The Columbia University Libraries instituted the $100,000 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History for a new play or musical that explores America’s past.
Edward “Ted” Kennedy died in 2009 as the fourth-longest-serving senator in U.S. history, maintaining his position as Massachusetts senator for nearly 47 years. The award was established by Kennedy’s sister, former United States Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, and playwright Tony Kushner, CC ’78.
“It’s an extraordinary privilege and opportunity for us to collaborate with a whole series of individuals on a worthwhile project,” Michael Ryan, director of the Rare Books and Manuscript Library, said.
Six months ago, Kushner approached University President Lee Bollinger about the prize, which he and Smith had been working on for the past two years. As a Columbia College graduate, it was Kushner’s wish that the University handle the logistics of nomination and distribution.
“The two of them really shaped the nature of the prize, however, to memorialize the late Senator Kennedy,” Ryan said. “So Columbia’s role in this is really administrative.”
He reiterated that Columbia’s role is to support the process, “make it happen, and happen well.”
But for Smith, this is a deeply personal project, which she said reflects her family’s commitment to the arts.
“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 Teddy, for musical theater,” Smith said in a statement.
“He was an insatiable student of American history, and, of course, he devoted his life to public service ... 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.”
Smith is the last surviving child of Joseph Kennedy and Rose Kennedy, whose children, President John F. Kennedy, New York senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, and Ted, notably, remain important figures in American political history.
The winning play or musical will be chosen by a panel of judges that includes three playwrights, two musical theater writers, two American history, political science, or literature scholars, and President Bollinger. The panel will evaluate recommendations from a nominating group comprised of 20 drama and theater professionals from across the nation.
Since history can be broadly defined, Ryan said, it is up to each of the nominators to decide how to “interpret the mission of the prize.” He said that although there are some guidelines on the prize’s website, “the art of it will be for the nominators to tease out what that [history] means.”
Kushner and Smith’s intent is for the submissions and nominations “to really reflect serious engagements with American history,” Ryan added. The winning piece will also serve as “a sweep of American history that informs that moment,” citing Kushner’s treatment of the AIDS epidemic in his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Angels in America.”
The Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning will put a special set of web applications and web pages about the winning entry online after it is announced on Feb. 22, Sen. Kennedy’s birthday. Ryan said that the online media will “both give you the text of the winning play or musical, perhaps, where copyright is possible, snippets of the production and the production itself, accompanied by critical commentary and some didactic guides for use by teachers and faculty in high schools and colleges on how to use the play for teaching purposes.”
This teaching component, Ryan said, was “the icing on the cake” for the creators of the prize. They “want this to be taken seriously, incorporated in the classroom, used, studied, in effect to create a conversation among students about some of the issues raised in the play,” he said.
In addition to the educational website, there will also be workshops and seminars at Columbia about the play or musical that is selected.