HOUSTON -- In a Feb. 23 ceremony at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Paula Vogel and Moira Buffini were named co-winners of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an annual award given to women dramatists who create the year's outstanding plays for the English-speaking theater.
Vogel was honored for How I Learned to Drive, an unsettling examination of an incestuous relationship between a young girl on the cusp of sexual awakening and her uncle, a charming pederast. In addition to the Blackburn Prize, the insinuating drama had already earned the 1996-97 New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for best play. It premiered at the Perseverance Theatre in Alaska and is now running in New York and will be mounted at the Alley late this May. A few years ago, Vogel was bestowed an Obie Award for The Baltimore Waltz. A resident of Providence, Rhode Island, Vogel was a finalist for the Blackburn Prize four previous times before winning this year.
Buffini, a young London playwright and actress, was cited for Silence, an historical drama, set just before the turn of the last millennium in medieval England, chronicling the dawn of a new age; Buffini draws parallels between the sexual, spiritual, and political confusions resulting then and now, as 2000 approaches. Begun during a stay at the Royal National Theatre Studio's residency program for new playwrights, the play has yet to be produced.
Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, a prior Blackburn judge, presented the awards. Vogel and Buffini were each given $5,000. They were also awarded signed, limited edition prints by abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning, who was a friend of the namesake, Susan Smith Blackburn, an American actress who grew up in Houston and lived in London for the last 15 years of her life, before dying in 1977 at age 42.
Judges for the 20th annual awards were Irish playwright, Sebastian Barry; American critic and playwright, Eric Bentley; British actress, Kate Duchene; Simon Reade, literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company; New York actress, Marian Seldes; and American director, Daniel Sullivan. The directors of the prize, who choose the judges, include Michael Attenborough, Royal Shakespeare Company; Ronald Dworkin, an American holding the chair of jurisprudence at Oxford; Irish novelist and critic, Juha O'Faolain; and Mimi Kilgore of Houston and New York, Susan Blackburn's sister, who presided at the ceremony.
In 20 years of competition, there have been 229 finalist plays, 149 from the U.S., 77 from Great Britain or Ireland, two from Canada and one from Australia. Each year prominent theater professionals throughout the United Kingdom and the United States are asked to submit scripts for possible nomination in an effort to promote women playwrights, who continue to be notoriously underrepresented in the theater. Plays are eligible whether or not they have been produced, but any production must have taken place within the preceding twelve months. Each script is read by at least three members of a committee that selects ten to twelve finalists. This year's eleven finalists were chosen from a field of approximately 90 submissions. All final nominations were read by all six judges.
Second prize of $2,000 went to British playwright Shelagh Stephenson for An Experiment with an Air Pump. Riddled with urgent contemporary themes, especially the morality of scientific progress, it uses the historical past as a perspective on the present and vice versa. It is now being produced at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England.
Eight other finalists each received $500. The most prominent was Pride's Crossing, by American Tina Howe. The others were: Burdalane, by Judith Adams (U.K.); Splash Hatch on the E Going Down, by Kia Corthron (U.S.); Cold Harvest by Noelle Janaczewska (Australia); The Left Hand Singing, by Barbara Lebow (U.S.); The Hanging Tree, by Nicola McCartney (U.K.); Mud. River. Stone., by Lynn Nottage (U.S.); and <>A Girl's Life, by Kathleen Tolan (U.S.).
-- By Peter Szatmary