American Theatre Critics Association Names 2019 New Play Award Finalists

Press Release

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has selected six finalists for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg / American Theatre Critics Association 2019 New Play Award, recognizing playwrights for the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2018.

The top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each, plus commemorative plaques, will be presented during the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville on April 6, 2019. At an annual prize total of $40,000, Steinberg/ATCA is the largest national new play award program of its kind.

ATCA began honoring new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City in 1977. Plays receiving a production in New York City during the award cycle are not eligible for the Steinberg/ATCA award, recognizing the many other awards programs already in existence there. The Steinberg/ATCA award has been generously funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust since 2000.

The 2019 finalists, alphabetically by play (including comments from the judging panel) are:

Birthday Candles by Noah Haidle “somehow bakes up the simple and the cosmic into a profound experience.” “There’s nothing particularly distinctive about Ernestine or anyone in her family, but they’re treated with such grace and respect that their remarkable qualities (which is, of course, to say, everyone’s remarkable qualities) come through.” “I started to feel a tear form on page 64 when she speaks to her granddaughter so simply and eloquently,” and even with a cake baked on stage in real time, this is “far from a gimmick play. It’s a beautiful one that walks a fine line that stays specific while occupying the universal.” Birthday Candles had its world premiere at Detroit Public Theatre in Detroit, MI.

Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee offers “a very involving story about war, selfishness, atrocity, betrayal, revenge, retribution, and guilt-laden survival.” “The notion of exploring the Cambodian holocaust through contemporary investigation, past survivor memories, and rock and roll is absolutely inspired, and to execute it with such unexpected humor and supple time shifts is a real accomplishment.” “It’s refreshing to see a playwright move so deftly between three eras. The transitions felt seamless.” “This play felt at once fresh and deeply grounded in history. Cambodian Rock Band had its world premiere at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, CA.

Downstate by Bruce Norris provides “a real contribution to the American conversation about an important topic which often confounds honest give and take.” Woven into a rich, subtly complex plot, his characters are sex offenders, “but Norris doesn’t preach. He asks us to read between the lines. He asks us to think. And, yes, he also asks us to see the men who have committed these reprehensible acts as human. Not as forgiven, but human nonetheless.” “It’s extraordinary…and brave.” Downstate had its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, IL.

Lettie by Boo Killebrew struck one panelist as “absolutely authentic in its understanding of the fault lines that make reentry fiendishly difficult for parolees and family members alike.” “I never got the feeling that the author was ticking off boxes (drug past, check; retraining problems, check; housing obstacles, check) but she got it right nevertheless: the pathology that sends someone into the school-to-prison pipeline, and that keeps them from getting out and staying out. Lettie not only calls attention to it but brings it alive with such humanity and dramatic tension makes it notable.” “It’s still all too rare to read credible American plays about the contemporary American working class. This is one of them.” Lettie had its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, IL.

Plainclothes by Spenser Davis tells “a small-scale story of work life behind security cameras” yet is a “wonder of language play and dialogue excellence.” “It considers racial issues in today’s uncertain workplace and incorporates great heart. It’s not just a playwright’s polemic.” “With terrific energy, distinctive characters, lots of humor, and something to say about race and class and corporate benign neglect” “weaving together an entertaining scenario while also gut-punching the audience with real-world consequences.” Plainclothes had its world premiere at Broken Nose Theatre in Chicago, IL.

Witch by Jen Silverman is “a beautifully balanced play, offering succession and inheritance issues, a silver-tongued Devil, and a gutsy unpopular woman with a great head on her shoulders. The idea of an apprentice devil makes this beguiling, a sort of “It’s a Terrible life” in Frank Capra terms.” “I’ve never seen a ‘deal with the devil’ concept blow away my expectations the way this one did.” “Simple, but so intriguing.” “Plus a strong fight scene.” “And Morris dancing.” Witch had its world premiere at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, IL.

These six finalists were selected from eligible scripts recommended by ATCA members from around the country. They were evaluated by a committee of theater critics, led by Lou Harry (podcast Lou Harry Gets Real). Other participating committee members included Nancy Bishop (Chicago, IL), Lindsay Christians (Madison, WI), Mike Fischer (Milwaukee, WI), Amanda Finn (Chicago, IL), Melissa Hall (Indianapolis, IN), Pam Harbaugh (Indialantic, FL), Mark Lowry (Dallas, TX), Jonathan Mandell (New York, NY), Julius Novick (New York, NY), Marjorie Oberlander (New York, NY), Kathryn Osenlund (Philadelphia, PA), Wendy Parker (Midlothian, VA), Wendy Rosenfield (Philadelphia, PA), Martha Wade Steketee (New York, NY), and Perry Tannenbaum (Charlotte, NC).

“Short of having an unlimited travel account, there’s no better way to get a sense of the vibrancy of theater across America than serving on the Steinberg judging panel,” said committee chair Lou Harry. “Once again, the wealth of offerings prompted fierce, thoughtful debate leading not only to a set of deserving honorees but also to a renewed hope for the future of American theater. Thanks to the Steinbergs, these plays will have extra light shining on them.”

Since the inception of ATCA’s new play award, honorees have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Moises Kaufman, Craig Lucas, and Robert Schenkkan. Last year’s honoree was The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson. Visit for a full list of previous winners and finalists.

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust was created in 1986 by Harold Steinberg on behalf of himself and his late wife. Pursuing its primary mission to support the American theater, it has provided grants totaling millions of dollars for new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) was founded in 1974 and works to public awareness of the role of theatre critics and to raise critical standards within the profession. It is the only national association of professional theater critics, with over two hundred members working in print, broadcast, and online media. ATCA is a section of the International Association of Theatre Critics / Association internationale des critiques de théâtre (IATC-AICT), a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors seminars and congresses worldwide.

Other playwriting awards presented by ATCA include:
The M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, honoring emerging playwrights.
The Francesca Primus Prize, bestowing an annual $10,000 award funded by the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, to honor outstanding contributions to the American theatre by female artists who have not yet achieved national prominence.
Additionally, ATCA members recommend candidates for the Tony Award for Regional Theatre presented annually by the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League, and also vote on the annual inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame.

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