Lucy Prebble is the winner of the 2020 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the oldest and largest prize awarded to women playwrights for a play written for the English-speaking theatre. Prebble wins the annual prize for A Very Expensive Poison, a highly theatrical adaptation of Luke Harding's book of the same name—about the notorious poisoning of ex-FSB Officer Alexander Litvinenko—which premiered at London's Old Vic last fall.
“Ever the bridesmaid,” joked Prebble, who has been nominated for the prestigious award three times previously (for her plays The Effect, Enron, and The Sugar Syndrome).
But Prebble has her previous nominations to thank for her ongoing relationship with Leslie Swackhamer, executive director of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. “Ever since I was nominated the first time, for The Sugar Syndrome, Leslie [Swackhamer] has always kept in very close touch,” says the playwright. "I find that really moving…. It’s an award where the people who run it take an interest in you as an artist over the years and try and be supportive of you and invest in you. I’m really grateful to Leslie for that.”
“Winning it is obviously incredibly satisfying and thrilling, but the relationship that’s been there since I was first nominated—that has as much, if not more value.”
Typically, the award—which comes with a cash prize of $25,000—is given to a single winner, with finalists receiving $5,000 each. On rare occasions, the judges may award a Special Commendation, which comes with a $10,000 prize and this year was given to Aleshea Harris for her What to Send Up When It Goes Down.
It was a competitive pool of playwrights, with a number of acclaimed shows nominated, something Prebble says is a reflection of the vibrancy of theatre by women writers around the world right now.
“I think something’s been going on for the last few years. I don’t know if it’s because theatres have been making more space on their stages for women writers... Or, it might be that something culturally is happening that means that women are writing more, and more boldly," says Prebble. "I personally feel that the best work that I’ve seen onstage the last few years, has been by women. By far.”
For Prebble, it's an exciting sign of things to come. “Think of the number of stories that haven’t been told yet or haven’t been told in a particular way because women haven’t had quite as much access to the screen and stage," says the playwright. "I feel like there are new things to be discovered in terms of form and narrative, because of that. That makes me really excited for the next few decades.”
The 2020 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalists are Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig for The King of Hell’s Palace, Kimber Lee for untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play (which was recently developed at the O’Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference), Dominique Morisseau for her play Confederates that will be seen at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre in the spring, Celine Song for Endlings (which is now in previews at NYTW), Anne Washburn for her play Shipwreck, seen at London's Almeida Theatre and currently in performances at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., Anchuli Felicia King for Golden Shield, and Zoe Cooper for Out of Water.
Founded in 1977 by Blackburn’s sister, Emilie Kilgore, and Blackburn’s husband, William Blackburn, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is named for the American actor and writer who lived in London during the last 15 years of her life. Last year’s winner was Pulitzer Prize winner Jackie Sibblies Drury for her play Fairview. Alice Birch won for her play Anatomy of a Suicide in 2018, Clare Barron's Dance Nation was the 2017 winner, and Lynn Nottage's Sweat won in 2016.