This Would Be Funny if it Weren't So Infuriating
Written by
The Salonniere
November 2010
Written by
The Salonniere
November 2010
So while I would like to forget about the whole Wasserstein Prize thing, I just can't. Partly because the Director of Communications for the Theater Development Fund, David LeShay, emailed me the day after my blog post about the fund's decision not to award a prize this year because none of the 19 finalists selected by THEIR process was good enough for it. (And yes, they blamed the playwrights, not their own process, until they ran into a firestorm of protest and suddenly changed their minds.) And boy, it was a really dumb exchange. First, our email exchange of yesterday, exactly as it went: From: David LeShay, Director of Communications, Theater Development Fund Subject: wasserstein Date: November 17, 2010 11:11:37 AM EST i wish you'd post this interview... there's been alot of acting out and misinformation going on..but i guess one can't control that..just try to give the rfacts (which no one really tried to get)...but if you're going to blog about us..i'd appreciate you ask directly. feel free to post this: From: Kamy Wicoff, Founder, She Subject: wasserstein Date: November 17, 2010 11:33:09 AM EST Dear David, Thanks for sending, though characterizing people's reaction to the Prize's decision as "acting out" feels a bit condescending at best. I'd rather not post this interview if I could have the conversation myself, as these are not necessarily the questions I would have asked -- would Victoria make herself available for either an email Q&A or discussion on our She Writes Radio show? And in the interest of getting the facts straight, who is the funder of the grant? I feel like the facts are a bit murky in terms of exactly how this is structured, who is behind it, what is at stake for re-funding it, etc. I also understand the prize has chosen not to identify the judges for the prize. Is that correct? Thanks, Kamy Wicoff From: David LeShay Subject: wasserstein Date: November 17, 2010 12:08:31 PM EST Acting out being expressing outrage prior to investigating the facts. You'd be shocked at the messages I've seen in the past few days. That's not condescending just an observation. Best, D From: Kamy Wicoff Subject: wasserstein Date: November 17, 2010 12:19:56 PM EST Dear David, Understood. In the interest of getting the facts out, how about an interview with Victoria for She Writes? Thanks, Kamy From: David LeShay Subject: wasserstein Date: November 17, 2010 12:46:30 PM EST Not right now Thanks From: Kamy Wicoff Subject: wasserstein Date: November 17, 2010 12:52:30 PM EST So what would you suggest to someone trying to get the facts straight? Read the Time Out article? From: David LeShay Subject: wasserstein Date: November 17, 2010 12:56:41 PM EST Or nytimes artsblog. Thanks From: Kamy Wicoff Subject: wasserstein Date: November 17, 2010 1:00:44 PM EST I did link to that and used it as a source. Thanks, Kamy Fin. A few observations, if I may. 1) This entire thread was conducted under the subject line "wasserstein". But the Theater Development Fund has such high standards of quality they couldn't sully themselves by awarding their $25K to a struggling young woman playwright who was just "ok." 2) "Acting out?" Really? Are the thousands of men and women who have protested this nothing more than a bunch of foot-stamping children, "acting out" because they are upset about something else but are so immature they randomly decided to throw a fit over this (when it could just as easily have been over their spilled milk) just because they like to throw fits? Because that is what "acting out" implies. Not conscious protest, but childish ranting. And I for one could not be more conscious in my protest of their decision. 3) The Time Out New York article, was conducted by one Adam Feldman, who commiserated with Victoria Bailey (whom he describes in his intro as "gracious and determinedly fair-minded") about how hard it is to be on her side of things, cause he can relate as a member of the Drama Critics' Circle. "That is something that comes up often with the Drama Critics' Circle," he says in his hard-hitting interview, filled with facts. "We’re bound by our bylaws in ways that can yield unexpected results, and sometimes we can't give a prize." I don't know what that means and frankly I don't care. If you can't figure out a way to give a prize to ONE WOMAN PLAYWRIGHT in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, YOU are the problem, not the applicants or the by-laws or whatever. 4) David LeShay doesn't capitalize "I." 5) In the Time Out article, much is made of the "ominous" statement by one of the prize's funders, Heidi Ettinger, that if it was not possible "to insure the integrity of the prize and provide selection panels the freedom they need free of outside pressures," they may just STOP AWARDING IT ALL TOGETHER. And whose fault will that be? The Time Out piece makes it quite clear: "In pitting the values of 'high standards' and 'integrity' versus the threat of 'outside pressures,' Ettinger seemed to be signaling serious doubts about the viability of the Wasserstein Prize after this year's blowup. In insisting that it give an award this year, might activists have inadvertently put the program in peril? Has the power of the grassroots put the flower at risk?" So let me get this straight. The super-high-standards, super-high-integrity team at the Wasserstein Prize not only embarrassed and failed 19 young women playwrights, who went from being finalists for one of the most prestigious awards in the country for women working in their field to being the 19 women who sucked so hard that none of them was worthy of it, IT IS NOW BLAMING THE PEOPLE WHO SPOKE UP ABOUT IT for making things so tough for those poor, fragile judges that they may just have to give the whole thing up altogether. Which, let me tell you, would be REALLY great for the young women playwrights all over the land. One thought, Theater Development Fund? Rename it the wasserstein-with-a-lowercase-w Prize. That might make it more clear just how much respect you have for Wendy's life and legacy, and for the obstacles she overcame to become one of this country's few successful female playwrights. (For more on just how hard it is for women to succeed in theater, read this excellent article about the study conducted by Cecilia Rouse and Emily Sands about gender bias in theater, which suggests that in addition to sexism there is a pipeline problem -- something the Wasserstein Prize is poised to correct.) Because in the end -- if you read the Time Out article, or the NYT Arts Beat Blog, you will see that in all their communications about this the spokespeople for the prize have completely and totally forgotten/ignored/undermined what Bailey states as the mission of the prize: "this is a grant whose purpose the funder feels really deeply about," she stated in her Time Out interview, "It’s about acknowledging young women." Just not if they don't feel like it one year. My god. I feel like acting out. Anybody else feel a She Writes Prize coming on?

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  • Nellie Sabin

    This is an excellent piece. Now that it is a YEAR LATER, we know they forfeited the 2010 prize. What is happening for 2011?  Please - do tell!

  • Bridget Straub

    Well said!

  • Christina Baker Kline

    Kamy, I applaud your rational fearlessness and good manners in the face of David LeShay's condesending tone, typos, and careless, faux-intimate lowercase form -- as if your valid objections and questions aren't worthy of the time and thought it takes to write a grammatically correct sentence. Thank you for taking this on.

  • catherine james

    I've also found the award committee's decision to "alter" the judging "process" in order to make finding a winner more viable equally, if not more insulting to the 19 finalists. It's akin to saying: "We're changing (possibly even lowering?) our standards in the hopes placating these annoying protesters."

  • LindaLowen

    Kamy, thank you for your fearlessness in covering this incident and for remaining gracious yet persistent in trying to ferret out the backstory. Since the answers were not forthcoming and LeShay's responses do little to correct the "misinformation" (as he calls it), the entire situation is a lose-lose for all parties involved. It's particularly disturbing to have the "play nice, or we'll pull the prize" threat made -- it smacks of retribution. My heart go out to the finalists -- clearly, if a process can't "identify" young playwrights the judges feel are worthy, then it's the process that's flawed, not the young women nominated. What a cruel slap in the face.

  • Marjorie Robertson

    Thank you, Kamy.

    Good suggestion by Evalyn Lee. And a She Writes Prize. Solutions, solutions...

  • Laura B Gschwandtner

    Having worked as a magazine editor for decades now, I have to deal with alot (love re-using that) of "communications" directors at large companies and corporations. Their job is NEVER to supply information you may want. It is to stand as a buffer between what gets into print about the companies/executives they work for and the media. Their job is gatekeeper, controller of information. Not communication. That title is simply a shield, like the job.

  • Evalyn Lee

    There is a wonderful non-profit organization in England that looks for artists, playwrights and others that She Writes could contact for advice on how to find, support and stage/display new work. It is called Curving Road.

  • Zetta Brown

    One of the comments after the Time Out article suggested that they are confusing the words "prize" and "grant." An interesting argument, but considering I don't know the entry rules of the "prize" it does seem to suggest that the body doesn't have a grasp on the purpose of the "prize."

    Regardless, I like Kamy's idea of a She Writes Prize...or even establishing grants. I'd definitely help and contribute.

  • Kate Moses

    Kamy, what most infuriates me about this exchange you had with David LeShay is his initial fig leaf:
    "just try to give the rfacts (which no one really tried to get)" -- but clearly he is not interested in supplying the facts or acknowledging your repeated attempts to get at them. And he's the Director of Communications?!

  • Catharine Amanda Sowards

    I think my favorite part of the interview with Victoria was where she said, "You don't honor a prize by making it easy." Ohhhh... If I'd known that writing plays was so easy, I wouldn't have wasted my time on fiction. You crazy playwrights... keeping that all to yourselves.... Scamps!

  • Zoe FitzGerald Carter

    Go Kamy! Way to hang in there and persist, meeting his dodges with firm insistence. You're my hero!

  • Zetta Brown

    Yea, Kamy! Your ovaries are bigger and braver than David's...bits...when wanting to find out all the facts. Maybe he doesn't capitalize "I" because he's insecure? A Freudian issue, perhaps?

    And I think a She Writes Prize would be a great idea.

  • Mona R. Washington

    Hey, they can give that prize to me! How does one get nominated?

  • Marie Cooper

    I don't even know where to begin.

    A She Writes competition would have just so much more credibility.

    Wendy must be reeling in her grave at the hubris and snobbery invoked under her (uncapitalized) name. She knew Uncommon Women and Others had to start somewhere. She knew we are all Uncommon Women in our own way.

    David LeShay is one of those individuals who is simply too, too busy and important, darling, to be bothered with punctuation in an e-mail. That is only for the little people like you and I, Kamy. I've worked with his kind before. They think they're busy. They think they're important. What they really are are assholes.

    'Nuff said, methinks.

  • Amy Wallen

    All I can imagine is that the committee only had one person apply for LeShay's job, because he certainly doesn't meet the minimum requirements for his position. And yet, they still hired him instead of leaving the position open. Hmmm.

    If the playwrights made it to finalist but the committee couldn't determine if one stood out from the others, then why didn't they just divide the $25,000 among the finalists?

    My gut tells me that they have a fund that stipulates the organization is not allowed to touch the principal and somewhere along the way in this bad economy someone made a bad investment and they are struggling to recover their principal to its original amount so they can eventually award another prize. A strong guess after working for years in nonprofit where money is a constant struggle, integrity as well.

  • Jennifer Clement

    The "She Writes Emerging Playwright Competition" was just given my donation.

  • Evalyn Lee

    Bring on the She Writes Prize for young women playwrights! And thank you for making moving this story forward.

  • Laura B Gschwandtner

    Is it possible that the funding for the Wasserstein Prize was somehow invested by Bernie Madoff and all this is simply a cover up? That would explain ALOT (i know i know 2 woids).

  • Gillian Buchanan

    Wow. The only other instance I can think of where medals may HONOURABLY not be awarded and everyone knows they might not if no-one meets the standard is the Chelsea Flower Show. Yes it would be unheard of and no it's not writing - but did anyone in the Wassertein Prize group actually say to these young women that the prize might not be awarded if they weren't deemed good enough in the end? I bet they didn't. That question should be asked and an answer sought as well.

  • Jennifer Clement

    Dear Kamy, You remind me of the Gorrilla Girls and WE KNOW WHO WE ARE:
    In February of 1986, the College Art Association invited the Guerrilla Girls to participate in an "Anger Panel" at their national convention taking place in New York City. Dressed in black leather jackets, high-heels and gorilla masks and distributing buttons proclaiming "I'm a Guerrilla Girl," the women played a tape in which they claimed not to be angry:

    I'm a Guerrilla Girl and I'm not incensed that the Museum of Modern Art showed only 13 women of the 169 artists in their International Survey of Painting and Sculpture show or that the Carnegie International (Pittsburgh) had only four out of 42. I know these figures occurred only by chance. There was no sexism, conscious or unconscious, at work.

    I'm a Guerrilla Girl and I think that the art world is perfect and I would never think of complaining about any of the wonderful people in it. After all, women artists make fully one whole third of what male artists make, so what's there to be mad about? I mean, it's not nice to get angry. I wouldn't dream about getting angry. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to listen to this.[11]

  • Michelle Cale

    That the emails above came from a man whose job title is Director of Communications is frankly hilarious. He obviously doesn't understand that for a communications professional, every single interaction with a member of the public, a potential supporter, a donor, a client, or a critic (or any other human showing an interest in that professional's business/cause) should show the highest level of thought and care. Honestly, I've worked in communications for a nonprofit and I would have been ashamed to send out emails like that. His failure to answer specific, politely framed questions is particularly pitiful.

  • Honeysmoke

    Wow! Just wow.

  • Sharon Cathcart

    Oops ... and I apparently failed to note that his name is LeShay.

    Mea Culpa.

  • Sharon Cathcart

    Shay also doesn't seem to know that "a lot" is two words.

    How is it that these 19 playwrights were good enough to qualify for the award, but not good enough to win? Something is fishy here.