By Frank Moher
The Governor General’s Award finalists were announced on Tuesday and, as usual, I looked at the drama list and sighed. Not because I wasn’t on it — I didn’t have anything eligible — but because I was reminded once again that we don’t have a proper playwriting award in this country.
Now, let me hasten to say that I congratulate those who’ve been nominated and am happy for them. I’ve been a finalist for the English-language Drama Award myself, and it’s a fine thing. It’s a welcome reward after all those hours at the computer and in rehearsal, it’s a great PR boost, and it may even change your life a little bit
The problem is that the GG is a book award. The only plays eligible for it are ones that have found their way into print in the previous 13 months. That means it’s chosen from a relatively small pool of contenders, especially as compared with the books in other categories. This year, publishers submitted 230 books in the English-language fiction category, 215 in non-fiction, and 170 in poetry. In drama? 39. The numbers are similar in the French-language categories: 173 in fiction, 104 in poetry, 69 in non-fiction, 22 in drama.
There are even strange strictures on eligibility, such as the one dictating that the books must be at least 48 pages long. That rules out the majority of plays published as chapbooks, which is actually a more sensible way to sell plays, unless, of course, you’re looking to make big bucks in the academic market. Needless to say, it also rules out plays that are published online only, which is, in my view, an even more sensible way to do the job. (That’s why I run a site called ProPlay.) But that’s an argument for another time.
So, the GG isn’t an award for the best Canadian play of the last 13 months; it’s for the best one that managed to get put between covers and published in a font large enough to highjump it past the 48 page mark. This out of, what — 100? 200? new Canadian plays produced in any given year? And inevitably the English-language award favours those that have been produced in Toronto, as publishers figure — quite rightly — that that’s where the biggest market is. A quick check of this year’s finalists will confirm, as it so often does, that this is the case.
What’s needed is a national playwriting award based on scripts — not books, scripts — that have been premiered in Canada in the previous year. In this it would be like the American Pulitzer Prize for Drama, although, unlike the Pulitzer, which is also notoriously metrocentric, going as it does nearly every year to a play that’s been seen in New York, our award will have to be properly administered. Basing it on the script of the play, not its production, will be necessary because nobody’s going to foot the bill for a flying squad of jurors ready and able to drop everything and jet off to the latest premiere in Whitehorse (even if such a jury existed). But it will also remove the problem of the production making the play look better or worse than it is. So, just text on paper (or a computer screen). Earlier this year I sat on the jury for the Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award for Drama, administered by the Writers Guild of Alberta, and that’s how it works. There’s no reason the concept can’t be extended nationwide.
Personally, I think awards are pretty silly (even when I sit on the jury). But if we’re going to have them, let’s do them properly. I was reminded today, with the announcement of the nominees for the Carol Bolt Award, that the Playwrights Guild of Canada has the beginnings of the sort of award I’m thinking about. It’s limited to PGC members — that doesn’t work — and plays produced in “professional” theatres — dodgy, subject to interpretation — and it’ll need a good topping up of the $3000 prize to draw the sort of attention the GG does. But it’s a start.
Meantime, I think I’ll start looking around for a wealthy patron who’s itching to endow something. Anybody have a number for David Mirvish?
Frank Moher is a playwright and the editor of backofthebook.ca