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Fresh Ink

Seattle Public Theatre Announces New Play Award

In some segments of the theatrical community, “new plays” are a watchword, an ultimate raison d’etre. Why remount the ideas of the past when you can write the ideas of the moment or set the tone of the future? But new plays have a difficult path to fruition; making theatre is time-consuming and expensive, making high-quality theatre even more so, and people have bills to pay.

Enter Seattle Public Theatre, which recently announced its brand-new biennial Emerald Prize, a commission for a new play with legit money behind it. The awardee, whether an emerging or established playwright, will receive a $10,000 prize to write the play, which can then be developed within the Seattle community via a workshop at SPT and a series of staged readings in the fall, beginning this year. It will also be in contention for a full production in SPT’s next season.

“We want Seattle to be a part of the national conversation,” says Kelly Kitchens, interim artistic director of Seattle Public Theatre, “both by bringing the conversation to Seattle and by developing work of national significance here.”

There’s also a practical component: For smaller theatre companies, getting the rights to produce a newer play can be complicated and expensive, Kitchens explains. Instead of wrestling for them, why not put some of that money toward creating new work with real, national legs?

“This is about telling the stories that we need right now,” Kitchens says. More than ever, the American artistic community needs to share stories and ideas, work together to address today’s concerns, foster intellectual curiosity and break out of the feedback loop that can form in our Seattle snow globe.

Determined to not get stuck in a local echo chamber, Kitchens and the SPT selection committee (Ali el-Gasseir, Rachel Delmar, Annie Lareau and Julia Nardin) reached out to professional connections all over the country to assemble the prize’s Invitation Committee. Each member of the 10-person group, which includes Seattle theatre guru Valerie Curtis-Newton, Joy Meads from the Kilroy List, Olga Sanchez of Latina/o Theatre Commons and Adam Greenfield of Playwrights’ Horizons, submitted the names of five playwrights they thought should be invited to submit a proposal. SPT required that three of those five had to be either a person of color, female-identifying, a member of the LGBTQ community and/or an artist based in the Pacific Northwest.

In total, 50 playwrights were asked to submit a one-page proposal of anything they wanted—no rules, no specifications. The selection committee reviewed the proposals blind, and the five finalists were announced last month: Aurin Squire (LA), Eric Pfeffinger (Toledo), Jelisa Jay Robinson (Houston), Emily Dendinger (Denver) and Seattle’s Shontina Vernon (who also appears in Genre Bender March 3–5).

Giving new voices a platform is critical, as is building bridges between Seattle theatres and the rest of the country. But with the creation of the Emerald Prize, SPT seems to be addressing head-on some sticking points in our community’s approach to new work. First, that newness isn’t a substitute for artistic rigor, and second, that artists deserve to be paid, not just with time, space and production opportunities, but with actual money.

The finalists submit full proposals this month and the winner will be announced at a Seattle Public Theatre gala on March 4.

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