Columbia University Libraries Announce The Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History

Edward M Kennedy ©2009 Denis Reggie Senator Ted Kennedy, Copyright 2009 Denis Reggie

The EMK Prize will be given annually through the Libraries to a new play or musical of merit that, in the words of the Prize's mission statement, "…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."

Ambassador Smith has created the Prize to honor the life and legacy of her late brother, Senator Ted Kennedy. The first recipient of the EMK Prize will be announced on Senator Kennedy’s birthday, February 22, 2013.

"My brother loved the arts – museums, books, the performing arts. Music was perhaps dearest to him, but he and I shared an enjoyment of theater – especially, for Teddy, musical theater," says Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. "He admired the discipline and skill that theater demanded of actors, directors and writers. He was intrigued by the theater's creation of worlds, based on the human imagination, either for purposes of escaping what's difficult in life or for purposes of confronting difficult truths. He was an insatiable student of American history, and, of course, he devoted his life to public service. My brothers, sisters and I were raised to appreciate how much a society’s culture contributes to the happiness of its citizens and to the health of its civic institutions. I decided to establish a prize for dramatic writing that speaks to this connection between art and civic life as a way of honoring my brother, and also as a way of acknowledging my family's commitment and indebtedness to the arts.

I also must acknowledge Tony Kushner who, from the beginning, has shown tremendous understanding and enthusiasm for this endeavor to honor my brother. This could never have happened without him and I am forever grateful for his invaluable insights and unwavering support."

In planning the Prize, Ambassador Smith enlisted a number of theater professionals, including Kushner, who will serve on the EMK Prize Board. "Jean Kennedy Smith is a heroic and amazing woman, curious about life and full of ideas and energy. I was moved and delighted by her intention to link playwriting and the public power of theater with her brother's and her family's historical and spirited commitment to the work of building democracy. This seemed to me a chance to create not just another prize - though playwrights need financial support! – but an incentive, a challenge for playwrights and a validation of theater as a particularly social and civic art form," Kushner said.

The EMK Prize consists of two parts. The author of the winning work will receive a bursary award of $100,000. In addition, The Columbia University Libraries' Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), working with the Prize recipient, will create a website featuring study and teaching guides, including extensive historical research and scholarly discussion and interpretation of the Prize-winning play or musical. This website will be available to any theater artist and any teacher or class studying the work with intent of expanding understanding and research of the winning playwright's work and career.

"I am honored to serve as the administrator for the new Kennedy Prize, and to help celebrate the intersection between theater and American history," James Neal, Vice President of Information Services and University Librarian, said. "We are so appreciative to Ambassador Smith and Mr. Kushner for basing this prestigious prize at Columbia. We are also excited that our Center for New Media Teaching and Learning will use its deep pedagogical and technology expertise and experience to extend the reach and impact of the winning play into classrooms and educational settings around the world."

Plays and musicals that have received their first professional productions in 2012 will be eligible for the Prize. The recipient will be determined by a panel of judges from a list of five works selected by a national network of nominators. The judges' panel will consist of three playwrights, two musical theater writers (book writer, lyricist or composer), two scholars of literature, American history or political science, and the President of Columbia University.

The size of the bursary component makes this among the largest prizes given for dramatic writing, and indeed for writing in America, while the commitment to an in-depth and publicly accessible examination and exploration of content makes the EMK Prize absolutely unique among dramatic and literary awards.

The EMK Prize has potential for contributing to an elevation of the standards of scrupulousness, intellectual rigor and seriousness within which dramatic literature is approached by theater artists, audiences, educators, students and critics. Ambassador Smith hopes that the Prize will galvanize a new and vigorous exploration of American history and the institutions of American politics among dramatists and creators of musical theater.

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