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Celebrating the Playwrights in Our Backyard

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Ngozi Anyanwu reading her play "Good Grief" as part of the Humanitas Play Fest at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Walk into restaurants, boutiques, and bookstores across Los Angeles, and you’ll find chefs and salespeople touting all things “local”: steaks from locally raised cows, handbags by local artisans, and books by local authors. But you hear this buzzword far less often in the city’s theatres, despite the fact that “Los Angeles is a playwriting hub, only barely second to New York,” as Center Theatre Group Director of New Play Development Pier Carlo Talenti put it. The HUMANITAS/CTG Playwriting Prize was launched last year to recognize L.A.’s wealth of local playwrights and celebrate their talents—as well as to encourage theatres to produce writers who live and work here.

Beginning in 2016, Center Theatre Group and HUMANITAS—a non-profit that actively supports new and emerging writers—are awarding the Playwriting Prize annually to the best new unproduced play written by a writer based in Southern California. The top three writers are also being honored at the Humanitas Play Fest at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on February 12–14 2016.

The inaugural winner is Ngozi Anyanwu for Good Grief, which follows the misadventures of a young Nigerian-American woman in love, loss, and growing up. Anyanwu received $5,000 as well as an additional $5,000 grant that will go to a local theatre to subsidize the play’s world premiere. Second-place winner Dan O’Brien, author of Scarsdale, and third-place winner Louisa Hill, author of Lord of the Underworld’s Home for Unwed Mothers, each received $2,000.

it’s always nice when someone says, ‘We were moved by it too.’

HUMANITAS Prize Winner Ngozi Anyanwu

This is the first play by Anyanwu, an actress, writer, producer, and director who is a recent graduate of UC San Diego’s MFA acting program. She was wonderfully surprised to hear that she had won. “It took a lot to put that out there into the world,” she said of Good Grief. “So it’s always nice when someone says, ‘We were moved by it too.’” Although she has workshopped the play and gotten feedback from students in her graduate program, Anyanwu has largely been working on Good Grief by herself for the past few years; she’s looking forward to collaborating with Center Theatre Group’s artistic development staff. “I’m excited for the support that an institution can bring, and I’m interested in seeing what that means for the play,” she said, adding that a Southern California world premiere is her goal. The award monies will also allow her to fix her laptop—and go on to write plays two and three.

Center Theatre Group and HUMANITAS hope that the prize’s impact will extend far beyond Anyanwu and the runners-up. Each of the 234 plays submitted for consideration was read by at least two artists from the pool of 71 Southern California-based directors, dramaturgs, designers, actors, and artistic directors who volunteered to serve as judges. “So many of our evaluators have told me how much they loved being part of this process,” said Talenti. “And because they read the plays without knowing any information about the authors, they were dying to know who wrote them.”

Talenti believes this enthusiasm means that a number of the submissions “have a really good shot at getting produced in our backyard” and that it’s possible that in the next few years, we’ll see “a rash of world premieres by Southern California playwrights produced by Southern California theatres.”

Supporting local playwrights is important to Center Theatre Group on a number of levels. “I think it’s particularly exciting for audiences to see work created by artists who live in their own communities and who also often write about their own communities,” said Talenti. “Theatre suddenly has a particularly special relevance when that happens.” Whether or not this happens on Center Theatre Group’s stages is immaterial. “The more our local theatre artists flourish, creating new theatre fans in their respective neighborhoods, the more Center Theatre Group benefits from a deep pool of local talent and a new audience eager to see the work of the artist-next-door,” he said.

We are here to nurture them along their path—and help them develop their voices along the way.

HUMANITAS Executive Director Cathleen Young

HUMANITAS Executive Director Cathleen Young is excited that the prize will give both organizations the opportunity to support that talent pool, and “to find new playwrights and empower them to….write,” she said. “Most writers suffer a lot of rejection and spirit-crushing ups and downs on the way to success. It can be a tough and daunting road. We are here to nurture them along their path—and help them develop their voices along the way.”

Like his fellow judges, Talenti was impressed by the depth of voices who submitted plays for the prize, and by the “wide range of experience among the 10 finalists, who are from all over Southern California. Their plays cover a broad array of styles, aesthetics, and subject matter.” Talenti was pleasantly surprised to find that he wasn’t familiar with half of the finalists—an unusual experience for someone who’s been working with L.A. playwrights for 20 years.

Young believes that this group of playwrights has the potential to change not just the Los Angeles theatre community but our world at large. “By enabling and empowering writers to share their voices with the world, we actually play an important role in keeping our democracy strong,” she said.

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