On the final Saturday night of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville packs the Pamela Brown Auditorium for an evening of ten-minute plays. But first, the best of the previous year’s regional premieres are recognized.
The American Theatre Critics Association hands out a combined $40,000 from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust to honor the top three plays to premiere outside of New York City.
Playwright Yussef El Guindi won the $25,000 New Play Award for “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.” But it’s the wild applause greeting the announcement of A. Rey Pamatmat’s runner-up citation for “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” that nearly brings down the house.
“Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” premiered in last year’s Humana Festival. When Pamatmat’s name is called, the crowd’s reaction is not unlike when a home team qualifies for the Final Four. Pamatmat, along with Ken LaZebnik, whose play “On the Spectrum” was also recognized, received $7,500 from the trust.
“Obviously I’m grateful, but the first reaction was long, hysterical laughter,” Pamatmat, 36, says after the ceremony. “I couldn’t be happier to be part, in a way, of Humana again.”
The festival attracts artistic directors and producers from all over the country to preview plays they might bring in to their own theaters. This is invaluable exposure for new plays, which often have trouble attracting subsequent productions after their world premieres. A steady stream of productions means a steady income for playwrights, which allows them to focus on developing new work.
“It is so hard, financially, frankly, to put together a life in the theater as a playwright, because your artistic income is based completely on your own work and not on performing other people’s work or directing other people’s work,” says Pamatmat.
In the last year, “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” entered into the National New Play Network rolling premiere program, which allowed the show to open at theaters in Atlanta, the Miami area and Minneapolis, and a production will open in Sacramento this year. Thanks to the work his play has found after the Humana Festival and a fellowship from the Lark Playwriting Center in New York—not to mention his new Steinberg citation—Pamatmat has passed a watershed moment in any young writer’s career.
“I don’t have a survival job any more. I’m just writing now,” he says.
And then there are the critics. Festivals allow theater critics from all over the country to see the hottest new plays before they open in their own communities. ATCA new play committee chair William Hirschman says Pamatmat’s play was nominated for the Steinberg award by several members of the critics association who saw the play at the Humana Festival.
“It immediately struck a chord, much like the other two plays that won. Our group has a very diverse set of opinions. There was something about ‘Edith’ that really spoke to a great number of people, people who were very passionate about it,” says Hirschman.
“It clearly stood out as an incredibly inventive and touching piece of work that was unlike anything anyone had seen,” he adds.
But even after several nominations from Humana Festival attendees, “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” wasn’t a lock for the award based solely on its Louisville production. Hirschman explains that the Steinberg awards are based on the text, not production values.
“This is a playwriting award, not a production award,” he says. “We make a big deal about whether a script can be taken by other companies and made into a wonderful night of theater, not whether one particularly brilliant company can take a script and take it someplace that is wonderful independent of the raw material that it is.”