The WhatsOnStage feature on the maniacally prolific and always interesting Simon Stephens today reminds me that he served as one of the panel of judges on this year's Susan Smith Blackburn prize for women playwrights, which was awarded last week to Lucy Kirkwood for her all-conquering Chimerica.
David Hare once said that the really good thing about playwrights is that they - unlike novelists - tend not to review each others' work, so the sense of fraternity and solidarity in the theatre is rarely violated from within; it is generally true that all playwrights tend to support each other, whatever their differences. It's left to the critics, or sometimes the artistic directors, to spoil the cooperative equilibrium.
This sense of support is apparent, too, when playwrights bring their colleagues' work to a wider attention through nominating them for prizes, as Hare himself has done as a judge on the writing award given by Yale Drama Series for emerging playwrights. This prize was inaugurated in 2007 with the first judge being Edward Albee, followed by Hare, John Guare and now, this year, Marsha Norman, great writers all.
Hare's winner was Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig for Lidless, and this remarkable Chinese American playwright followed through with The World of Extreme Happiness, a brilliant Brechtian parable of a sanitation worker in modern China seen too briefly in the National Theatre's Shed last September. In its scope, narrative tension, beautiful writing and urgency of subject matter, it was the equal of Lucy Kirkwood's play and just as informatively satisfying.
But no-one will be sorry that Kirkwood won yet another prize, and she must be chuffed that the judges this year included not only Simon Stephens but also director Phyllida Lloyd and actress and Pinter specialist Lia Williams. She collected a cool $25,000, while Phoebe Waller-Bridge received a special commendation, and $5,000, for Fleabag. Other finalists (receiving $2,500) included Lucy Prebble for The Effect and Caroline Bird for Chamber Piece, the highlight so far of Sean Holmes' Secret Theatre project at the Lyric, Hammersmith.
The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize - founded in 1978 by American businessman William Blackburn in honour of his theatre-loving wife who died too young of breast cancer - is based in Houston but operates on both sides of the Atlantic (our own Matt Wolf is one of the board members) and an added bonus, for both winners and judges each year, is the gift of a signed and numbered print by Willem de Kooning.
I treasure this print which I received in 1989 after being on the panel that gave the award to the late Wendy Wasserstein for her beautiful semi-autobiographical Broadway play, The Heidi Chronicles, which starred a luminous Joan Allen when I saw it in New York. My fellow British judges that year were Janet Suzman and Michael Attenborough, while our three American counterparts included the New York Times critic Mel Gussow. At a dinner after the award was made in New York, Gussow choked badly on a chicken bone and the wonderful Wasserstein saved his life by performing the Heimlich manoevre.
For young playwrights the cash prize must be especially worthwhile, buying time to write the next play. But even awards that are purely honorific give pleasure, too. Lucy Kirkwood was joyously delighted at both the Evening Standard awards and the Critics' Circle awards when she scooped the best play prize. And little wonder, as she had taken six years to write the play; but she seemed a fun person anyway, and as bubbly and enthusiastic as Wendy Wasserstein was every time I met her.
Established playwrights take awards in their stride, especially if they've endured the inevitable brickbats on the way. Alan Bennett was slightly miffed when he won an Evening Standard best comedy award in the same year as Alan Ayckbourn won for best play, saying that he drew some consolation from the fact that even if his play wasn't as good as Ayckbourn's, it was now judged to be much funnier.
My favourite awards moment, though, was when Harold Pinter accepted the best play prize for Betrayal - this was at the SWET (Society of West End Theatres) awards, which pre-dated the Oliviers - and growled, "No thanks to f—-ing Michael Billington."
I was on the same dinner table as Billers and he turned green about the gills and very soon afterwards changed his opinion of the play completely. He openly admits how initially wrong he was about Betrayal in his magisterial book about the playwright, but I sometimes think he may have succumbed not just to guilty second thoughts but also to the veiled threat of physical violence that emanated from the podium that night.
- Michael Coveney
- David Hare
- Harold Pinter
- Olivier Awards
- Lucy Kirkwood
- Susan Smith Blackburn Prize
- Michael Billington
- Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
- Edward Albee