Thursday, October 25, 2012

Whale Writer Wins Whiting

Samuel D. Hunter, author of the remarkable “The Whale” is one of four playwrights to win a Whiting Writers Award, this year. The awards are given annually to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. This is the first time that four of the ten have been playwrights. This years awards were given Tuesday and consist of a $50,000 stipend each - a lot of help for an emerging writer.

“The Whale” had its world premiere last January with a production by the Denver Center Theatre Company. Hunter first wrote the script in 2009 but continued to fine-tune it. That process came to completion at the Colorado New Play Summit in Denver. DCTC scheduled it for its 2011-2012 season.

When I saw it last winter, I was dumbstruck. It is an amazing script but it also featured an amazing performance by Tom Alan Robbins as the central character, Charlie – the whale. Charlie is well over 500 pounds (the actor wore a fat suit) and living out the last days of his life.

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like the play, and frankly had some trepidation about it: sitting for two and half hours watching an obese man eating himself to death?

Boy was I wrong. The play was funny and sad, disturbing and strangely hopeful.

Hunter is one of a new generation of promising writers for the stages. His other plays include “A Bright New Boise” (which earned him a 2011 Obie Award for Playwriting and a 2011 Drama Desk Nomination for Best Play), “A Permanent Image”, “Jack’s Precious Moment”, “Five Genocides”,and his most recent play, “The Few”. He has active commissions from Seattle Rep, South Coast Rep, Manhattan Theater Club, and Lincoln Center. In 2013, he will be a resident playwright at Arena Stage. He is a graduate of NYU, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and Julliard. A native of northern Idaho, Mr. Hunter lives in New York City.

Candidates for The Whiting Award are proposed by nominators from across the country whose experience and vocations bring them in contact with individuals of extraordinary talent. Winners are chosen by a selection committee, a small group of recognized writers, literary scholars, and editors, appointed annually by the Foundation. Both nominators and selectors serve anonymously.

The Award and Foundation is named for Mrs. Giles Whiting. She was the daughter of Louis Ettlinger, who owned the Crowell, Collier Publishing Company. In 1899, she married Giles Whiting an architect and designer. At the time of her death in 1971 she had set aside $10 Million for the foundation. The Foundation began giving the awards in 1985.

“The Whale” is an example of why new and exciting work must be developed. Production by theatre companies of the classics and old favorites is important, but new work must constantly be fostered or the theatre will become moribund and die. That is why new play workshops and production venues – the Humana Festival in Louisville, KY - are so critical. The Colorado New Play Summit, which helped foster “The Whale” remains an important part of new play development, but I miss its predecessor the US West Theatre Fest of new plays. The loss of corporate sponsorship can have a negative impact on the arts and the disappearance of US West and its corporate sponsorship of this program is an example.

Fortunately in Denver, we also have other, albeit smaller, theatre companies producing and commissioning new work. The Curious Theatre is a prime example of the commitment to new work.

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