Susan Smith Blackburn Award and women’s writing

Carole Woddis reports on these awards and comments on the state of writing by women for theatre


Look down the list of the American-UK Susan Smith Blackburn award winners and finalists and it will more or less give you a picture of the female playwrights who have dominated English speaking theatre since the late 1970s. Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertbenbaker, Nell Dunn, Marsha Norman, Rona Munro, more recently Charlotte Jones, Chloe Moss and the latest, Lucy Kirkwood, to name but a tiny few have all been recipients of this much valued writing prize.

The Susan Smith Blackburn award was set up 36 years in honour of Susan Smith Blackburn, an American actor and writer living in London who died at the age of 42 from cancer. To commemorate Susan’s memory, her family wanted to find a way that would reflect her passion for theatre, her writing potential and female artists’ place and voices in theatre on both sides of the Atlantic and in the English speaking world.

They have succeeded magnificently. As Susan’s sister, Mimi Kilgore, Chair of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize remarked at the award ceremony last night (Feb 25, 2014) – appropriately enough at the English Speaking Union – the prize has become a world changing one. In the 1970s, women playwrights were a rare species. As New York born board member but London based critic Matt Wolf also remarked, seeing the revival of A Taste of Honey (1958) at the National Theatre last week was a reminder of the odds women writers have faced until comparatively recently to get their work produced. There is still evidence enough to show the situation still has far to go though as Wolf noted, at one point last year – admittedly via the Royal Court – all the plays he was seeing seemed to be written by women.

Statistics can of course be deceiving. In his presentation speech, Alex Kilgore, Susan Smith Blackburn’s President agreed some progress had been made but noted that a recent survey in New York had shown that although 50% of the most produced plays were by women, only about 30% of plays produced are written by them. Both Mimi Kilgore and Alex Kilgore had hoped that by now, their prize `would no longer be needed’. That it would be `outmoded’.

Sadly, they concluded, that point has not yet been reached. The existence and raison d’etre for the Prize remains as cogent as ever.

Be that as it may, Tuesday’s 2014 awards evening was still a great cause for celebration. First prize out of ten finalists – invited theatres are asked to submit a candidate’s work from the preceding year which may or may not have been actually produced – went deservedly to Lucy Kirkwood’s already much lauded Chimerica (a Headlong and Almeida production), her epic about China and America and the misunderstandings arising between the two super powers.

In her lucid and generous appraisal of the winners, director Phyllida Lloyd, one of this year’s judges, praised Kirkwood for the play’s `fragility and how it teaches us how important it is to really listen to each other’ as well as its ambition and scale.

A special commendation went to Phoebe Waller-Bridge for Fleabag, her racey, disturbing picture of contemporary woman and with it a sum of $5000. A further $2500 went to each of the six other finalists who included Caroline Bird for her brave and bitter satire on the death penalty, Chamber Piece (presented at the Lyric Hammersmith last year as part of their `Secret Season’ series) and Beth Steel for her, as yet, unproduced Wonderland.

Kirkwood’s prize last night was for $25,000 – a stark contrast to the sum received by the first winner thirty six years ago, Mary O’Malley who picked up just $1000 for her play, Once a Catholic from the then presenter, Joan Plowright.

Asked later what she would do the money, Kirkwood replied, `it will give me some creative freedom’, a sentiment born out by Ed Hall – a guest at the award – who noted that such was the impecunious state of one of his current female commissions, she could not afford to do suggested re-writes until she had earned some more money waitressing.

Quite apart from giving a higher profile to women as playwrights, who’s to say that the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize down the years has not put more plays on stage simply by virtue of providing them with the finances to have some creative breathing space.

Awards do, after all, have their uses!

© Carole Woddis: Feb 27/2014

2014-03-04 10:10:28

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