Lauren Gunderson, whose I and You played at Olney Theatre Center to significant critical and audience success, has won the prestigious Steinberg/ATCA award for that play, the American Theatre Critics announced Saturday night at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.
The award identified I and You as the best new play produced by regional theater in 2013, as determined by a panel of ATCA critics. The $25,000 prize which accompanied the award was funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Foundation, which also funded two $7500 citations for other excellent new plays produced by regional theater.
I and You is the story of a sharp-tongued, witty, gravely ill teenage girl who is recruited by a classmate to help him present a project on the iconic American poet Walt Whitman and his signature work, Leaves of Grass. Of the play, DCTS noted that “[i]n Gunderson’s hands, I and You is not simply a play about super-articulate kids dealing with a horrible illness; it is a validation of the human experience, and of the triumph of life over death.” Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post notes that “[e]verything’s primed for pathos, yet Gunderson taps into a buoyant spirit.”
Gunderson’s play was part of the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere program, and its original San Francisco premiere was not well received by some critics. In this interview with DCTS editor Lorraine Treanor, Gunderson attributed the play’s survival to the NPN’s rolling world premiere program. “I’m so grateful to the National New Play Network for making this a rolling world premiere….Without the National New Play Network this play might have gone nowhere after its first San Francisco production. This play has whatever longevity it will have because of National New Play Network.”
Steinberg citations went to Christopher Demos-Brown for Fear Up Harsh and to Martin Zimmerman for Seven Spots of the Sun. The latter play tells the story of a healer who lost his wife in a savage civil war, facing a soldier from the other side. It debuted in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park under the auspices of former Round House Artistic Director Blake Robeson.
Fear Up Harsh is the story of a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who has lost the use of his legs but who has found prosperity and acclaim back in the States. He is visited by a fellow soldier, and eventually his story and his life begin to unravel. Fear Up Harsh debuted at Zoetic Stages in Miami in November.
I and You, Fear Up Harsh and Seven Spots of the Sun were part of a collection of six Steinberg finalists which included Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, which debuted at Woolly Mammoth, and Jane Martin’s H2O, which debuted at the Contemporary American Theatre Company, as well as Noah Haidle’s Smokefall.
William Hirschman of Florida Stages On-Line, who chaired the panel, noted that “[t]he plays [submitted to the panel] reflect themes and settings encompassing bullying, racism, sexual identity in a repressive society, a street-level view of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and genocidal civil war. Some works completely re-invented established 20th century works like The Crucible, The Seagull and The Heiress for a new century audience. They showed how technology is creating previously unimagined ethical questions and asked tough questions about how the economic downtown has challenged what people thought were their unshakeable values.”
Past winners of the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award include Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Moises Kaufman and Craig Lucas. Last year’s honoree was Robert Schenkkan for All The Way.
On Saturday night, the Humana Festival audience also saw also the presentation of the ATCA’s $1,000 award to an emerging playwright to Topher Payne, whose prize-winning Perfect Arrangement debuted at DC’s Source Festival this summer.
Payne delivered a moving and witty speech in which he acknowledged the role that critics play in bringing good new work to broader attention, and in particular praised two Atlanta-area critics who helped to support his play in its first iteration.