Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Sitting in judgment theatrically

Two or three times a year, I get called upon to judge theatre competitions of varying sorts. This year, I’m one of the readers for the PEN USA literary awards, which is always an honor. And this Saturday evening, I’m a judge of this playwriting and performance event at the Secret Rose Theatre. It sounds like a lot of fun. If you’re around, stop by.

I have mixed feelings about contests, awards, and prizes. In grad school, one of my playwriting professors, Jerome Lawrence,  told me he was against writing contests because it pitted writers against writers. I understood his point of view (and that’s an indication of just what sort of a guy Jerry was:  generous beyond measure), especially as someone who at that time had already been on both sides of prize-winning — winning one when I wasn’t sure my play was the best, and losing the same contest the next year when I was sure mine was. Especially when there’s a performance element in judging  a playwriting contest, a lot rides on elements outside the playwright’s control:  How responsive was the audience on the judging night, how “on” were the performers, was it too cold or too hot in the theatre, how was traffic on the way there, was the box office friendly or surly, and so forth.

At the same time, believe me when I say I understand the marketing value of winning any contest or award (and, sometimes, the prize value). I don’t care which movies have won which awards, believe me (especially when  it’s a system that awards “Best Picture” to “Avatar”). But do awards build careers, and would I put the full thrust of marketing and PR behind any awards won? You bet.

There is a story — and I don’t know how reliable it is — that, 40 years ago, the Nobel committee was deadlocked between giving the award for literature to either Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco. Finally, after much deliberation, one of the Ionesco champions who felt that Ionesco’s work had a broader scope than Beckett’s (and there may be something to that), switched sides to end the deadlock. And so:  Samuel Beckett won the Nobel, and Eugene Ionesco never did. Is the work of Beckett, the Nobel-prize-winning writer, better than that of Ionesco? Beckett has become far more deeply rooted in the cultural consciousness — referenced in “The Simpsons,” name-checked on “Quantum Leap,” parodied on Sesame Street — and a lot of that came from winning the Nobel.

3 Responses to “Sitting in judgment theatrically”

  1. Werner Trieschmann Says:

    That video is tempting me to say that the Cookie Monster has contributed more to the cultural world than Beckett or Ionesco. But I won’t say that. Also, you need to post the video with Cookie Monster and Martha Stewart.

  2. Lee Wochner Says:

    You probably won’t like my reply: I think we need to defund Cookie Monster and his pals. In the cable and internet age, I don’t know what PBS overall is contributing to the national dialogue, especially consisting as it does of fundraising appeals starring one-hit musical acts of the 1950s, New-Age infomercials starring quasi-quacks, and fix-it and rummage shows that more appropriately belong on obscure satellite channels. And while “Waiting for Elmo” is entertaining, so is the advertiser-supported stuff on, say, Cartoon Network, and it doesn’t masquerade as being “educational.”

  3. Werner Trieschmann Says:

    I don’t why I wouldn’t like that reply. I agree with it in fact. There’s plenty of programming out there now and PBS offers nothing that the others don’t. Sesame Street is great (or, rather, it was great when I was growing up but not as much now in the Elmo-heavy era) and could and should stand on its own. That argument is seperate from the eternal wonderfulness of Cookie Monster, who is funnier and more poignant than, say, a dozen modern comics.

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