Playwright and filmmaker Radha Blank wins first $35,000 Hermitage Major Theater Award

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Radha Blank, actor, director and writer of “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” which won the directing competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, was named the winner of the first Hermitage Major Theater Award.

Radha Blank, a filmmaker, writer and actress who won wide acclaim and a directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her film “The 40-year-old Version” was named Monday as the recipient of the first Hermitage Major Theatre Award.

The new prize, funded by Sarasota philanthropist Flora Major, provides a $35,000 commission for a playwright or theater artist, a residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Englewood which oversees the award, and support for a reading, workshop or other initial presentation in a major theater city like New York, London or Chicago.

Major and Hermitage CEO and Artistic Director Andy Sandberg announced the prize in June and fast-tracked the process for the inaugural award to ensure that a winner was announced before year’s end.

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It is considered one of the largest theater commission prizes in the nation. 

“I can’t believe that Andy pulled this off, to find the jurors and for everybody to agree,” said Major. “I am just very happy. I don’t know her but it could not have happened to a better person.”

Playwright Doug Wright, a past Hermitage Fellow, theater director Leigh Silverman and theater and film director Liesl Tommy selected Blank from four artists who were invited to submit proposals.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright is a past Hermitage Artist Retreat fellow and among the jurors who selected Radha Blank for the first Hermitage Major Theater Award.

Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for the one-person play “I Am My Own Wife,” described Blank as a “career playwright who hasn’t broken through to audiences” at this point in her career. “It is exhilarating to see her success in the film world and it’s our sense that the theater world needs her, we need her voice on American stages.”

Wright said the three jurors focused on “playwrights that had distinctive voices and the intellectual breadth to speak to the current cultural moment.”

In a telephone interview, Blank said, "I always see myself as a playwright first. I always write from that place, even as a filmmaker.” She added that she has had a “very contentious relationship with the theater and I’m still trying to figure out if there’s a place for a voice like mine in it and to explore my identity as an artist through theater.”

Silverman said as the theater world emerges from the pandemic feeling “kind of frozen in amber, the idea of this award offers hope and also a sense of community and time and space inside an industry that has felt shut down in a kind of intense moment of examination.”

The 45-year-old Blank, who got her start in the television and film industry as an actress in 1998, also has written numerous plays and won the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award and an NEA New Play Development Award. 

Writer/director Radha Blank, and the cast of her Sundance Film Festival award-winning movie “The 40-Year-Old Version.”

She won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award at Sundance for “The 40-Year-Old Version,” which is loosely based on her own experiences as a playwright struggling to produce and be seen. It is available for viewing on Netflix. In addition to the Sundance prize, she was nominated for several others for directing and screenplay. 

The National Board of Review picked it as one of the ten best films of 2020.

Blank said she has been trying to figure out why her plays have not been more produced. “That’s what my movie is about, not understanding that. When someone breaks up on a Post-It or ghosts you, you try to fill in the blanks. It caused a lot of pain,” she said.

Philanthropist Flora Major with Andy Sandberg, artistic director and CEO of the Hermitage Artist Retreat.

Major committed $800,000 to the Hermitage and the award, which is intended as a multi-year project. The money comes from the Flora Major and The Kutya Major Foundation. Sandberg said that in addition to Blank’s time at the Hermitage, the organization will seek opportunities to let local audiences in on the creative process as the new play takes shape.

The Hermitage Major Theatre Award is the second significant prize awarded by the artist retreat, which also oversees the annual Hermitage Greenfield Prize, established in 2008. That award rotates annually among playwrights, composers or other musical artists, and visual artists, who receive a $30,000 commission to create a new work that will have its first public performance or exhibition at a Sarasota area arts institution.

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