The second round of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition, for which I am working on two playscripts at the moment, began accepting submissions on June 1st. (The deadline for submission is August 1st, so I’ve got a little more time for revisions ahead of me.) A few days ago, curious to see if there were any last minute adjustments to the competition I needed to know about, I checked the website of the American Shakespeare Center, the theater sponsoring the competition. There I read that the winners of the first round of the competition had been announced on May 31st. Amy E. Witting’s Anne Page Hates Fun and Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s 16 Winters or The Bear’s Tale will be produced in 2019, kicking off this series of highly anticipated new plays.
And I thought to myself, why am I only hearing about this now?
Granted, I was traveling to my college reunion on the 31st, and that weekend was too full of carousing for me to have checked the trade papers. But I went back and looked. Though the announcement appeared on the company’s website, there was no similar announcement on Playbill.com or Broadwayworld.com. No press release appeared on the various theater chat boards. Only a handful of tweets. Heck, it turns out I have friends in common with both playwrights (thanks as always to Mark Zuckerberg for help with the snooping), and none of them posted an “OMIGOD CONGRATS” or the like on their Facebook feeds.
I find this surprising, given the fanfare with which all of the outlets I’ve just mentioned trumpeted the initial announcement of this competition last year. Many of my friends have been falling over themselves to come up with scripts for it, and why not? There’s a sizable cash prize, a guaranteed production, and significant bragging rights. And yet, now that we actually have two scripts deemed worthy of being modern contemporaries of Shakespeare, the response seems to be a collective shrug.
This is far from the only such example. A number of major playwriting awards with major prizes attached have been established over the past few years, and they fit the same pattern. Significant coverage of the announcement of the prize, followed by minimal or nonexistent coverage at best. Things change if the plays go on to further production – Aleesha Harris' Is God Is, for instance, won the 2016 Relentless Award and is currently playing at Soho Rep. The reviews of the current production mention the award – but in 2016, when the news of the award was announced, the announcement barely registered.
If you’re trying to solicit great new American plays, how exactly does it help not to shout from the rooftops when you find them?
For make no mistake, they’re out there to be found. That might seem like a strange statement today, as we’re all waking up from watching last night’s Tony Awards; only one new American play was nominated for anything major, and it lost to Harry Freakin’ Potter. (And don't feel bad if you don't remember who wrote any of those, because they barely announced the names of the authors.) . But bubbling under, in small theaters all over the nation, is an immense amount of exciting new work – which is being studiously ignored. Commercial producers have got it into their heads that only the splashiest and most basic of pre-existing properties are viable. And that’s an unpleasant fact of the business, but one that we can work around. One that we are working around, with competitions like Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries.
It would help immeasurably if we started noticing.