Battling Playwrights | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Battling Playwrights 

Hometown scribes are not exactly blown away by Ohioan Charls Smith's $15,000 play.

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Battling Playwrights

Some playwrights never see this kind of money in a lifetime, but Charles Smith recently collected $15,000 for a first draft. Smith's play The Sutherland won a juried competition held by the Illinois Arts Council to stage a play at the Harold Washington Library Center as part of the Governor's Awards for the Arts ceremonies on November 5. The biannual Governor's Awards honor Illinois artists, organizations, businesses, and communities that have distinguished themselves in the arts. But while Smith and his sponsor, Victory Gardens Theater, savor their good fortune, others involved in the competition question the protracted process that ultimately led to selection of The Sutherland. They also suggest that, in naming Smith the winner, the arts council may have violated the rules set down for the competition.

In May 1996 the IAC held a meeting to announce the competition, inviting representatives from Northlight Theatre, Victory Gardens, Organic Touchstone, Steppenwolf, Bailiwick Repertory, Black Ensemble, the Goodman, and the Theatre Building. The contest would mark the first time the arts council had solicited a new play for the Governor's Awards ceremonies, a principal fund-raising event for the council's foundation. According to the formal IAC request, theaters had to "identify a play for consideration by [an] Illinois playwright," identify a director for the production, and specify a theater with a minimum capacity of 300 seats where the winning play could be presented. The play also had to be produced as part of the company's regular season.

The request-for-proposal sheet indicated the arts council would make available "up to $55,000...of which $15,000 to $20,000 must be paid to the playwright." The award, underwritten entirely by AT&T, would cover the cost of producing the play and then remounting it at the library for the one-night Governor's Awards event.

David Zak, executive director of Bailiwick Repertory, was excited about the contest. "What the arts council was proposing to do in helping develop work by Illinois playwrights was exactly the sort of thing we do on a regular basis," he says. When he heard of the contest, Chicago playwright Nicholas Patricca was pleased about the generous prize money. He had received a grand total of $98 from Bailiwick for his contribution to an earlier work, If the Radiance of a Thousand Suns: The Hiroshima Project.

But even though the contest promised big bucks, only four of the eight theater companies chose to participate. Victory Gardens handed in the completed first draft of Smith's The Sutherland, a drama with music about trumpeter Malachi Thompson and Chicago's Sutherland Hotel at 47th and Drexel, long a magnet for jazz musicians. Bailiwick submitted the first act and outlined second act of Patricca's The Defiant Muse, about a 16th-century Mexican nun who stood up for women. Black Ensemble submitted the script of a musical revue called Dedicated to the One I Love by founder and artistic director Jackie Taylor, who says the piece is about the last five people left on earth and "how they made it through." For its entry, Northlight Theatre turned to Jamie Pachino, a former ensemble member of Strawdog Theatre Company. Pachino says The Return to Morality is about a liberal politician who "gets in over his head." Pachino submitted 40 pages of what was then an unfinished script.

After the contest's July 15, 1996, deadline Walter Buford, director of the IAC's performing arts programs, forwarded the submissions to a three-person out-of-state jury, which was asked to rate them on a scale of one to five. The process turned into a waiting game. "We would call every couple of weeks to find out what was happening," says Northlight managing director Richard Friedman, who needed to know whether he should include Pachino's play in his 1997-'98 lineup. Patricca says he was juggling several other writing projects with The Defiant Muse and needed to schedule his research and writing time appropriately. Zak says he expected to hear something by December but didn't.

By January the jury had apparently rendered its verdict, though several more months would pass before an official announcement. "The jury's decision had to be approved by the arts council's executive committee," explains Buford. The Sutherland scored highest, and Dedicated to the One I Love came in second. By February Buford was telling Bailiwick and Northlight that they were not among the finalists. But none of the theaters ever received formal notification of the results. "I do think a letter should have been sent," says Taylor. Buford says no letters were mailed because only four plays were submitted, and he felt telephone contact was sufficient: "I already had an informal rapport with most of the people involved."

By March Victory Gardens had heard that The Sutherland was a finalist. But Marcelle McVay, development director for Victory Gardens, says confirmation of the award didn't come until late April or May, as the company was finalizing the upcoming season's lineup.

But in announcing Smith's award, the arts council appears to have significantly bent a contest rule that said the winning play must be by "an Illinois playwright." McVay confirms that Smith moved to Athens, Ohio, a year ago to teach at Ohio University. But in the opinion of the arts council that wasn't reason enough to disqualify Smith. "I think we considered the fact he was in residency in Illinois when he wrote the play and there is a history of his plays being produced at Victory Gardens," explains Kassie Davis, executive director of IAC.

Nicholas Patricca says he's put the contest behind him, but he wants the arts council to pay closer attention to its own guidelines in the future: "I just hope the council will be more careful about what it does and about the process." Pachino says she never thought she would get the prize money: "My play was about a liberal politician, which politically was probably not the correct choice to submit in this state." Taylor says Black Ensemble will eventually produce Dedicated to the One I Love, even though it didn't win. AT&T, which coughed up the money for The Sutherland, was pleased with the selection, according to Davis. In 1994 the company also underwrote Smith's play Freefall at Victory Gardens.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Charles Smith photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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