Sondheim Says

A Word From our Founder

The notion of the Young Playwrights Festival first arose in 1977. I had been president of the Dramatists Guild for four years, and a subscriber to the London Sunday Observer for 15. Each year I would read in that paper’s magazine section an announcement of the entry rules for the forthcoming annual Young Writers’ Play Competition: a competition open to anyone in Great Britain under that age of 18, the winning plays professionally performed during a two-week period in the spring at the Royal Court Theatre. Each year I’d think, “Why don’t we have something like that over here?” And each year I’d answer, “Because it’s too difficult to organize, because no one knows how to deal with the Board of Education, because no theater group would be interested, because etc….” and do nothing about it. But in the mid-1970s we were expanding our cultural wings at the Guild and the time suddenly seemed appropriate, so I slammed down my gavel at a council meeting one day, convinced everybody what a wonderful idea such a competition would be, and appointed a committee to get it going consisting of Jules Feiffer, who’d had dealings with the New York City schools; Mary Rodgers, who’d written numerous children’s books and songs; and myself, to keep convincing everybody what a wonderful idea it would be.

We immediately held a press conference to announce the project, complete with the usual paraphernalia (coffee, pastry, photographer). Alvin Klein, theatre critic for WNYC, came. Only Alvin Klein came. Jules, Mary, and I, together with the Guild’s then executive director, David LeVine, and a gentleman from the New York City Board of Education (a substitute for the higher-up, who canceled at the last minute) stood in a large, empty, elegant, conference room at the Guild and answered his questions (two, I believe). There were long periods of silence, the pastry melted, the stacks of informational flyers, painstakingly prepared, went unthumbed, and we decided the competition was a good idea whose time had not yet come. It was too difficult to organize, because no one knew how to deal with the Board of Education, no theatre group would be interested, etc.

The notion probably would have remained dormant if I hadn’t found myself in London two years later while the Festival at the Royal Court was actually taking place. It was my first opportunity to see what I had only read about for so many years, and it was an experience so moving and exhilarating that I returned to the council with renewed vigor. I wrote to Robert Cushman, the Observer’s theatre critic, to find out exactly how the event was organized, and asked Ruth Goetz, a council-member who lived in London at the time, to do some detective work at the Court. She came up with the key to it all: a fellow named Gerald Chapman. I went to England to meet him; in 1980 he come to work for the Guild and created the program, which, with a few revisions, remains to this day.

Our highest hopes were realized. The first American Young Playwrights Festival was as moving and exhilarating as the Royal Court’s, and even more encouraging: in their best years, the Court had received between three and four hundred manuscripts, and these from all over England. Our competition was publicized in New York and a few scattered outlying districts, yet we received over 700 from 35 states. I had always assumed that the literacy level of Britain’s young people was higher than ours. I was wrong.

Today, we receive as many as 1500 plays from all fifty states. Furthermore, we discovered on our 10th anniversary that more than 80 percent of our winners were still actively writing plays. To pick just two, there is Jonathan Marc Sherman, whose 1988 entry, Women and Wallace (written when he was 18) was produced for television by PBS; and Kenneth Lonergan, who was one of our winners in 1982 and whose plays This Is Our YouthThe Waverly Gallery, and Lobby Hero have been widely acclaimed, and whose screenplay for You Can Count on Me (which he directed) was nominated for an Academy Award.

I am happy to say that Young Playwrights Inc. is now in its 34th year, under the direction of Artistic Director Sheri M. Goldhirsch, and our president, David Henry Hwang. We can take heart in the fact that there are hundreds of young writers around who have not been totally persuaded that television and sit-coms and formless movies and their innumerable (though often numbered) spin-offs represent the state of the narrative art. Our high hopes for the future, and your support, bolsters them. Thank you for your interest in their work.