Stage Left: the Smith Prize for Political Theater

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By Timothy Jay Smith

It was 2006 and playwright August Wilson needed a producer. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner had died a year earlier, and it looked like the last installment in his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle chronicling the black experience in America during the twentieth century might be buried with him – or certainly there was a good chance it wouldn’t reach a New York stage. Americans simply weren’t in a soul-searching mood. They didn’t want to be reminded of the two useless wars they were fighting, or the bogus Bush Presidency, or rising sea levels. They wanted to be entertained and Broadway’s producers willingly abetted them. The Golden Age of musicals had arrived, with packed houses of theatregoers thumbing through Playbills for The Lion King, Hairspray, and Wicked, while dramas were few, frequently revivals, and always safe. Little challenged the public’s complacency or provoked a contradictory thought, and certainly nothing asked us to confront the burning issues of the day.

To me, it was like Nero playing his violin while Rome burned.Smith Prize - Greek Statue

 

 

 

By nature, I am a political animal. Sure I enjoy foot-tapping showstoppers, but I am equally entertained by books, movies and plays that make me think. And, it’s those thoughtful pieces that stay with me long after my foot has stopped tapping to the latest popular ditty. In 2006, there was hardly a play on or off Broadway that I wanted to see, let alone a play with serious political content. I decided to do something about that.

With the support of a handful of socially-conscious donors, I established the Smith Prize to encourage playwrights to write political theater. Arguably almost anything can be interpreted as ‘political’, so originally eligible plays had to, in some manner, address at least one of the questions: Who are we as Americans? What are we becoming? What are our global responsibilities? While those questions have been replaced by defining political theater as addressing concerns that effect the American body politic, the prize has always favored plays that tell intimate stories driven by bigger picture events.

Initially the Smith Prize was a $5,000 award evenly divided between the playwright and the first theater to mount a full production of the winning play. The intention has always been to get the plays on stage, not simply reward playwrights for well-written pieces that will never be seen by the public. From the outset, the prize struck a chord with playwrights, with close to three hundred submissions the first year. Though that number subsequently dropped as playwrights better understood the prize’s objectives, the range of topics remains impressive; among them, stories of war, racism, corruption, and immigration told from the perspectives of simple people whose lives are profoundly changed by political events.

All of the Smith Prize plays have gone on to successful productions, but none has made it as far as the 2012 winner, Grounded, by George Brant, a one-woman show about a fighter pilot who is ‘grounded’ after she becomes pregnant. Eventually she returns to the battlefield, but by then, her assignment is to fly sorties over Afghanistan by piloting drones from the safe distance of a trailer parked in Las Vegas. Grounded examines what is asked emotionally of today’s soldiers, who fight wars and drop bombs from thousands of miles away, yet see their destruction with an acuity made possible by technology which no warriors have ever witnessed before. Brant’s play has racked up accolades across the U.S., including The New York Times, and was selected by England’s prestigious newspaper, The Guardian, as one of the top ten plays in London last year. All the praise has been justified. Here’s only one passage from this tremendously powerful work:

Hard to go home tonight
The desert isn’t long enough
Still have bodies in my head
I circle the block a few times
Hope Eric isn’t looking out the window
Then I pull up and the door opens and the happy family greets their hero home from the war
Every day
Every day
Every day they greet me home from the war

It would be a different book
The Odyssey
If Odysseus came home every day
Every single day
A very different book

The Smith Prize has evolved since its inception, from an award for an existing play into a commission to write a new one. It has also doubled in value to $10,000, which provides a $5,000 grant to write a play based on the winning competitive proposal, $2,500 for the play’s further development through readings and workshops, and $2,500 to the first theater to produce it. Crucial to making the Smith Prize possible is raising $2,500 from private donors, meaning that every dollar donated is matched three-to-one by me and the National New Play Network, which administers the Smith Prize.

No doubt if Odysseus had come home every day, his story would have made a very different book. No doubt, too, if people thought about and acted on the critical issues of our time, the world would be very different. Ultimately that was my goal in creating the Smith Prize for Political Theater: to encourage people to act, individually and collectively, to make our world a better place for all of us.

For more information on the Smith Prize, or to make a donation to it, please visit: http://www.nnpn.org/about/programs/smith-prize. No gift is too small.

Timothy Jay Smith, a member of the Paris Writers Group, is also the author of Cooper’s Promise and A Vision of Angels.

Crystalens and Double Z Syndrome: When a Writer’s Eyes Go Bad

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By Mary Duncan

“Double Z Syndrome” sounds like the title of a thriller. But it’s not. It’s what happened to my eyes after what was supposed to be routine cataract surgery.

My doctor in La Jolla, California, recommended Crystalens by Bausch & Lomb, as being the latest lens for replacing cataracts with an added bonus. I probably wouldn’t have to wear glasses. Vanity won out. I’d been wearing glasses for over thirty years and the thought of getting rid of them was worth the additional price of $3600.

Prior to surgery I did some research. Crystalens were designed by Bausch & Lomb in 2004. They are designed to move with your eye. In order to do so, they are shaped like a pair of glasses with only one lens. That single lens has two arms attached with small hinges, just like regular glasses. It looks like a “U”. This tiny Crystalens is inserted into your eye and only takes around twenty-five minutes. Local anesthesia is used. The surgery was fast and painless. A piece of cake as we say.

The first surgery was on March 19, 2013. The second was on April 2, 2013. Even after the first procedure, my improved eyesight was miraculous. I was thrilled. With my doctor’s permission, I flew to Paris on April 16 to continue research on a new book.

All was well until the morning of April 26. When I woke up, my eyes were very blurry. I could still read but was very far-sighted. In order to see the 40 inch television screen clearly, I had to sit two feet in front of it. Subway and street signs were difficult to read unless I was very close to them. Poor depth perception made me very unstable on stairs. I couldn’t differentiate between six inches and two feet. I was unsteady on my feet and couldn’t see red and green traffic lights. I absolutely could not drive a car.

I couldn’t go out at night alone. I hired a young woman to help with computer related work, shopping and accompanying me to evening events. All work on my book stopped. I started using taxis and then due to less exercise, gained weight. As a partial solution, I ordered temporary glasses, which cost $650 due to the severe astigmatism.

The depression caused by my eye problems increased as my dependence on other people became a daily necessity.

After I emailed my doctor, he increased the doses of Durezol, a cortisone eye drop. Of course, he would see me but I was in France. In desperation, I saw a French optometrist. He said drops would not help. I needed glasses but it was too soon to prescribe them. He said my vision was too impaired for me to fly to California alone. I might hurt myself by falling over luggage or stairs. I sent the results to my La Jolla doctor who also recommended corrective lenses.

Bausch & Lomb France was notified of my problems. They quickly referred me to an excellent French eye surgeon at Cochin Hospital in Paris. He diagnosed the “Z Syndrome” in both eyes. Basically, the Crystalens had buckled and were at an angle. One of the arms on each lens had flipped over backwards, forming a “Z.” No one would say what caused it, but apparently this was not a new problem with Crystalens.

DoubleZSyndrome

My options were a laser treatment called a Y.A.G.; inserting a capsular ring, trying to correct the hinge and reposition the Crystalens; removing the Crystalens and inserting a monofocal lens. All had possible serious side affects.

I wanted them out. I felt like I had two time bombs in my eyes.

On July 18, my French surgeon removed 90 % of the Crystalens in my right eye. He left in the haptics or end legs of the lens because they had adhered to my eye and were outside the capsular bag. He inserted an Alcon monofocal lens. My vision improved immediately but my eyes were still very tired due to the left eye. I still could not fly.

Since my surgeon was going on vacation in August, we waited until September 10 to operate on the left eye. Everything went well. I now use +300 glasses for reading. My distance vision is normal.

Fortunately, I have excellent U.S. health insurance, which covered most of my medical expenses. The total cost for a tourist using the French eye clinic and surgeon was $4000 per eye. Viva la France. The cost in La Jolla for the original eye surgery was about $11,500 per eye.

When I included the cost of the Crystalens that were removed, my out-of-pocket expenses were about $6000 for the temporary glasses, assistant and taxis.

Prior to surgery, not being an expert on the subject, I didn’t ask the right questions. Instead, I read the Bausch & Lomb brochures which my doctor gave me. He said I was a good candidate. My French surgeon, who performs about 600 cataract operations each year, had a different opinion.

Last year, he only used Crystalens on forty patients who had very small eyes. He said this leaves very little room for the Crystalens to move or form the Z Syndrome. He now uses photos of my eyes at medical conferences to inform other doctors about these risks.

Before you agree to any major medical product or procedure, be sure to search the subject on the internet, such as, “Crystalens problems or complaints.” Dozens and dozens of complaints will flood the screen. One site advocated a class action suit.

Double Z Syndrome is not a thriller. It is very serious and I’m fortunate to have a positive outcome, apart from the cost, pain and suffering and the delay in completing my book.

The end.

Biographer Noel Riley Fitch Visits the Paris Writers Group

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by Mary Duncan

If you are sensitive to the naked truth, then beware. Naked is the proper word to describe Noel Riley Fitch’s comments about Sylvia Beach, Anais Nin and Julia Child. This month, Noel who was our special guest at PWG, shared some surprises she discovered while researching her biographical subjects. She spent ten years researching and writing each of her three biographies, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, The Erotic Life of Anais Nin and Appetite for Life.

Samuel Beckett was her most intimidating interview. She sat across from him and thought to herself, “Oh, my God, That’s Samuel Beckett. He had beautiful blue eyes and was very shy.” When she asked him about James Joyce, he smiled and opened up. Beckett even remembered Joyce’s phone number. Noel taped all of her interviews and recommends we do the same. Another interview about Sylvia Beach was not as successful.

While interviewing Janet Flanner, Noel realized that Janet’s memories were blurred. She only salvaged one quote from Janet. Sylvia Beach “did not stop to see if her hat was on straight….She knew by feeling.”

Noel also interviewed Jacques Benoit-Méchin who was a translator and collaborationist during the war. He barely escaped the death sentence. When she arrived at his home, she was greeted by a maid who escorted her into his beautiful study where he was wearing a morning coat. Instead of trying to hide his collaborationist activities, he had a large display of the 1936 Olympics on his walls. He had insisted on Noel bringing a translator. As they left, he pointedly spoke to them in fluent English.

The erotic aspects of Julia Child surprised her. Julia enjoyed sex more than Anais Nin. Paul, Julia’s husband, wrote about their enjoyment of sex. Her appetite for food and sex were linked. Julia came from an affluent family in Pasadena, California. Both Julia and her husband worked for the OSS which was the predecessor to the CIA. They were clearly in love and had a very successful marriage. Noel said, “the only thing dirty about Julia was her pots and pans.” In an interesting twist, it was Paul who introduced Julia to Henry Miller’s books.

Nin wrote about sex and then did it. Nin used writing as a form of seduction. Noel interviewed one of Nin’s lovers who was recommended by Mary Dearborn, who wrote The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller. Nin’s lover had a collection of erotica that included a series of “one handed readers” that young writers wrote for one dollar a page. Prior to the interview, Dearborn warned Noel to bring along Bert, her husband. That was good advice Noel said. When she arrived, Nin’s former lover who was overweight, had his bare belly hanging over his unzipped pants that were held together with a safety pin. When she asked him what it was like to sleep with Anais Nin, he replied, “Nin would put her mouth on any warm appendage.”

Noel also learned that while in Paris, Nin aborted Henry Miller’s baby. As an adult, she had a sexual relationship with her father who abandoned the family when she was a child. Noel concluded that as a young woman, Anais was very naive about her own sexuality. “Once she started having sex, she never stopped…For Nin, seduction was a power trip.”

Noel has completed a biography about Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who was the young mistress of Louis XV. He insisted on meeting her after he saw Francois Boucher’s famous painting of “her bottom” (1752), that was painted when she was fourteen years old. Marie-Louise only escaped the guillotine because she was Irish.

Noel said being a biographer yielded some personal surprises. She met and became friends with biographers Mary Dearborn and Erica Jong.