New Theater Award at Columbia To Honor Kennedy
NEW YORK, September 27, 2012

A $100,000 theater award, recognizing a play or musical inspired by American history, is being established at Columbia University in honor of the Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the university and one of Mr. Kennedy’s sisters, Jean Kennedy Smith, announced on Thursday.

Ms. Smith, a former United States ambassador to Ireland, said in an interview that she was inspired to create the award by memories of her brother breaking into song, though the melodies were usually Irish rather than show tunes. Among her siblings, she said, he was the closest thing to a performer.

“And he also had a deep love of history, in the Senate and in his personal life,” she said of Mr. Kennedy, who died in 2009. “So I thought this could be a unique prize that would recognize the importance of history, music and theater.”

For the last two years Ms. Smith worked with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) working out details of the award. They tried to answer a couple of questions — How should we define history? What makes a prize worthwhile? — by consulting historians (Robert Caro, David McCullough) and holding salon discussions in Ms. Smith’s apartment and elsewhere with the playwrights A. R. Gurney, David Henry Hwang, Richard Nelson, Lynn Nottage,Wallace Shawn and others.

“We came to find we’d ventured into a prime area of controversy in the field of history by trying to develop parameters for it,” Mr. Kushner said in an interview. “The prize’s mission statement ended up with a broad definition of history, but we’re still hoping for some tasty controversy about whether and how the winning works are inspired by American history.”

According to a statement from Ms. Smith and Columbia, the award will go to a stage work that “enlists theater’s power to explore the past of the United States, to participate meaningfully in the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy.”

To broaden the prize’s value beyond cash, Mr. Kushner and Ms. Smith worked with Columbia on an educational component: the Columbia University Libraries will collaborate with prize recipients to create online study guides related to the winning works, incorporating historical research and scholarly discussions.

The award — formally titled the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History — will be one of theater’s most lucrative prizes. Its scope also makes it unusual.

“Most writing prizes are for excellence, period, but this is for a specific kind of excellence,” said Mr. Kushner, whose plays and screenplays (including his coming film “Lincoln”) often explore historical themes.

The first recipient will be announced on Feb. 22, 2013, Mr. Kennedy’s birthday. Plays and musicals that have inaugural professional productions in 2012 will be eligible for the 2013 prize.

Ms. Smith established the annual award with an endowment gift to Columbia; she declined to disclose the amount, but Mr. Kushner said it would be enough to cover the first six or seven years of the prize at least. He added they were working with Columbia and philanthropists toward raising a total endowment of $5 million.

Recipients will be chosen by a panel of judges from among five plays or musicals selected by nominators. The judges will be three playwrights; two musical theater writers; two scholars of literature, American history or political science; and the president of Columbia.