Dramatists Guild Foundation Announces 2020 Stephen Schwartz and Thom Thomas Award Winners

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Dramatists Guild Foundation Announces 2020 Stephen Schwartz and Thom Thomas Award Winners

Dramatists Guild Foundation (DGF) has announced this year's recipients of the Stephen Schwartz and Thom Thomas Awards. Khiyon Hursey is the recipient of the Stephen Schwartz Award for his promise as a musical theater writer. Erika Dickerson-Despenza, Julia Meinwald, and Benjamin Velez are the first multiple honorees of the Thom Thomas Award for their great artistic skill and proposed use of the grant.

As we all turn to writers in this moment, we are so grateful to be able to celebrate exceptional writing talent and provide these financial awards through the enduring generosity of Iris Rainer Dart, Helen Lee Henderson, Nancy Rose, Marc Platt, Janis Purins, Stephen Schwartz, and David Stone," Rachel Routh, DGF Executive Director, said. "Theaters are closed, but writers are still writing. They will write us into the future, and I am so excited to see what Khiyon, Erika, Julia, and Benjamin create next."

The Stephen Schwartz Award is a pledge to the future of musical theater. Selected by a private committee of composers and industry leaders, the $10,000 Award is given annually to a musical theatre writer whose voice is seen as critical to the continued success of the craft. The Award recipient is granted $10,000 in unconditional support of their work. The Stephen Schwartz Award debuted last year, with Oliver Houser as its first recipient.

"Khiyon is an extremely talented composer and writer," Stephen Schwartz said." I find his work to be intelligent and inventive, original, highly theatrical, emotionally compelling, and his music has a very strong personal voice. I am extremely proud to present him this honor."

Khiyon Hursey is a former DGF Fellow who got his start as the music assistant on the off-Broadway and Broadway productions and the Grammy Award Winning Cast Album of HAMILTON, after graduating from Berklee College of Music with a degree in Songwriting. In addition to the Stephen Schwartz Award, he is the recipient of the ASCAP Foundation's Irving Burgie Scholarship, Bart Howard Songwriting Scholarship, a 2016 NAMT Writers Grant, a 2016 - 2017 Dramatists Guild Foundation Fellow, 2017 Space on Ryder Farm Residency, 2018 Johnny Mercer Songwriter's Project residency, 2019 ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop with Stephen Schwartz, 2019 Rhinebeck Writer's Retreat and the 2020 Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed Musicals. He has worked as a staff writer for Netflix's romantic musical drama, SOUNDTRACK and is currently co-writing LOVE IN AMERICA, a movie musical to be produced by Issa Rae at Universal.

Since 2016, DGF has awarded the Thom Thomas Award to an alumnus of the Fellows program and commemorates playwright Thom Thomas's endless passion for nurturing the next generation of dramatists and his appreciation of DGF's support of writers. Traditionally, the Award is granted to one writer for $10,000. In response to the current global crisis and state of the theater industry, DGF and the Awards committee chose to honor three recipients this year with a grant of $4,000 each. The 2020 Thom Thomas Awards are made possible through the generous support of Iris Rainer Dart and Janis Purins. Past recipients are: Riti Sachdeva (2019); Stefanie Zadravec (2018); Sylvan Oswald (2017); and Chisa Hutchinson (2016).

"Thom Thomas loved thoughtful and innovative theatre, and that makes it a joy and an honor to give this award in his memory," Iris Rainer Dart said. "The committee, including Thom's husband, Janis Purins, all agreed the writing samples this year were the best ones yet. To meet the moment, this year's award was divided among three excellent playwrights instead of being given to one. All of the work was of the highest quality and we feel fortunate to be able to commend the writers in this way."

"Every one of this year's applicants demonstrated impressive skills and talent, reflecting the caliber of the Fellows program and making the final selection an almost impossible task. But the winning recipients' submissions stood out with their unique qualities: Erika for embarking on an ambitious 10-play cycle inspired by an existential event; Julia for composing an immersive soundscape; and Benjamin for his theatrical and disarming music and lyrics that cast an unexpected light on a difficult topic. During this especially bleak time for dramatists, when theatre closures have put a stop to sources of income, we hope that others will be inspired to donate to DGF," Janis Purins added.

Erika Dickerson-Despenza is a Blk, queer feminist poet-playwright and cultural/memory worker from Chicago, Illinois. She's a 2020 L. Arnold Weissberger Award Finalist, the recipient of the 2019 Princess Grace Playwriting Award and the 2019-2020 Tow Playwright-in-Residence at The Public Theater, where she is also under commission. Erika is a 2020 Grist 50 Fixer and was a National Arts & Culture Delegate for the U.S. Water Alliance's One Water Summit 2019. Residences and fellowships include: New York Stage and Film Fellow-in-Residence (2019), New Harmony Project Writer-in-Residence (2019), Dramatists Guild Foundation Fellow (2018-2019) and The Lark Van Lier New Voices Fellow (2018). Erika's work has also been developed at Vineyard Arts Project, The Public Theater, Victory Gardens Theater, Fault Line Theatre and Jackalope Theatre. She is a 2019-2020 member of Ars Nova Play Group and a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre's Obie-winning Youngblood collective. In addition to cullud wattah (2019 Kilroys List; originally slated at The Public Theater, 2020; Victory Gardens Theater, 2021), Erika is developing a 10-play Katrina Cycle, including shadow/land and [hieroglyph] (2019 Kilroys List), focused on the effects of Hurricane Katrina and its state-sanctioned, man-made disaster.

Julia Meinwald is a composer for musical theatre and opera (and the occasional film and computer game score). Musicals with her collaborator Gordon Leary include Pregnancy Pact, REB + VoDKa + Me, The Magnificent Seven, Something Blue, and The Loneliest Girl in the World. She also collaborated with Sara Cooper and Amy Burgess on Elevator Heart. Julia and Gordon write aggressively empathetic shows that help them understand completely foreign points of view, like Anita Bryant's anti-gay-rights crusade or teenage girls who decide to get pregnant together. Her shows have been professionally produced at the Weston Playhouse, Flint Repertory, and Diversionary Theatre, and licensed to colleges and small theatre groups around the US and in Canada. She's developed work with the Dramatists Guild, Page 73, Ars Nova, Fresh Ground Pepper, The Civilians, 92Y, New Dramatists, American Lyric Theatre, and exciting acronyms like MTF, NAMT, NYMF, and YIMT. Julia is a Larson, Rodgers, and Billie Burke award finalist, and her work has received support from the Anna Sosenko trust, Opera America's Discovery Grant, the DGF's Writers Alliance Grant, NAMT's Frank Young Grant, and the NEA. Julia holds a BA in Music from Yale and an MFA from NYU Tisch's GMTWP.

Benjamin Velez is a composer/lyricist and Columbia graduate (114th Varsity Show), born and raised in Miami, FL. Proud member of the BMI workshop (2012 Harrington Award), his work has been at MTF, Ars Nova, NAMT, NEO, The Civilians, 4@15, and Joe's Pub. He was a Sundance Artist at the UCROSS Foundation, and his musical Afterland was developed at YIMT and the York Theater. He developed Starblasters at Dixon Place and will workshop it at Manhattan School of Music in 2021. His musical Borderline won the 2018 Weston Playhouse New Musical Award and was workshopped at the 2019 O'Neill Musical Theater Conference. He was a 2018-2019 Dramatist Guild Foundation Fellow, the 2019 Fred Ebb Award Winner, and a 2020 Jonathan Larson Grant recipient. His musical Kiss My Aztec, written with John Leguizamo, Tony Taccone, and David Kamp, had its world premiere at Berkeley Rep (2019), followed by a run at the La Jolla Playhouse (Fall 2019).

For more information on how to support theater writers, visit DGF.org.


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