion among the seven members of the advisory committee. "It was an impassioned and complicated debate," Mr. Eustis said. "The committee has some very strong-minded people on it."

    One of them is Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. "I'll have to own up to it," she said. "I kind of deliberately picked people" who were very accomplished in order to "challenge the category." Given the award's extraordinary level of compensation, Ms. Lavey said, she wanted to pick "playwrights who have been at it for a while but whose dedication to the field is challenged by the lack of monetary compensation."

    Thank you, Ms. Lavey, for openly curtailing the usefulness of an award that could have helped a great many people who truly need it. I'm sure that midcareer writers—sorry, writers "between emerging and midcareer"—will very much appreciate your valiant efforts to give money to them that was established to help people who are actually just starting out.

    I mean no offense to Norris, by the way. Judging by the one play of his I've seen, The Pain and the Itch, which Playwrights Horizons produced three years ago, he's a talented, original, and daring writer, well worthy of recognition. But according to his bio on the Steppenwolf website, he's had at least four plays (including The Pain in the Itch) produced there, and had several produced elsewhere in the United States and in Europe. By any reasonable standards, he isn't emerging, he's emerged. So why should he be competing, in any way, against Adjmi and McCraney? Admji has had one major production (Stunning, seen Off-Broadway in a Lincoln Center Theater production earlier this season); I didn't much care for it, but it got largely good reviews from other critics. McCraney has had two productions, and has a third on the way; I was greatly impressed by both The Brothers Size and Wig Out! in the former category, and I'm very much looking forward to The Brother and Sister Plays in the latter. Regardless, both are newer, struggling talents in a way that Norris, for his many virtues, is not. I find it hard to believe that the additional money wouldn't benefit Adjmi and McCraney in ways it might not Norris. He deserves his own award, not theirs.

    This ridiculousness could, of course, be done away with altogether if the Steinberg Trust would stop pretending that the award is for emerging playwrights at all. Why not just give the money to playwrights they admire—at any stage of their careers—and own up to it completely? It wouldn't even necessarily be that hard for them to justify. After all, awarding the initial $200,000 prize to Kushner, perhaps the single American playwright in the least imaginable need of that kind of money, suggests where the Steinberg Trust's loyalties lie. No, Kushner's award was never supposed to be for an "emerging" artist, but I suppose the members of the selection committee could find some way to justify him for that award, too, if they really wanted to. ("Well, he only has two Tony Awards and just one Pulitzer Prize...")

    The Steinberg Trust should be thanked and respected for giving money to anyone involved in the theatre, whether in our current difficult economic times or even when things are better. But the people bestowing the Playwright Award would do themselves and the theatrical community more of a service if they stuck to the original mission and stopped bending the English language to fit their whims and professional biases. Playwrights who are truly building their careers from nothing and enter into a distinctly difficult and competitive field need and deserve all the help they can get from those positioned to give it. When groups like the Steinberg Trust selection committee thinks that grants intended for emerging writers should go to people who aren't emerging, can there be any doubt why so many theatre writers instead just hightail it to the higher-paying worlds of film and television?

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