Theatrical “Genius”: The MacArthur Fellowship

David Cromer

This Monday, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation revealed the 23 MacArthur Fellows for 2012. Colloquially known as “genius” grants, the MacArthur Fellowships award each recipient $500,000 in five $100,000 annual installments.  The award carries no proscriptions for required work, the MacArthur Foundation merely intending to “provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their creative activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements.”  The financial support is intended to relieve any limitations on the fellows pursing their most innovative ideas. These Fellowships are considered by many to be the highest form of recognition for excellence in creativity, and Fellows from all fields in the arts and sciences are eligible.  While there were no theatre artists awarded in 2012, the Foundation does have a long history of recognizing some of the world’s most innovative theatremakers.

 There is no formal application process for the MacArthur Fellowships.  Rather, a continually rotating group of anonymous nominators submit several hundreds of names for recognition throughout the year, without notifying the nominees.  A twelve-person selection committee whittles these hundreds of names down, with many nominees being reviewed over several years.  The twelve committee members, serving for three years apiece, each possess a depth of knowledge in at least one specific field, with familiarity and enthusiasm in a broad range of other fields.  The selection committee ultimately chooses 20-25 nominees to award each year.
The new Fellows are notified by a phone call the day before the announcement, phone calls that are often met with incredulity and denial by the recipient due to the secrecy of the nomination process.  2003 Fellow Jim Collins described dismissing his phone call as a prank from an old college roommate before he eventually called a number given to him by the mysterious caller that went to the MacArthur Foundation itself, who confirmed his award.
David Cromer is the most recent theatre artist to become a MacArthur Fellow, back in 2010.  Cromer is a freelance theatre director from Chicago who had opened his revival of Our Town to widespread acclaim off-Broadway in 2009. Known for his revivals of classic American plays, Cromer has recently directed Nina Raime’s Tribes in New York and Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, both to positive critical reception. Cromer described his MacArthur award as relief in that it allowed him to no longer have to take jobs just for the sake of paying the rent.
 Jennifer Tipton
Jennifer Tipton’s lighting for the Royal Ballet production of Balanchine’s Rubies

In 2008, Jennifer Tipton, a lighting designer, received a MacArthur Fellowship.  She has won two Tony Awards, one for Andrei Serban’s take on The Cherry Orchardand another for lighting the revue Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.  She also has a long history of working with dance groups and more avant-garde collaborators such as Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group.

 Nottage Ruined
La Jolla Playhouse’s production of Nottage’s Ruined

Lynn Nottage, an American playwright known for her stories of women of the African Diaspora, received her MacArthur grant in 2007.  Her Fellowship coincided with her breakthrough play,Ruined, for which she also received a Pulitzer Prize.  Nottage hoped that her MacArthur recognition would open the doors for other black women playwrights, that they might not have quite as many barriers to getting plays produced as she encountered.

Anastasia Munoz and Jonathan Brooks
in Undermain’s production of Eurydice

Sarah Ruhl, whose script Eurydice was produced by Undermain in 2008, received her MacArthur Fellowship in 2006.  The Foundation described her as a “playwright creating vivid and adventurous theatrical works that poignantly juxtapose the mundane aspects of daily life with mythic themes of love and war.” The award seems to be an implicit recognition for Ruhl’s work in Eurydice,Passion Play, and Orlando, all works which feature the playwright’s simple, quotidian, and highly visual language used by characters who find themselves in mythic stories.  Since receiving her MacArthur grant, Ruhl has become one of the most produced playwrights each year, with her recent comedy In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) receiving a local production at Kitchen Dog Theater.

 Topdog Underdog
Don Cheadle and Jeffery Wright
in The Public Theater’s premiere of Topdog/Underdog

Suzan-Lori Parks received a MacArthur grant in 2001 on the verge of the opening of her play Topdog/Underdog, a drama about black identity and fraternal conflict that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.  One of the most distinctive voices in contemporary playwrighting, Parks’ Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom received a 1992 Undermain production. Works such as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and The America Play have become, along withTopdog/Underdog, revered modern classics.  Receiving the MacArthur Fellowship allowed Parks to embark on her 365 Days/365 Plays project where she wrote one play each day. The scripts, each a few pages long, run a gamut of topics from deities to soldiers.  This summer, Parks’ re-interpretation of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess won a Tony Award for best revival of a musical.

With the 2012 MacArthur fellows containing no theatre artists, there are high hopes for someone to be recognized in 2013.  The Foundation has shown itself willing to reward long-laboring artists for a career in the theatre, as well as to recognize young artists poised to breakthrough.  Who could receive the mysterious phone call from the Foundation that begins by asking, “Is this (name)? Are you alone?  Are you in a place where you can steady yourself?”  Of course, if anything can be predicted about next year’s Fellows, it will be the unpredictability of the Foundation’s choices.
~Dylan Key, Associate Director