The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize at the National Theatre - report and photos

Image: winning playwright Lynn Nottage (on the left) for her play 'Sweat'. photo (c) Female Arts — at National Theatre, London.

The Susan Smith Blackburn prize is a global award for any female playwright writing in the English speaking language. The prize is 38 years old and was founded by Mimi Kilgore and Bill Blackburn, who began the award after the loss of Mimi’s sister. Susan Smith was a talented writer and actor born in the U.S. who later lived in the U.K. The prize board is split between the U.S. and the U.K.

As the editor of Female Arts magazine which has a womanifesto because of gender inequality in the arts - and as an emerging playwright I was glad to attend this awards ceremony at the National Theatre and report from it. Female Arts have worked with Red Women's Theatre Awards this year to produce a new award for emerging female playwrights, and it was an eye opener to meet the individuals involved in running the Blackburn prize and the dedication they show to the magnificent female playwrights who are often underacknowledged in the industry.

Blackburn prize director Ben Powers, the Deputy Artistic Director of the National Theatre gave the opening address. He recognised the Susan Smith Blackmore Prize not because it is for women but because of the extraordinary writing.

Blackburn prize president Alex Kilgore said that in the U.S. when the prize started only 6% of plays produced were written by women. It is now 22%. Mary O’Malley was the first recipient of the Blackburn prize and he recognised the previous winners and finalists present in the National Theatre that evening and recognised the fabulous plays by women.

Blackburn prize executive director Leslie Swackhamer explained that the prize has three hundred source theatres, producing work by women writers, who are invited to submit their finest plays annually to the prize.

Alex Kilgore said the level of plays entered for the prize is really high and it is a difficult job to get the list down to the ten to twelve finalists with the help of the six judges Greta Gerwig, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Sam Gold from the U.S. and Jeremy Herrin, Kate Bassett and Tanya Moodie from the U.K. The award money for the prize is equal to a playwriting commission.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Blackburn prize judge gave a life affirming speech. He mentioned activist feminist groups in America who are working for gender parity for playwrights and on stage including The Kilroys (U.S. female playwrights) and their list of 100 unproduced plays and The Lilly Awards which is a non competitive award.

Jeremy Herrin the Artistic Director of Headlong Theatre, who have produced Blackburn prize winners, Lucy Kirkwood’s ‘Chimerica’ and Jennifer Haley’s ‘The Nether’, stated that nominees for the Blackburn prize don’t necessarily need to have had their play produced – a theatre just needs faith in the writer and they can be nominated: “I’ve always followed the Susan Smith Blackburn awards because it’s been ahead of the game. To have an award that’s been constructed in order to right a very egregious wrong in our industry which is the lack of representation of female writers and to be doing it, and to be banging that drum for 38 years is really substantial and shows incredible prescience.”

Herrin stated that people gave their time to judge and support the Susan Smith Blackburn prize because of “those very ethical considerations at the heart of this award. This isn’t anything as crude as engineering; it’s about representing the work that is there… and giving those writers their rightful place. I think the thing I like most about the award is that the finalists are all taken incredibly seriously. It is not just about winning, although winning is important, but being a finalist is really significant.”

“I love the idea that you don’t necessarily have to be produced. It’s an award that is helping writers even before the idea of production. And the selection process, and that faith that is expressed towards that writer, even before they’ve been on stage is a really helpful and important thing…The boost of confidence to those writers is really powerful and whether they win or not I’m sure that the Susan Smith Blackburn award is responsible for more plays and for better plays.”

Jeremy Herrin stated that gender parity in theatre is something that Headlong theatre take incredibly seriously and talked about their work with Lucy Kerble’s Tonic Theatre Advance program.

Why is the prize still important and relevant? Tonic Theatre did an audit one Saturday in the West End recently, and only 8% of plays shown were written by women (two plays) and one of these was by Agatha Christie.

Herrin said “If you go to the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize website and you look at the finalists over the years, for younger actors looking for apposite revivals it’s a wonderful resource.”

Blackburn prize judge Tanya Moodie said that Shakespeare held the mirror to nature and the 2 :1 problem (2 male to 1 female actor on stage) is Shakespeare’s fault. In all of Shakespeare’s work only 16% of parts are female. We are habituated to not seeing female bodies on stage.

2:1 begins at board level in theatre. 36% of artistic directors and backstage are female. The National Theatre is 34%. On average only 22% of theatre directors are female. Moodie listed some of the problems women in theatre face: No pension, no maternity leave, a nomadic lifestyle. Gender pay gap resulting in £1 per hour less than men. Up to 35% of new plays produced are by women writers. Critics have asked - do women have the 'Intellectual Rigor?' to write a universal play. Moodie said the best thing we can do is #JustKeepGoing and new writers are lighting so many candles (in gale winds).

“When we hold the mirror up to gender parity in theatre we see a 2 to 1 problem, or two men for every woman and there’s a theory that it’s all Shakespeare’s fault. Not too long ago a lot of UK theatres relied on the repertory system of an acting company performing different plays over a season. Shakespeare often featured at the centre of the season and though he wrote parts for women there aren’t very many of them – only 16%. Any new plays would then be programmed with the gender balance of the featured classic in mind. This practice runs so deep within the UK theatre-going conscience that we are habituated to not seeing women’s bodies equally represented on stage.” said Moodie.

“Research in 2012 by Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian and Elizabeth Freestone the Artistic Director of Pentabus Theatre discovered that the 2:1 problem begins at board level. At the time the theatres surveyed had an average of 33% women on their board. Only one, the Royal Court has a majority female board. Women accounted for 36% of artistic directors. Women were also underrepresented on stage, among playwrights and creative roles such as the designers and composers. Of the actors employed by theatres they surveyed, 38% were female…directors 24% and when they examined creative teams (lighting directors, designers and composers) 23% were women.

“The legacy left by male-biased casting at the core of season programming dominated by male writers has blunted an urgency for gender parity and diversity on UK stages. In the UK, the weight of popular theatrical history is not on the side of diverse female voices. The canon is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. Add to that the belief of some theatre makers that the staging of the classics must shun ethnicity or disability diversity, in order to preserve historical verisimilitude. This means an even greater dearth of women from diverse intersections and fewer opportunities for them to develop their skills with the roles offered to their white able bodied male counterparts.”

“As women are often in freelance roles the theatre is also hard to sustain a career and parenthood. No pension, no maternity leave, nomadic lifestyle, and unequal hours. The gender pay gap also persists. Academic research conducted in the noughties found that within the culture sector, women generally earnt £1 per hour less than men. Although the current government have said that they want to end the gender pay gap within a generation, the Fawcett society… said that eradicating the gender pay gap at the current rate of progress will take fifty years.”

“There’s currently an explosion of extraordinary female voices in theatre, among them all the nominees for this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn prize. However in the UK, the 2:1 problem persists and women writers account for only 35% of new plays produced” (as per the ten theatres surveyed by Higgins and Freestone). “In the process of getting their work put on, women writers feel judged by a tougher standard. And if a play by a woman doesn’t work, the harsher they’re condemned. It makes taking risks all the more difficult for them. While men are seen as being in a process on their way to develop a unique creative voice. The idea is that women can do domestic drama very well but we don’t have the ‘intellectual rigor’ to write a ‘state of the nation’ play. Well, each one of our nominees has blown that erroneous notion out of the water”.

“Previous Susan Smith Blackburn prize winner Caryl Churchill gave advice to director Katie Mitchell on how to explain to her daughter inequities within the arts subjects. ‘Well, what you must say to her is that the feminist movement, this movement for equality is relatively young. It’s only 100 years old. So it hasn’t really bedded in, if you compare it to the patriarchal system which has been going for so many centuries. So you just say – it’s a bit young. It’s got teething problems. And you just have to Keep Going.”

Moodie then quoted black American playwright Alice Childress ‘I continue to create because writing is a labour of love and also an act of defiance. A way to light a candle in a gale wind.’… “To all our nominees I say, continue. You are lighting so many candles in the hearts and minds of all who see and read your work, in the souls of future generations of women playwrights in the process of developing their unique creative voice.”

Blackburn prize judges Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Kate Bassett from the University of Reading introduced the nominated playwrights and their plays:

Suzan-Lori Parks was nominated for 'Father Comes Home From the Wars' (Parts 1, 2, & 3) a powerful play about race relations and gender in which the slave sides with the master. It will be at the Royal Court in September 2016.

Dominique Morisseau was nominated for 'Skeleton Crew' the third part of her Detroit Trilogy.

Sarah Burgess was nominated for ‘Dry Powder’. Parks, Morisseau and Burgess were not present for the awards ceremony.

Noni Stapleton was nominated for 'Charolais' a one woman monologue play performed by the writer. Stapleton thanked the people she worked with, “Everyone needs creative champions and not everyone is lucky enough to find women who will work with you and stay your friend.” Noni thanked the judges and said “Your words really moved me. I will be courageous, I will go forward”.

Bea Roberts was nominated for 'And Then Come the NightJars' a play set in a dilapidated cow barn with male bonding between an alcoholic vet and a farmer. A chamber piece about grief. Light in places but profound. Roberts is a West Country writer who was commissioned by Up in Arms and the play was shown at Theatre 503. "I'm delighted and a little surprised to be here" said Roberts.

Sam Holcroft was nominated for 'Rules for Living' a play that contains a food fight, shown at the National’s Dorfman Theatre. We were told you could ‘smell the sherry trifle’. Holcroft thanked “Ben Power, Marianne Elliot, Nick Hytner and Rufus Norris who commissioned the play in the first place and spent three years developing it with me and then eventually agreed to put it on stage in all its ridiculousness and mess. It was a very messy play with a food fight and involved a lot of work.”

Rachel Cush was nominated for her adaptation of 'Medea'. She made her protagonist an Islington inteligencia writer with a chorus of yummy mummies. Cush said writing the play was like "landing a jumbo jet".

Anna Jordan was nominated for 'Yen'. She said “These prizes mean a lot, as other finalists have mentioned, in terms of confidence and financial support, the Bruntwood prize was what did that for me a couple of years ago, with Yen as well, so it’s wonderful to have that reassurance here. Also as this is a collection of wonderful female playwrights, I just wanted to say thanks to a couple of incredible theatre women who helped me to bring Yen to the play that it is today, Suzanne Bell and Sarah Frankcom of the Royal Exchange Theatre who worked with me on an early version of this play and really showed great faith and great love and support.”

Sarah Delappe was nominated for 'The Wolves' which has a cast of ten young girls who are team players - no names they just have numbers (corresponding to their team sweatshirts). It is a play of adolescent actions and political discussions. Delappe said “thanks for bringing me out here, I can’t believe I have to say something, it’s kind of a nightmare. I never thought people would go so crazy for a play about a bunch of teenage girls kicking around soccer balls so thank you for that. I also never thought I’d be in the same room as Lynn Nottage, so it’s pretty cool”.

Lynn Nottage was announced the winner of The Susan Smith Blackburn prize and Tanya Moodie introduced her play ‘Sweat’ - the characters are “resident of Reading, Pennsylvania which in 2011 was ranked the poorest city in America. It draws us into the lives of a group of friends whose jobs at a local steelmill are threatened by the disintegration of American manufacturing. Lynn spent two years exploring the decaying steel and textile town finding it segregated along racial lines. She was moved by the stories of steel workers whose experiences mirror what she witnessed while staying in Mansfield in the UK during the 1984 miners strike.”

Blackburn prize judge Kate Bassett said “the dialogue is sharp and unobtrusively authentic. The impassioned rows about downsizing and layoffs feel immediate and emotionally powerful – almost a call to arms. In other words this is a political play but one that doesn’t feel didactic or issue airing.”

Lynn Nottage is a Pulitzer winning playwright and screenwriter. Her plays have been produced widely in the United States and throughout the world. They include ‘Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine’ at the Tricycle Theatre and Pulitzer prize winning ‘Ruined’ “which made me cries my eyes out again and again” said Tanya Moodie and ‘Intimate Apparel’. Lynn Nottage is the co-founder of Market Row films and has developed original productions for HBO.

Lynn Nottage had been nominated for the Blackburn prize several times in the past and said it was an honour to finally win. Nottage explained that she spent two years researching Philadelphia steelworkers and compared this to the UK miners strikes. She said that women continue to assert and can choose to write about women and should continue to write fiercely.

She thanked Oregon Shakespeare festival for commissioning her play ‘Sweat’. Nottage said “it’s a theatre that has really placed great emphasis on gender parity and in particular commissioning plays from a range of playwrights, particularly playwrights of colour…they said ‘write a big play, write a play that’s about America.’ At the same time I got an email from a close friend of mine…she basically said “I have no money, you see me every single day and I’m smiling but I’m in absolute dire straits and I want my best friends to know this. I’m not asking for money I just want you to recognise that this is what’s going on’. This led me to explore how poverty and economic stagnation is shifting the American narrative. I went down to Reading (Pennsylvania) and I spent two and a half years with people who I came to know quite well and I feel very committed to the city. People who are really living on the edge, who feel, by and large, invisible. So it was an honour to take some of their stories and put them on the stage.”

Nottage also thanked “incredible women who I’ve worked with in London, in particular Indhu Rubasingham who runs the Tricycle Theatre, she’s the first woman of colour to run a major theatre in the United Kingdom and she’s an incredible woman who’s directed all of my plays here. Tanya Moodie embodied the role of Esther (in Intimate Apparel), who remains my favourite character in the plays that I’ve written. It was a play that was written for my mother and when she was on that stage I just felt like I wanted to weep every single moment.”

“In particular I want to say something to all the women who are finalists and I’ve read many of these plays and I’ve seen many of these plays and its such fantastic, beautiful writing and I just feel completely blessed and honoured to be in your midst. And so in this moment I really want to celebrate you. And I feel like it’s a moment for us as women to assert ourselves and to continue to write powerfully and to write beautifully.”

“I teach at Columbia and I had one of my students who’s Canadian who had her first play produced in Canada and we sat down to talk about the experience and she said ‘the first question I got asked at the talkback was “why did you choose to write about women?”’ and she thought ‘well I’m a woman’ and I thought – how is is possible in this day and age that question can still be asked? and there’s a sense of judgement in it. So I said to her, ‘you have to seal yourself off from those kinds of questions and continue to write fiercely’. So thank you Susan Smith Blackburn. This is an honour I have waited a long time for and I took a flight from New York and I’ve left my kids by themselves, which is how badly I wanted to be here so I hope they’re still alive when I get back.”

(c) Wendy Thomson / Female Arts 2016
View the Female Arts photo gallery of the Blackburn prize on our facebook page

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize 2015-16

Dry Powder - Sarah Burgess (U.S.)
Father Comes Home From the Wars - Suzan-Lori Parks (Parts 1, 2, & 3) (U.S.)
Skeleton Crew- Dominique Morisseau (U.S.)
Sweat- Lynn Nottage (U.S.)
The Wolves - Sarah DeLappe (U.S.)
And Then Come the Nightjars - Bea Roberts (U.K.)
Charolais - Noni Stapleton (Ireland)
Medea - Rachel Cusk (U.K.)
Rules for Living - Sam Holcroft (U.K.)
Yen - Anna Jordan (U.K.)

Kate Bassett (UK)
Sam Gold (US)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (US)
Greta Gerwig (US)
Jeremy Herrin (UK)
Tanya Moodie (UK)

Adam Blackburn
Blair Brown
Cabanné Gilbreath
Ann Gussow
Jenny Jules
Lady Hale
Rebecca Hall
Roger Horchow
Alex Kilgore (President)
Emilie S. Kilgore (Chairman)
Marsha Norman
Pauline Pinto
Ben Power
Lucy Reid
Indhu Rubasingham
Leslie Samuels
Edwin Wilson
Matt Wolf
Leslie Swackhamer, Executive Director
Directors Emeritus:
William Blackburn
John Guare
Wendy Wasserstein*
Lillian Hellman*
* in memoriam

Valerie Brea Ross, U.S. Administrator
Caroline Keely, U.K. Administrator

Author's review: