"The theater: that is to say, the theater of plays that sets out to be absorbing, entertaining, lively, and challenging; that discusses the predicament of our lives and our world in a way that is comic, tragic, tragic-comic or dramatic—a goal that is almost never fully achieved, though with a little luck, occasionally some parts of it are....When it is achieved, it changes our lives. It finds its way, almost unconsciously, into our manners, our thinking, our education. This has something to do with the living vibrations that take place, on a very personal, private level, between us as an audience at that moment and the actor who, at that moment, is spontaneously expressing some emotion to us. That moment can never happen exactly in the same way again. And it can never, ever, be truly reproduced in any other form."
--Robert Whitehead, Artistic Advisor (Remarks made at the Fund for New American Plays Awards Ceremony, October 5, 1994)
At the heart of the Kennedy Center Fund for American Plays lies a passion for the theatrical experience as expressed by Mr. Whitehead. The Fund's mission is to help ensure the continued vitality of American theater by supporting its emerging playwrights. "From the outset," founding Fund chairman Roger L. Stevens has noted, "our premise has been that high-quality productions of new plays will result in much better plays, larger and more enthusiastic audiences, and, ultimately, a new and invigorated generation of American theater."
The Fund was born in early 1985 when Andrew Heiskell, then chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, challenged fellow member (and Kennedy Center Chairman) Stevens to create an initiative that would respond to the needs of the American theater. At that time, money for new plays was drying up; in previous decades as many as 200 new plays had opened on Broadway each season, but by the mid-'80s as few as 10 were opening annually--and even as productions were becoming increasingly expensive to mount, funding for theaters was becoming more difficult to find. Audiences were turning more and more to film and television
Stevens accepted Heiskell's challenge,giving the new project priority status at the Kennedy Center and assembling a group of directors to develop funding. The Fund was launched with major funding by the American Express Company. The first group included the Times Mirror Foundation, the Evelyn Sharp Foundation, the Brown Foundation, the Lila Acheson Wallace Theater Fund, and the American Express Company. The first grants were awarded in October 1987; 196 plays had been submitted that first year alone.
The Kennedy Center has expanded its commitment to the Fund in recent seasons—instituting the Roger L. Stevens Award for playwrights whose work shows extraordinary promise, and occasionally presenting staged readings at the Center of new plays that have received the Fund's support. Additionally, the Charlotte Woolard Award was established in the name and memory of the longtime Kennedy Center Director of Protocol and Board Secretary who passed away in 1999. While it carries no monetary prize, it will be given annually to a promising new voice in the American Theater.
"The Fund is the only project of its kind in this country, open to every professional non-profit theater and encouraging the production of new works that will keep the American theater vibrant into the next century," Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser says.
In the Fund's early years, the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities--then under the leadership of executive director Diane Paton--provided fundraising expertise, guidance, and even secretarial and clerical help to the project. Of the approximately 100 plays submitted each year for the production grant, 20 are passed on to the Fund's panel of artistic advisors. These leading theater professionals volunteer their time and energy to serve, along with Kaiser, as the final selection committee, determining the recipients of the production grants as well as those of the Roger L. Stevens Award.
The Fund for New American Plays has contributed to an increased enthusiasm for new plays among theatergoers across the nation. Participating theaters report that their grants have generated new sources of local support and increased audiences, while playwrights and non-profit theaters across the country have been inspired to continue staging new work. So far, three plays supported by the Fund have received the Pulitzer Prize, and Fund recipients have been nominated for every award the theater has to offer.
Today, the imprimatur of a grant from the Fund can create a groundswell of interest in a play even after its initial production has completed its run. It is just this kind of commitment to the future of American theater that the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays set out to cultivate, and it has been gratifying to watch the Fund's efforts bear fruit in communities across the nation.
"The Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays is an integral part of the Center’s mission to support and develop new works in every performing arts discipline," said Kaiser. "One need only glance at the long list of past Fund recipients to recognize the importance of this continuing effort. The Kennedy Center is proud of its ongoing partnerships with artists and companies across America."
Now in its 15th year, the Fund has awarded grants totaling nearly $3.8 million to 114 playwrights and 55 not-for-profit theaters across the country, enabling them to mount premieres of 80 new plays. Past Fund recipients include Pulitzer Prize winners Tony Kushner for Angels in America, Robert Schenkkan for The Kentucky Cycle, and Wendy Wasserstein for The Heidi Chronicles. Other notable productions supported by the Fund include Incommunicado by Tom Dulack, The Last of the Thorntons by Horton Foote, and Golden Child by David Henry Hwang, which was co-produced by the Kennedy Center in Washington and on Broadway, and The Magic Fire by Lillian Garrett-Groag, which was seen at the Kennedy Center, and other prominent regional theaters, including The Guthrie Theatre and the Old Globe Theatre last season.
Initial screenings were made by a panel of readers who reviewed plays blindly, without knowledge of playwright or submitting theater. The final selection of grant recipients are made annually by a panel of theater professionals who volunteer as artistic advisors, currently including Libby Appel, artistic director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival; André Bishop, artistic director, Lincoln Center Theater; Michael David, producer of The King and I, The Who’s Tommy, Titanic, and Footloose; Gordon Davidson, artistic director, Mark Taper Forum; Gerald Freedman, dean of the school of drama at North Carolina School of the Arts; David Hawkanson, former managing director, The Guthrie Theater; Kenny Leon, artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theater; Emily Mann, artistic director, McCarter Theatre; Carey Perloff, artistic director of American Conservatory Theater; Mel Shapiro, playwright, director and author of "The Director’s Companion;" and Robert Whitehead, producer.
The Kennedy Center nurtures theater artists and new works by producing and commissioning new plays and musicals through programs such as the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays. The Center also regularly commissions major new works of dance, music, and children’s programs. The Kennedy Center has embarked on a 10-year First Decade Initiative that will produce a minimum of 10 works each year, forming a body of new creative work in the first decade of the new millennium. The 1999-2000 season began this project as the Center presented twelve new works in various performing arts disciplines including plays, ballets, orchestral compostitions, musicals, gospel, jazz, and dance.
The Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays is presented with the support of Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.
Countrywide Home Loans Inc., the nation’s leading independent residential mortgage lender and servicer, is recognized as an innovator in developing new financial products and services. Since its inception in 1969, Countrywide’s goal has been to help Americans own their own homes.
The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation is a U.S.-based foundation providing support for the performing arts, museums, Jewish welfare, hospitals and higher education.
The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities is a presidential advisory committee that fosters public interest and increased private support for cultural activities.
In early 1985, the President’s Committee challenged member Roger Stevens to create a program that would respond to the critical needs of the American theater. Mr. Stevens, who was named chairman of the Fund for New American Plays, assembled a group of founding directors, who created the project with support from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and American Express Company.