Award-Winning Playwrights Reveal Their Last Day Jobs and How They Left to Create New Theatre

News   Award-Winning Playwrights Reveal Their Last Day Jobs and How They Left to Create New Theatre
 
Steinberg Playwright Award winners are presented with $50,000 upfront to work on and develop pieces of new theatre. We talk with a few of the winners (some of whom went on to win Pulitzers and Tonys) about how they left their day jobs after receiving the award.

This year, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust will honor playwrights Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Dominique Morisseau. Both playwrights, along with past honorees David Henry Hwang, Annie Baker and Rajiv Joseph, share insight into their world — how they were affected by taking home the prize, where they find the best place to write and how they quit their day job.

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Dominique Morisseau (Steinberg Playwright Awards, 2015; Skeleton Crew, Paradise Blue, Detroit '67)

Dominique Morisseau
Dominique Morisseau

What was your last day job? Teaching poetry to elementary and high school students. How did you give your notice when you decided to leave? The program ended, and when they asked me to come back for another year, I said that I had some projects that conflicted with my ability to fully commit this year.

Do you work at home/how would you describe your workspace? My work space is everywhere I can sit still. In L.A., it's at my dining room table because I only have a one bedroom and no desk. Sometimes it's a TV tray. In NY, it's the kitchen counter where I often stand and work; sometimes my desk in my office if it isn't filled with bills I need to pay.

How will getting the award up front help you in your goal to create a new piece of theatre? The Steinberg will afford me the "office time" to write a meaningful piece of theatre that I create from my soul, which is the biggest gift an award can give: to keep us creating.

What will receiving the award mean to you and for your career? I think it will help give more visibility to me as a playwright and will speak loudly on my behalf to the theatre world, saying, "We want and need her voice here." That, for me, is the true inspiration that comes with the award. I am supported by my peers and colleagues, and they are telling me and the world that my art matters. We should all be so lucky.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Steinberg Playwright Awards, 2015; An Octoroon, Gloria, Appropriate)

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

What was your last day job? I still have a day job. I teach playwriting.

Do you work at home/how would you describe your workspace? I do have a home office, which is a desk, a couch and about one million books, but I tend to use it mostly for reading, research and correspondence stuff. When I write, it's usually in random offices around the city I convince people to give me access to. I sort of prefer to float. I get restless. Though, during rehearsals, when I tend to wake up super early, before anything is open, I will likely get most of my work done at my kitchen table.

What will receiving the award mean to you and for your career? It will mean paying off debts I incurred to get this far.

David Henry Hwang (Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, 2012; Chinglish, M. Butterfly)

David Henry Hwang
David Henry Hwang Photo by Lia Chang

What was your last day job? I taught writing at a public high school in 1980 when I was 22 years old.

How did you give your notice when you decided to leave? I had told them when I took the position that I might get a play produced in New York. Then that happened.

Do you work at home/how would you describe your workspace? I have an office in my home.

How did getting the award up front help you in your goal to create an award-winning piece of theatre? The Steinberg provided me with the financial resources to support myself and my family during my tenure as a Residency One Playwright at New York's Signature Theatre, which produced three of my plays over one-and-a-half years — two revivals and one premiere. The Steinberg "Mimi" Award literally bought me time to write my new play, Kung Fu, about the life of Bruce Lee, which I am continuing to rewrite for future productions.

What did receiving the award mean to you and for your career? The Steinberg "Mimi" Award looks both to the past and the future. It was incredibly moving to be recognized for the work I had done thus far, while also receiving encouragement for my future promise. The Steinberg provides the very generous support every playwright needs to continue creating personal and idiosyncratic work, free from the pressures of the commercial marketplace.

Annie Baker (Steinberg Playwright Awards, 2013; The Flick, Circle Mirror Transformation)

Annie Baker
Annie Baker

What was your last day job? I was a fact-checker for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."

How did you give your notice when you decided to leave? I just left when the season ended. I loved that job.

Do you work at home/how would you describe your workspace? This year I have a fellowship at the New York Public Library, and they give me an office on the second floor. It's the greatest thing ever. I go there every day. I've never had a work routine that felt this healthy and functional.

How did getting the award up front help you in your goal to create an award-winning piece of theatre? The award supported my work on my last play, John. It gave me the time I needed to work on it without thinking about anything else.

What did receiving the award mean to you and for your career? It was a wonderful thing. I could just focus on playwriting for a while.

Rajiv Joseph (Steinberg Playwright Awards, 2013; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo)

Rajiv Joseph
Rajiv Joseph Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

What was your last day job? I taught Expository Writing at NYU.

How did you give your notice when you decided to leave? I didn't actually. I really loved that job, but needed to take leave so I could attend rehearsals for a play in Los Angeles, so I took one semester of unpaid leave. And then I kept re-applying for leave every semester after that for about three years. Part of this was because I was nervous about giving up the job, part of this was because I had so many friends who also taught in the Expository Writing program, that I wanted to stay close to them, at least symbolically. Eventually the program cut me off and told me I couldn't keep applying for leave. I've been fortunate enough to be able to support myself as a writer since then (the Steinberg Award helped there) but I still miss that job.

Do you work at home/how would you describe your workspace? When I am home and not on the road, I work in my kitchen. But I also go to a couple of cafés in my neighborhood. Leaving the house makes it easier to not take naps or peruse my bookshelf or watch TV.

What did receiving the award mean to you and for your career? I think two things happened to me when I received the Steinberg Award. The obvious thing, of course, is the financial gift, which certainly relieved a huge amount of tension in my life — I was able to embrace the project I wanted to embrace (which at the time was my play Guards at the Taj). But, perhaps even more important, the award provided me with a profound boost of confidence from the outside world. A serious group of people told me, "We respect you as a playwright." That still blows my mind. The sheer notion of it sustains me.

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