E.M. Lewis wins major theater award

The American Theatre Critics Association has selected E.M. (Ellen) Lewis’ Song of Extinction to receive the 2009 Harold and Mimi Steinberg /ATCA New Play Award. The announcement was made April 4 at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays. The award includes a plaque and a cash prize of $25,000 –the largest national award for a new play.

Lee Blessing’s Great Falls and Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts received Steinberg/ATCA citations and $7,500 each. Both Lewis and Letts are first-time winners, but Blessing previously won the 2006 Steinberg/ATCA Award for A Body of Water, and in 1987 he won the predecessor ATCA New
Play Award for A Walk in the Woods.

The award was started in 1977 to honor plays that debut at regional theaters outside New York City, where there are many new play awards. No play is eligible if it has gone on to a New York production within the award year (in this case, 2008).

Lewis’ Song of Extinction debuted in November at Moving Arts in Hollywood after having been featured in NYU’s hotINK International Festival of New Plays and receiving a reading in the Atlantic Theater’s Next Page series. It has already won several awards, including the EcoDrama playwriting Competition, the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Ted Schmitt Award for a world premiere and the LA Weekly award for production of the year.

Blessing’s Great Falls is a wry drama about a stepfather and his disaffected stepdaughter trying to make connections on a road trip across the American West. It was produced in February 2008 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Letts’ Superior Donuts is a comic drama portraying the resurrection of a former ‘60s radical who is hiding from disappointments and tragedies by running a tiny Chicago doughnut shop. His isolation is challenged by a young black man seeking a job and running from some secrets of his own. It premiered in June at Steppenwolf Theater.

In Lewis’ Song of Extinction, Max, a musically gifted high school student, is falling off the edge of the world, and his biology teacher is the only one who’s noticed. According to the ATCA New Play committee, it starts as a realistic examination of ecology, genocide, isolation, music, family relationships and more, but it morphs into a dreamscape which weaves the disparate strands into a pattern of inter-connectedness.

“I’d like to thank the Steinberg family and ATCA,” said a visibly excited Lewis. “I feel so honored to receive this award for my play. It is an amazing gift.”

Lewis has accomplished a lot in a short playwriting career. Last year, she won ATCA’s $10,000 Francesca Primus Award for Heads, a hostage drama set against the war in Iraq that Edward Albee called “provocative and wonderfully threatening.” Her Infinite Black Suitcase, a large ensemble play about grief and survival in rural Oregon, received its world premiere in 2007. On her Web site (www.dramatistsguildweb.com/members/emlewis) Lewis quotes James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” She comes from Oregon but now lives in Santa Monica.

Some two dozen scripts were nominated by ATCA members, and the winners were chosen by a committee led by Wm. F. Hirschman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Other committee members are Misha Berson, Seattle Times; Bruce Burgun, Bloomington Herald Times and Back Stage; Michael Elkin,
Jewish Exponent (Pa.); Jay Handelman, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Pam Harbaugh, Florida Today (Melbourne); Leonard Jacobs, New York Press, Back Stage and The Clyde Fitch Report; Chad Jones, TheaterDogs.net; Elizabeth Keill, Independent Press (Morristown, NJ); Elizabeth Maupin, Orlando Sentinel; Wendy Parker, The Village Mill (Midlothian, Va.); Michael Sander, Back Stage (Minn.); and Herb Simpson, Totaltheater.com (Rochester, NY).

Honorees since 1977 have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Jane Martin, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Horton Foote and Craig Lucas. Last year’s winner was Moises Kaufman for 33 Variations, now being staged on Broadway starring Jane Fonda. Each year’s honorees are chronicled in The Best Plays Theater Yearbook, edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, alongside the 10 best plays produced that year in New York City. For a complete list of the 80 plays cited from 1977 through 2008, go to www.americantheatrecritics.org, under Awards.

El Guindi wins major award

Yussef El Guindi, who served as literary manager for San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions, a dramaturg for the Eureka Theatre Company and a reader for the Magic Theatre, has won the American Theatre Critics Association’s 2009 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for an emerging playwright. The award will be presented today (April 4) at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky.
Yussef El Guindi
The award recognizes El Guindi’s play, Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, which premiered in March 2008 at the Silk Road Theatre Project in Chicago.

Born in Egypt, raised in London and now based in Seattle, El Guindi received a B.A. from American University in Cairo and a MFA in playwriting from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1985. He frequently examines the collision of ethnicities, cultures and politics that face Arab-Americans. Those themes culminate in Our Enemies, a frequently witty, always intellectually challenging depiction of Arab and Muslim activists and artists arguing whether to dispel or encourage mainstream America’s stereotypical perceptions of the Arab world. He asks universal questions about the price of assimilation, who speaks for a minority community, whether minorities should abet a news media seeking fast food sound bites to explain complex problems and how frank minorities should be in publicly exposing their divisions and shortcomings.

Back of the Throat, El Guindi’s look at post 9-11 paranoia, was recommended for the 2006 Steinberg/ATCA Award and has had eight productions. Our Enemies was one of six finalists for the Steinberg/ATCA Award this year.

The Osborn Award is designed to recognize the work of an author who has not yet achieved national stature – e.g., has not had a significant New York production, been staged widely in regional theaters or received other major national awards. Last year’s Osborn Award went to EM Lewis for her Gee’s Bend.

The Osborn Award was established in 1993 to honor the memory of Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre play editor M. Elizabeth Osborn. It carries a $1,000 prize, funded by the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Honorees are recognized in The Best Plays Theater Yearbook, edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, the annual chronicle of United States theater now in its 90th year. Making the selection from plays nominated by ATCA members is the ATCA New Plays Committee, which also selects honorees for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.

For more information, visit www.americantheatrecritics.org.

Prior Osborn Award Recipients

2008 Gee’s Bend, EM Lewis, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Montgomery, AL
2007 Vestibular Sense, Ken LaZebnik, Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Minneapolis, MN
2006 American Fiesta, Steven Tomlinson, State Theatre Company, Austin, TX
2005 Madagascar, J.T. Rogers, Salt Lake Acting Co., Salt Lake City, UT
2004 The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, Rolin Jones, South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, CA
2003 The Dinosaur Within, John Walch, State Theatre, Austin, TX
2002 Chagrin Falls, Mia McCullough, Stage Left Theatre, Chicago, IL
2001 Waiting to be Invited, S.M. Shephard-Massat, Denver Center Theatre Company, Denver, CO
2000 Marked Tree, Coby Goss, Senachai Theatre, Chicago, IL
1999 Lamarck, Dan O’Brien, the Perishable Theatre Company, Providence, RI
1998 The Glory of Living, Rebecca Gilman.
1997 Thunder Knocking On The Door, Keith Glover.
1996 Beast on the Moon, Richard Kalinoski.
1995 Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Charlie Varon.
1994 Hurricane, Anne Galjour.