Robert Schenkkan's All the Way and Dan O'Brien's Body of an American Receive Inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize

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22 Feb 2013

Senator Ted Kennedy
Senator Ted Kennedy

Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Columbia University announced Feb. 22 that Dan O'Brien's The Body of an American and Robert Schenkkan's All the Way are the inaugural winners of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History (EMK Prize). Each playwright will receive an award of $50,000.

The EMK Prize was created by Smith to honor the life and legacy of her late brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, and will be given annually through the Columbia University Libraries to a new play or musical of merit that, in the words of the Prize's mission statement, "…enlists theatre's power to explore the past of the United States, to participate meaningfully in the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy."

The judges voted unanimously to divide the 2013 award between two works. In addition to the award of $50,000, the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University Libraries will work with both recipients to create websites featuring study and teaching guides, historical research, and scholarly discussions and interpretations of the plays. The websites will be available to any theatre artist, teacher or class studying the works with the intent of expanding understanding of the playwright's work and career.

"We are very pleased and excited about this award in Ted's name," said ambassador Smith in a statement. "My brother loved the arts — museums, books, the performing arts. Music was perhaps dearest to him, but he and I shared an enjoyment of theatre — especially, for Teddy, musical theatre. He was also a great student of American history and made it come alive for many of us in the Kennedy family. He was much beloved by all the family and he would be very pleased by this tribute."

All the Way, by Pulitzer Prize winner Schenkkan, "depicts a period of great turmoil and consequence in American history, from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 through election night in 1964. Its story is told by many of those who shaped that year's critical moments, including Martin Luther King, Hubert H. Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover, and most of all, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who deftly guides landmark civil rights legislation through a divided Congress." All the Way premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012.

O'Brien's The Body of an American "speaks to a more recent moment in history, when a single, stark photograph — that of the body of an American soldier dragged from the wreckage of a Blackhawk helicopter through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 — by photographer Paul Watson reshaped the course of global events. In powerful, theatrical language, O'Brien explores the ethical and personal consequences of Watson's photograph, as well as the interplay between political upheaval and the experience of trauma in an age saturated by images and information." The Body of an American premiered at Portland Center Stage in 2012.

In planning the Prize, Smith enlisted a number of theatre professionals, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who serves on the EMK Prize Board.



In a previous statement Kushner said, "Jean Kennedy Smith is a heroic and amazing woman, curious about life and full of ideas and energy. I was moved and delighted by her intention to link playwriting and the public power of theatre with her brother's and her family's historical and spirited commitment to the work of building democracy. This seemed to me a chance to create not just another prize — though playwrights need financial support! — but an incentive, a challenge for playwrights and a validation of theater as a particularly social and civic art form."

Plays and musicals that have received their first professional productions in 2012 were eligible for the Prize. The recipient was determined by a panel of judges from a list of five works selected by a national network of nominators. The judges' panel consisted of three playwrights, two musical theatre writers (book writer, lyricist or composer), two scholars of literature, American history or political science and the president of Columbia University.

The other finalists, announced in December 2012, were Hurt Village by Katori HallParty People by UNIVERSES; and Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo. The judges for the inaugural EMK Prize were Carol Becker, dean of Columbia University School of the Arts (non-voting member); James McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, Emeritus at Princeton University; Itamar Moses, playwright and author; Lynn Nottage, playwright; Joshua Schmidt, composer and sound designer; James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University; Diana Son, playwright; and Brian Yorkey, playwright, lyricist and theatre director. The eight-person panel of voting judges is selected each year from a pool of playwrights, musical theatre writers, lyricists, composers, scholars of literature, American history or political science, and will include each year Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger.

James Neal, vice president of Information Services and University librarian at Columbia, serves as the administrator for the new Kennedy Prize.

The size of the bursary component makes the EMK Prize among the largest prizes given for dramatic writing.

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