We posed the question to industry professionals, and they believe America’s leading voice is Tony Kushner’s
When Edward Albee died last year, USA Today and Time Magazine were just two major publications that referred to the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner as “America’s greatest living playwright.” Which begged the question: America now turns its lonely eyes to … whom?”
That’s the wrong word, of course – “greatest.” Playwriting is not a competitive sport. Substitute the words “most important” or “most influential,” and you have the seeds for a subjective dialogue on those voices who now bear the opportunity – and the burden – to tell the stories that will help audiences make sense of these newly unstable and uncertain times.
The DCPA NewsCenter posed the “After Albee” question to a swath of local and national playwrights and industry professionals, and it should surprise no one that they believe the leading, living voice in the American theatre today is Tony Kushner. Not even close.
But the Top 10 names the survey yielded is a welcome indication that “the status quo is shifting,” said Nataki Garrett, the DCPA’s incoming Associate Artistic Director. The list, which not long ago might have consisted of nearly all white men, is evenly divided between male and female playwrights – even at a time when studies suggest as few as 25 percent of the plays staged in America today are written by women.
The Top 10 includes not only Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Paula Vogel, Sarah Ruhl and avant-garde off-Broadway pioneer María Irene Fornés, but they are all writers who have in their own ways abandoned old-school literalism in their storytelling.
“This list lets us know we’ve entered the 21st century, but we still have much work to do,” Garrett said. “There is not a trans writer in the Top 10, and there are not enough people of color. There is a greater complexity of voices in the American theatre out there.”
It is notable that while an equal number of male and female theatre professionals were invited to participate in this survey, more men than women actually responded. And yet, the Top 10 still yielded five women. The panel includes playwrights Robert Schenkkan, Caridad Svich and Jason Grote; American Theatre Magazine editor Rob Weinert-Kendt; Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Artistic Director Wendy C. Goldberg, and resigning Denver Center Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson.
The response to Albee’s death last year seemed to acknowledge a storytelling void in his wake. “But I believe us to be in a Golden Age of American playwriting,” said Goldberg, who championed, among others, Annie Baker and the emerging, 32-year-old African-American Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon).
The Top 10 also acknowledged established names that have dominated the American playwriting landscape for the past five decades – a wide range of voices and tones that spans the bittersweet nostalgic comedy of Neil Simon to the gleeful cruelty of David Mamet, who inspired a generation of followers who have reveled in the worst in human behavior. On the other end of the spectrum is Vogel, best known for her deeply human examination of family incest in How I Learned to Drive, but whose legacy will include her influence as a playwriting professor who has unleashed the boundary-bending creative freedom in two generations of students.
Simon’s place on the list, while obvious and necessary, surprised even some of those whose votes put him there. “I went back and forth over a 24-hour period and was actually very surprised to land on Neil Simon at the top,” said Denver playwright Jeffrey Neuman (Exit Strategies.) “But when you look at the depth, scope and breadth of Simon’s career, his plays have had enormous impact and an immeasurable reach. Simon’s plays are a part of our cultural consciousness in a way that virtually no other American playwright can claim today.”
Most of those who placed Kushner at the top of the list did so in acknowledgement of his epic, angry, six-hour masterpiece Angels in America. Written in two parts and now, shockingly, 25 years old, Angels in America “put gay men at the center of American politics, history and mythology at a time when they were marginalized by the culture at large and dying in waves,” wrote Isaac Butler and Dan Kois for slate.com.
In a 2011 interview, Curious Theatre founder Chip Walton told me what Kushner does better than anyone else is make the personal the political, and the political the personal. “So rather than sitting in a theater and listening to an ideological argument, he tells this deeply human story that is intricately interwoven with the politics at play,” Walton said, referring to Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul. Kushner has always embraced the role of the playwright in the political discourse. Even back in 2011, he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever read about a time in human history as dangerous as this.”
In that interview, which preceded a public appearance in Colorado Springs, I asked Kushner to assess the importance of the playwright, and he looked to the inherent, ephemeral nature of theatre itself. “When a production is done, it’s gone forever,” he said. “You can take pictures of it. You can make a film of it. But it’s not the production. It’s not the same thing. And yes, you can describe it, and you can read hopefully good criticism about it. But the thing itself is gone, and the only thing that remains behind is the Bible. The play. It’s what begins and it’s what endures. It’s the only fixed thing – to the extent that it is fixed.”
Stephanie Prugh, recently the dramaturg for the DCPA Theatre Company’s The Glass Menagerie, said Kushner belongs at the top of her list because of his ability to create beautiful and epic plays that capture how humans struggle with prejudice, fear, longing and an innate need for love and acceptance in such an intimate and personal way.
“I think sometimes I walk into the theatre longing to be reminded of our collective humanness, especially during these tumultuous times,” said Prugh. “Kushner’s body of work is challenging us on the most important topics. He never avoids difficult conversations, and he’s asking that we not only remember what we are capable of as individuals, but as a collective – defined by the humanness he actively puts on the stage.”
Curious Theatre announced last week it will stage Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures next year as part of its 20th anniversary season.
Asked his own opinion on America’s leading playwriting voices, Kushner pointed to Suzan-Lori Parks, calling her Top Dog/Underdog “completely in the tradition of a play like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night.”
While this survey specifically sought “writers of plays,” it should be noted that several voters believe lyricists Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda deserve their places on the list – “by a factor of 10 billion,” said playwright Michael Mitnick (Ed, Downloaded).
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
THE TOP 10 AT A GLANCE:
Born: New York
Best-known work: Angels in America
Published plays: 30
He said it: “We’re living in an age right now where there is a problem in general with serious dramatic criticism, which I think is largely gone and has been replaced by a lot of consumer advocacy-type writing. It’s a problem because theater, given how cash-starved it is, is more vulnerable to the effects of newspaper criticism than something like film. Theater really gets damaged when there is a paucity of good criticism around.”
Comment: “To me, the title of ‘greatest living American playwright’ should go to an artist whose work combines structural daring with rhetorical heft. His or her plays should be aesthetically thrilling and intellectually stimulating in equal degree, and they should also be possessed of something mysterious – some pulse of life that we can feel without quite being able to name. Tony Kushner’s plays [and musical books] epitomize all those qualities. His work can be savored purely for its aesthetics, yet for anyone trying to think big thoughts about America, it’s also an indispensable companion. Plus, one always gets the sense of something bigger lurking just outside his scripts, waiting for us to grasp it. It’s exhilarating.” – Mark Blankenship, Theatre Development Fund
Born: Fort Sheridan, Ill.
Best-known work: Buried Child
Published plays: 62
He said it: “The funny thing about having all this so-called success is that behind it is a certain horrible emptiness.”
Comment: “Shepard’s dramatic world often takes on the struggles of manhood and is peopled with derelict, disappointed somnambulists: Unmoored souls who form a kind of tribe of the living dead, deracinated men trying to escape a sense of shame that they only vaguely understand. They recede from family, from society, and, through drink, from themselves.” John Lahr, The New Yorker (from his essay here)
3. Lynn Nottage
Best-known work: Ruined
Published plays: 22
She said it: “I always thought of my mother as a warrior woman, and I became interested in pursuing stories of women who invent lives in order to survive.”
Comment: “For 30 years, Lynn Nottage has written quality plays from an African-American perspective that are socially important and appeal to wide audiences. I would say she is the successor to August Wilson in that regard.” – DCPA Director of New Play Development Douglas Langworthy. Playwright Michael Mitnick calls Nottage “the inheritor of Paula Vogel and John Guare.”
4. Suzan-Lori Parks
Born: Fort Knox, Ky.
Best-known work: Top Dog/Underdog
Published plays: 19
She said it: “I don’t care what anybody says. Stick to the spirit of the play and you’re doing it right. It’s about embracing the spirit of the text instead of noodling some idea about things.
Comment: “As with Caryl Churchill, one doesn’t know what to expect next from her. She can be playful, serious, and theatrical all at the same time. She is bold. She has a lot of plays left to write and she has remained loyal to the theater.” Playwright Rogelio Martinez.
And another: “Parks brilliantly and unapologetically revises history, revealing the ways in which the personal truly is political. Her plays are delightfully irreverent, keenly subversive, radiant, hilarious, heartbreaking and ultimately very, very important.” Emily K. Harrison, founder, square product theatre company
5. Neil Simon
Born: The Bronx, N.Y.
Best-known work: The Odd Couple
Published plays: 34
He said it: “All comedy is based on hostility.”
Comment: “Neil Simon. Yeah, I said it. (Bleep) everyone who disagrees. Comedy is an art, and he is the most popular artist of his generation and beyond because his comedy is foundational and spot-on. Humans love it. Not snobby-smart humans. Humans. That is my statement.” Denver actor Michael Bouchard
6. Paula Vogel
Born: Washington, D.C.
Best-known work: How I Learned to Drive
Published plays: 15
She said it: “The theatre is now so afraid to face its social demons that we’ve given that responsibility over to film. But it will always be harder to deal with certain issues in the theatre. The live event – being watched by people as we watch – makes it seem all the more dangerous.”
Comment: “The woman is a lot like her plays: Fun to listen to, tough, relentlessly friendly, and more than a little bit twisted. Paula also holds something back, as her plays do so brilliantly. An unreadable smile, a demon or two, a voice that cracks from pain and then recovers; enigmas, left for her audience to explore or not.” – Actor Mary Louise Parker (in an interview here)
7. Sarah Ruhl
Born: Wilmette, Ill.
Best-known work: The Clean House
Published plays: 19
She said it: “Theatre is, at its roots, some very brave people mutually consenting to a make-believe world, with nothing but language to rest on.”
Comment: “Sarah Ruhl she knows that childhood shapes world events with a vengeance, even among the powerful. More, she is a deeply literary writer, and what this gentle literary pilferer peruses, she uses. She reads Shakespeare and re-dreams his romances; she reads Woolf and time travels with Orlando. She makes a play from the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. – Todd London, Executive Director of the University of Washington’s School of Drama (from his essay here)
8. María Irene Fornés
Best-known work: And What of the Night?
Published plays: 45
You should know: Fornés is a Cuban-American avant-garde playwright and director who was a leading figure of the Off-Off Broadway movement in the 1960s. Fornés’ themes focused on poverty and feminism, and lesbian identity has been central to her art.
Comment: “María Irene Fornés is a rough contemporary to Albee who created a new kind of visceral and feminist language for the stage, writing drama as if she’d just landed from another planet and was handed a few random pages of Ibsen and Chekhov.” – playwright Jason Grote, ‘1001’
9. David Mamet
Best-known work: Glengarry Glen Ross
Published plays: 104
He said it: “Nobody cares what you feel.”
Comment: “The master provocateur is infuriatingly brilliant, having spent the majority of his career honing a peculiar, cruel adeptness for showing men and women at their most amoral and violent. His world is a vulgar wasteland devoid of ethics and compassion, but there is an undeniably rhythmic intoxication to his dialogue.” – DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore
Best-known work: Rabbit Hole
Published plays: 18
He said it: “Look, writing Rabbit Hole came out of an interest in diversifying my portfolio, frankly.”
Comment: “Rabbit Hole is the most perfect play I know of by a living playwright. It strikes the utmost balance between pathos and progress as it examines the relationships of all those left behind after the child’s death.” – playwright Leslie C. Lewis
PRAISE FOR OTHER AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHTS:
(in alphabetical order)
“Lee Blessing is, in my opinion, the best-kept secret in American theatre. He has written more plays than Shakespeare and is produced all over the country. His plays are always about something. He has said, ‘The purpose of theater is to shake you up, not give you a warm glow. That’s the job of the circus.’ His plays make me think, let me grow and develop as a human being.” – Director Christy Montour-Larson
Stephen Adly Guirgis
“I feel strongly that any ‘great’ American playwright should know how to capture the complex and vibrant voices of a diverse America. I fear that many great playwrights get overlooked because they don’t consistently write stories from a cultural point of view that is shared by the theatre-patron majority. With Guirgis, I feel there’s a vibrancy and cultural complexity to his work that captures America. And as an actor, I love the visceral tensions that fill the souls and words of his characters.” – Regan Linton, Artistic Director and Acting Executive Director, Phamaly Theatre Company
“He’s had a long career and written some incredible plays. What makes him special is you just don’t know what he’ll write next. Wings, Indians and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, are all classics. The Road to Nirvana has not been seen by enough people, but it’s funny and vicious as all hell. People forget that a lot of his plays are a response to the times he was living in when he wrote them.” – ‘Blind Date’ Playwright Rogelio Martinez
Tarell Alvin McCraney
“I put Tarell on my list because he’s doing something so new and different. He is telling important and intriguing stories for the African-American communities as well as the LGBTQ world. But he is still so young. I think, if he continues to be so prolific, he will be the greatest.” – Josh Hartwell, Dramatists Guild
“My vote is for longevity, continuity, diversity of subject matter, openly addressing homosexuality and the AIDS crisis, working in both straight-play and musical genres, and general intelligence, wit and social criticism. But I vote for McNally especially for Master Class.” – DCPA Literary Associate Chad Henry
“Lin-Manuel Miranda is reinventing the American theatre in an unprecedented way. ‘Greatest playwright since Shakespeare’ is a bit premature, but I hope it ends up being true.” – Steve Wilson, Mizel Arts and Cultural Center Executive Director
“Time will accurately lump him with Mozart and Shakespeare. (And yet, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.)” – Playwright Michael Mitnick
And another: “Sondheim is, in fact, the greatest theatrical voice alive today.” – Blind Date playwright Rogelio Martinez
THE VOTING PANEL:
- Mark Blankenship, Theatre Development Fund
- Michael Bouchard, Denver actor and writer
- Ben Dicke, Theatre Department Chair at The Chicago Academy for the Arts
- Brian Freeland, New York writer and director
- Wendy C. Goldberg, Artistic Director, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center
- Jason Grote, playwright
- Emily K. Harrison, square product theatre company founder
- Josh Hartwell, playwright, Dramatists Guild
- Chad Henry, playwright, DCPA Literary Associate
- Douglas Langworthy, DCPA Director of New Play Development
- Leslie C. Lewis, playwright
- Regan Linton, actor, Phamaly Theatre Company Artistic Director and Acting Executive Director
- Ina Marlowe, director
- Rogelio Martinez, playwright
- Melissa Lucero McCarl, playwright
- Timothy McCracken, actor, DCPA Education Head of acting
- Charlie Miller, DCPA Associate Artistic Director for Strategy and Innovation
- Michael Mitnick, playwright
- Christy Montour-Larson, director
- Jeffrey Neuman, playwright
- Bev Newcomb, director
- Stephanie Prugh, dramaturg
- Robert Schenkkan, playwright
- Howard Sherman, Director at Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama
- Philip Sneed, Arvada Center Executive Director
- Octavio Solis, playwright
- Caridad Svich, playwright
- Kent Thompson, DCPA Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director
- Diep Tran, American Theatre Magazine
- Allison Watrous, DCPA Director of Education
- Rob Weinert-Kendt, Editor, American Theatre Magazine
- Edith Weiss, actor, director, playwright
- Rebecca Weitz, Managing Director, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
- Stephen Weitz, Producing Ensemble Director, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
- Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, playwright
- Steve Wilson, Executive Director, Mizel Arts and Culture Center
Selected previous coverage of the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit:
- Summit stands in thanks to departing founder Kent Thompson
- 2017 Summit welcomes dozens for opening rehearsal
- Summit Spotlight: Robert Schenkkan on the dangers of denial
- Summit Spotlight: Lauren Yee lays it all on the free-throw line
- Summit Spotlight: Rogelio Martinez on when world leaders collide
- Summit Spotlight: Donnetta Lavinia Grays on the aftermath of trauma
- Summit Spotlight: Eric Pfeffinger on the fertile comedy of a divided America
- Record four student writers to have plays read at Summit
- DCPA completes field of five 2017 Summit playwrights