The award of $10,000 was made during ATCA's annual conference in Washington, DC, June 17-22.
The Primus Prize honors an emerging woman theatre artist. Selected for her play Heads, Lewis is an Oregon-born playwright who now lives in Santa Monica, CA.
Heads is a four-character play set in two prison cells in an old warehouse in Iraq. A 43-year-old female British Embassy worker is in a cell with an American engineer, 52; the other cell holds two Americans, a 34-year-old journalist and a 29-year-old photojournalist. The action alternates between the two cells.
Heads premiered in Los Angeles last August to positive reviews and was named among the Best of 2007 by the Los Angeles Times, where critic David Ng wrote: "EM Lewis' new drama at the Blank Theatre Company, tells a story so topical that it feels as if the play was co-written by CNN." When it was read at the Long Play Lab at the Great Plains Theater Conference in Omaha last spring, Edward Albee described it as "provocative and wonderfully threatening." Others have said the play reflects highly skilled writing, with infuriating, touching and deeply human characters.
Lewis was selected from more than 25 nominees by a nationwide panel of critics, headed by Nancy Melich, retired theatre critic for The Salt Lake Tribune. "The Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation was established to recognize and support emerging women artists who are making a difference in the theatre community in which they work," stated Barry Primus, administrator of the foundation. "We are delighted to be a part of that."
In accepting the award, Lewis told the audience of ATCA members and Washington-area theatre professionals: "Most people's families are very nervous when you tell them you're going to be a playwright. They understand instinctively that life would go much easier if you decided to be an accountant instead. No less than Edward Albee has said that if you can be something else, you should. But playwriting is one of those professions that chooses you. Like it or not, plays seethe in my brain and come out the ends of my fingers. It's glorious, actually. Luckily, I've been blessed with peers who have made me feel less alone in this crazy vocation, friends who come to see all my productions, no matter which straggly black box theatre they're in, and a family that has been there for me through thick and thin — including my brother Jason, who is here with me today. This award is another great help and encouragement — tangible assistance and affirmation — and I'd like to thank ATCA and Mr. Primus. I promise to keep writing the best plays I know how."
Founded in 1997 in memory of the admired actress and critic Francesca Primus, the Primus Prize was until 2002 administered by the Denver Center Theatre Company and limited to emerging women playwrights. Administered by ATCA since 2004, it now goes to an emerging playwright, director or artistic director. In 2006, Karen Zacarías, was honored as both playwright (Mariela in the Desert) and as founder and artistic director of Young Playwrights' Theater, Washington, DC. The 2007 winner was Victoria Stewart, author of Hardball. Other winners have included Lynn Nottage and Melanie Marnich.
ATCA is the nation-wide organization of theater critics in all media, an affiliate of the International Association of Theatre Critics. Other playwriting awards it administers are the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Awards and the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, which are overseen by its New Plays Committee, chaired by Florida theatre critic William Hirschman. ATCA members also recommend a regional theatre for the annual Tony Award and vote on membership in the Theatre Hall of Fame.