A Coveted Prize, a Touching Tribute

Susan Smith Blackburn ’55’s passion for the theater lives on

by Mika Provata-Carlone

What was meant as a touching tribute has turned into one of the most prestigious and meaningful prizes for women in contemporary drama—the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. It was established in 1978 in memory of Susan Smith Blackburn ’55 by her husband, William Blackburn, and her sister, Emilie (Mimi) Smith Kilgore ’57, as a token of a life, but also as a powerful inspiration and thrilling incentive for women to write plays—to create, by means of words, action, and the presence of a stage, that incredible communion of humanity that theater is all about.

Blackburn herself was a passionate dramatist and actress, and a student of Uta Hagen, one of the most gifted and evocative actresses. Blackburn died of breast cancer in 1977.Susan Blackburn

The prize is given annually to a female playwright who has written a play of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theater. The winner receives $20,000, and each finalist receives $1,000.

This year, as a global celebration of the 35th anniversary of the prize, 75 productions, which have been recognized by the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, are being staged around the world, and more events are in the offing—a powerful testimony to the centrality of women’s contribution to the art of playwriting.

Many of the finalists and winners and have gone on to receive other honors, including Tony Awards. Seven have received the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, including Wit, by Margaret Edson ’83, a 1994 Blackburn Prize finalist.

Judges and readers throughout the years have included the most enthralling people in the theater. It has been the unflinching aim of the directors of the Blackburn Prize that its prestige and credentials should be unquestioned at every level, and that it, in fact, should set the standards for excellence and for thoughtful, creative force.

In the words of Kilgore, “Every single year the prize ceremony is exciting; there are always discoveries. These women have the scope and the imagination that my sister had. The prize, therefore, is not only a tribute to Susan—in a sense, it is the fulfilment of her promise.”

Mika Provata-Carlone holds a doctorate in comparative literature (classics and modern languages) from Princeton University. She is an independent scholar, editor, and translator, and lives in London with her husband and her daughter.