Interview: David Henry Hwang Talks Winning the 'Mimi Award', Its $200,000 Prize and More!

Interview: David Henry Hwang Talks Winning the 'Mimi Award', Its $200,000 Prize and More!On October 29, 2012, The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust will award playwright David Henry Hwang with the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award at the 5th Annual Steinberg Playwright "Mimi" Awards. What makes the awards unique in our field, is that they promote theatre by awarding a cash award of $200,000 along with "The Mimi," a statuette designed by Tony Award-nominated scenic designer and architect David Rockwell. The Steinberg Playwright Awards take place annually, alternating between Steinberg Playwright Awards and Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Awards, which honor and encourage the artistic excellence and achievement of an American playwright whose body of work has made significant contributions to the American theater.

We spoke to the talented (and thrilled) playwright to get his take on winning the award and how he's going to spend these next two years working on theatrical works. 

Let's start at the beginning… The award was announced this August, was it an organization that you were already familiar with before you got the call?

Yes, absolutely. When the Mimis first started being given and the first year when Tony (Kushner) first got the award, all of us in the field became very aware of this incredibly large and life changing award that was out there.

And how will this award, and the cash prize change the next couple of years of your life?

I think that those of us, are fortunate enough to have kind of established careers, and who have been doing this for a while… I don't really know anybody who supports themselves being a playwright alone. 

So, you have to find other ways to make a living and to have a day job really. For some people that's academia, for some people that's commercial work or for writing for film and television and it's great to be able to put together a life like that… 

But, doing the 'day job' does take away from time to work on plays, so I feel this affords me a substantial window to just focus on my theatre work. That's fantastic.

You mentioned becoming aware after Tony Kushner who was the first recipient, followed by Lynn Nottage in 2010. What's it like being in their company?

Being in their company means being part of a very distinguished group of playwrights and it's wonderful to be part of that. And, at the same time, in our field, I think that a number of my colleagues would be worthy of it as well. I think it's great that they plan to give it every two years, so presumably others will be acknowledged as well. For whatever reason, I've been singled out this year to receive this and it's an INCREDIBLE blessing. There's no real proper response other than immense gratitude.

It does seem to come at a perfect time, because you've recently announced a new residency at the Signature Theatre...

It's kind of great timing that the Steinberg Award coincides with my time at Signature because I will be doing three plays over the next year or so and this will be a big help.

Tell us about those thre

To start, we're doing two older plays. We're in rehearsal right now for GOLDEN CHILD, which is a play that we did at the Public and then on Broadway in the late 90s.

Are you making any changes?

Yes, I've made a fair amount of rewrites on it. It's like working – it's not quite like doing a new play, but it's great to have the time to be able to pay attention to it.

The second play is DANCE OF THE RAILROAD, which is a show that ran at the Public in 1981 and I guess was considered my hit before M. BUTTERFLY, and that's a show that I wrote when I was 23. I have a feeling that I'm not going to mess with that one too much. It's kind of like a psychic snapshot of yourself when you're younger. Even if you look at pictures of yourself in high school, that's who you were back then. We'll see.

And, there's a new play, KUNG FU, inspired by the life of Bruce Lee that we're writing right now.

Word is also out that you're working on a new musical as well, which is very exciting – THE FORGOTTEN ARM?

I've been working with the singer-songwriter Aimee Mann and her writing partner Paul Bryan on a musical based around Aimee's album – The Forgotten Arm, which is kind of about addiction. We're working on that at the Public. That's exciting and I'll have more time to focus on that too.

You've had the privilege of working on TV, films, opera, plays, musicals, what's it like switching genres?

I think it uses different muscles. They're sort of similar tasks, but you do use different muscles. A lot of this I think has to do with who holds the primary artistic vision in the different genres. So, if I do a play, it's my vision and everybody else is working on the production to support that. If I do an opera, I feel like part of my job is to support that composer, to try and create something that allows the composer to do his or her best work. In movies, it's usually the director. With a musical, you kind of have to do a mind-meld with the book-writer, the lyricist, the composer, the director – sometimes the producer. I think that's a reason why musicals are the hardest form.

Do you have a preference or is it whatever your working on at the moment?

I think that they all have their joys and challenges. I think that plays are probably the most personal, because it's just me in charge, but sometimes it's just really – I think that there's honor in being a good artist and there's honor in being a good 'craftsperson.' Sometimes it's nice to come into a situation where it's nice to not be the one in charge and you are just there to support someone else's vision. That's fun too.

Congratulations again and we'll see you on the 29th!

Thank you! 

David Henry Hwang's work includes the plays M. BUTTERFLY, CHINGLISH, YELLOW FACE, GOLDEN CHILD, THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, and FOB, as well as the Broadway musicals AIDA (co-author), FLOWER DRUM SONG (2002 revival) and TARZAN.  As America's most-produced living opera librettist, his works include four pieces with composer Philip Glass and Osvaldo Golijov's AINADAMAR (two 2007 Grammy Awards). Hwang is a Tony Award winner and three-time nominee, a three-time Obie Award winner and a two-time Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He received the 2011 PEN/Laura Pels and 2012 William Inge Awards, and is currently the Residency One Playwright at NYC's Signature Theatre, which will produce three of his plays, including his newest work, KUNG FU. Hwang serves on the boards of the Dramatists Guild, Lark Play Development Center, American Theatre Wing, and Actors Fund, and recently became President of Young Playwrights Inc. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, actress Kathryn Layng, and their two children.

The Steinberg Playwright Awards and the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Awards are presented in alternate years.    The Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award honors the artistic achievement of a playwright whose work has made a significant impact on American theater. The Steinberg Playwright Award is awarded to playwrights who exhibit exceptional talent and tremendous promise in earlier stages of their careers.    

Past recipients are:

Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award

Steinberg Playwright Award

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust was created by Harold Steinberg in 1986 in the names of himself and his late wife Miriam.  The Trust's primary mission is to support and promote the American theater as a vital part of our culture by nurturing American Playwrights, encouraging the development and production of new American plays, and by providing significant support to theater companies across the country.

Since its inception, the Trust has given in excess of $65 million to more than one hundred not-for-profit theater organizations.  These gifts have funded countless productions, as well as the commissioning of playwrights, playwriting programs and arts-in-education outreach programs for thousands of children in an effort to create and educated new generations of theatergoers.

The Trust also collaborated with the American Theater Critics Association to create and fund the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.  The award is presented annually during the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theater of Louisville.  Recent winners of this award include Craig Lucas, Lynn Nottage, Lee Blessing and Nilo Cruz.