How A Blatant Lie By The National Enquirer Turned Into An Opportunity For Playwrights

CREDIT: VICTORIA WILL/INVISION/AP
CREDIT: VICTORIA WILL/INVISION/AP

The Relentless Award, founded in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s memory and intended to honor an unproduced play that is wholly devoted to the truth, started with a lie.

The National Enquirer published a story about playwright David Bar Katz, a close friend of Hoffman’s, shortly after Hoffman’s death. Hoffman died at 46 on February 1; a few days later, Katz’s son showed him the article online, which included an interview with Katz that never actually took place and invented allegations about Katz and Hoffman’s relationship. Hours later, Katz sued the Enquirer for libel; days later, the Enqurier withdrew the story and issued an apology.

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With the money from the lawsuit, Katz started the American Playwright Foundation, intended to fund Relentless Award, an annual prize of $45,000 for an unproduced play. Or, as in the case of its inaugural year, two unproduced plays. The winners, culled from a pool of over 2,000 submissions, are Claire Barron’s Dance Nation and Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves. Katz spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about the thinking behind the award, the economics of playwriting, and why he’s glad the first two winners of this prize are women.

The first question I had when I read about this award was: Why playwrights? Philip is best known as an actor, for his work in film. What was the thinking behind allocating the money to support playwrights instead of, say, performers?

Basically, in terms of some way to honor Phil, the first thing that came to mind to me was playwrights. I’m sure because I’m a writer, but also, the acting aspects of Phil’s career and the film stuff is, obviously, widely known, and will be remembered. But less people — people in the theater community know, but outside of it, less people know that Phil spent most of his adult life doing theater and supporting playwrights. So to me, that aspect of the things he cared about and loved, that was an important thing to focus on.

After you got this settlement from The Enquirer, what happened next? At what point did you decide this was what you would do with the money?

Less people know that Phil spent most of his adult life doing theater and supporting playwrights.

The decision happened pretty quickly, when all of that happened, and frankly I was a little bit in a fog. I was just in the middle of awfulness. The initial impulse and idea came then. And in the next few months, we started figuring out the details of how it would work. And this reading series, which is a huge component of it, that dedicates another Labyrinth member, Ed Vassallo, who died within weeks of Phil. This reading series is, I think, the largest of its kind. I don’t know anywhere else that a play gets this degree of a national rollout. That aspect is really great for a writer. It gives them the opportunity to have theater connections in other cities, and if they’re interested in development, just getting it on its feet and hearing it with different actors and directors and seeing it.

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Talk me through the economics of being a full-time playwright. Is there still such a thing, actually, as a full-time playwright? Do people who want to write plays have to support themselves through other means?

There’s an expression in theater, “You can’t make a living, you can only make a killing.” And that seems to get more and more true every year. So fewer and fewer people are professional playwrights, because you can’t survive. You can’t make enough money to live. Even if you get productions at top regionals or top theaters in New York, it’s very, very little money, unless you have a big success on Broadway. Other than that, it’s not a viable way to make a living. So this idea is to get this amount of money for a play, especially for an unproduced play, to encourage playwrights and essentially help them be able to be playwrights, and maybe take that worry away from them for a little bit.

What were you looking for in submissions? How did that process work?

First, with the help of my associate in this, Laura Ramadei, she really gathered a group of readers that became our subcommittee of evaluating plays. This group of approximately 20 people had to go through almost 2,000 plays, and then meet once a week and debate them, and figure out which plays should move on. The criteria aspect is interesting because a lot of the ways most people evaluate plays for theaters is essentially, “What do I think is the best play? What’s most producible? What will my audience like best?” Those are major considerations. So putting that aside and giving readers the criteria of finding plays they feel are relentlessly truthful, an author that is not pulling any punches, that is not thinking in their writing about producibility. Producibility is not a criteria in this award. It’s the pure honesty and force of the writing. The theater producers can deal with producibility.

So if you got a submission that was like: “45 tap dancers will be lifted from the stage on wires and float above the audience, where their taps will continue to be heard even though they are literally dancing on air,” that would be totally fine? That level of un-producibility?

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That’s exactly it. That’s one side. I talk to playwrights all the time who are like, I’ve got to write a play with just two people because they can’t get produced. Every person you add makes it less producible in many places.

The other side of it is subject matter. Certain risque subject matter that would make a play unproducible. In one of the, in a lot of the plays, I noticed a trend — it’s post-David Mamet, what I would call kind of cock plays, that basically, male playwrights talking about sex and penises, and that’s become almost acceptable, even in mainstream. I’m seeing a lot of female playwrights doing similar things but talking about vaginas, and seeing a lot of mainstream reaction, with the notable exception of The Vagina Monologues, in the context of a regular play, audiences find it shocking, which I think is a bizarre double standard. When we were reading, it was anonymous, but at times it seemed pretty clear, it was a female writer dealing with those issues. I thought it was interesting and exciting that it was happening. And in these two women’s plays, with young female characters talking about that subject matter, it felt like a kind of shift in the zeitgeist, a little bit. This appropriation and comfortableness with a way of speaking that had, to me, felt predominately dominated by men.

Male playwrights get produced more often than female playwrights? That space is still pretty male-dominated?

Men get produced way more than women. I do know that men certainly get produced way more than women.

Was it an intentional effort on your part, then, to correct that imbalance by choosing two women as the winners of this award? At any point did the anonymity fall away?

Fewer and fewer people are professional playwrights, because you can’t survive. You can’t make enough money to live.

It was anonymous til the very, very end. So I was very pleased. Even on the website, we said that additional female playwrights, minority playwrights are encouraged. There was a fear on our part that when playwrights saw this amount of money would think, “Oh, this is an award for established playwrights.” I didn’t want the size of it to lead people to make presumptions that weren’t true. That’s not what this is about. So, I could not have been more thrilled about the result because the idea of having not just one woman, but two, I never, ever anticipated we’d be in a deadlock situation. At the moment, it was amazing that every one of the judges was instantly thrilled. It was also, just because the resonances between these two plays, they could not be more different, but in each play, a group of females doing something very physical on the stage in a competitive nature, it was really fascinating, that these are the two plays that anonymous could both rise to the top.

Tell me more about what you saw in each play that really resonated with you. What’s so special about them?

In The Wolves, what I loved is, rowing was a very important part of my life for a long time, and I’m constantly thinking about ways to write about that experience. So I definitely have a predilection for people that have the ability to write well about athletic contexts. And so The Wolves, you’re seeing many, many women, an entire soccer team, onstage, going through, doing their physical warm-ups, doing their rituals. And the pure physicality and theatricality, I thought, was really striking and like nothing I’ve ever seen. Reading a play and just being like, “I really, really want to see this,” is an exciting feeling.

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And in Dance Nation, it’s an unconventional approach to dance competition, and not only does she explore the physicality of dance but also the theatrical ways to express physicality other than movement. So there’s a moment where she specifies that the choreography that’s taking place “should only happen on their faces.”

What happens now? What’s next for these two plays and for the award in the future?

From here, we are going to kick off the reading series at The New Group theater in New York, with the New Group artistic director, Scott Elliott, who is also an artistic adviser for the foundation, is going to direct readings of the plays. Since it’s two and we weren’t expecting that, it might just be the first act of each. So basically we’ll do that and make it an event where we honor these writers and present the plays.

As for the award, this is going to be an annual award. And there’s enough money. I’m not really allowed to talk about the settlement agreement, but basically, the award will be able to continue.

What was this experience like for you? Looking through all these plays and thinking about other writers’ work from this point of view?

As a active writer, and not an administrator, it was definitely, at times, an interesting change of pace, having foundation business to take care of. But as a writer, you work in isolation generally. So having to spend so much time thinking about other writers was really interesting, because I haven’t done that before in that way. So being forced to think about, what would be good for these other writers? It’s like if you get somebody a gift and you really don’t want to give it to them because you like it so much, you know it’s a good gift. It’s creating an award like, I wish I could win something like that! There are many points in my life where that would be amazing, life changing. Anything in the golden age of television we’re having now, where writers can exercise muscles that used to just be exercised in theater, they can actually be employed in television. It’s all the more important to keep them in the theater.

If television is so great, though, why is it that important to you that these writers stay in theater? What, in your opinion, can theater do that TV can’t?

The one thing that television cannot do, no matter how great the character development can become and all the year-long story arcs, is give you the immediacy of seeing a human being right in front of you experiencing something that you are experiencing with them. Nothing else comes close.