Dance troupe drama that captures vitality of youth wins top prize


A raucous play charting the agonies and ecstasies of a young American dance group has been crowned with one of the UK’s leading literary awards.

Clare Barron’s Dance Nation is the seventh play to win the James Tait Black Prize for Drama, which is part of the UK’s longest-running book awards – founded 100 years ago.

The £10,000 prize was announced at an award ceremony this evening (Monday 19 August) in Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, hosted by television and radio presenter Shereen Nanjiani.

The accolade celebrates innovation in playwriting and is awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh in association with Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland and the Traverse Theatre.

Dance Nation is an exhilarating tale following a dance troupe in their early teens trying to reach the national finals in Florida, under the guidance of a bullying dance teacher.

Dancer on stage
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Subverting the modern teenage drama, Clare Barron examines the inner lives of the dancers to capture the joy and despair experienced during adolescence.

Critics have described the production as “…a mixture of Carrie, a Judy Blume novel, Bring It On and the finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

The drama had its world premiere in April 2018 at Playwrights Horizons Theatre in New York and was directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans.

The impressive shortlist included two other plays: richard III redux [or] Sara Beer [is/not] Richard III by Kaite O’Reilly with Phillip B Zarrilli; and Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris.

O’Reilly and Zarrilli’s thought-provoking, one-woman play highlights the limited opportunities available to disabled actors.

Playing a variety of characters, actress Sara Beer considers performing Shakespeare’s Richard III – a figure who, like her, is disabled with scoliosis – a curvature of the spine.

Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play explores themes of race, sex and power. Initially set on a plantation before the American Civil War, it focuses on relationships between slaves and their owners, emphasising the oppression and violence African-Americans have faced.

The drama then shifts to contemporary America, with two therapists highlighting the lack of progress in race relations as they attempt to theorise it.

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The award was launched in 2012, when Britain’s oldest literary awards – the James Tait Black Prizes – were extended to include a category that celebrates innovative playwriting.

Each year, the accolade is given to a new play in English, Scots or Gaelic, which demonstrates an original theatrical voice and makes a significant contribution to the art form.

Uniquely, the prize is judged by emerging artists and established theatre professionals, rather than critics.

The panel featured students and academics from the University of Edinburgh, representatives from the Traverse Theatre, Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Schaubuhne Theatre, Berlin and a freelance theatre director.

Chair of the judging panel, Greg Walker, Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The James Tait Black Prizes have a long and distinguished history in celebrating ground-breaking new writing. It is fitting, then, that in their 100th year, a play that evokes the exhilaration of youth should win the Prize for Drama.

“I would like to congratulate each of our shortlisted playwrights for being nominated for this esteemed international prize – the calibre of their talent was astounding.”

Fiona Sturgeon Shea, Creative Director, Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland, said: “The James Tait Black Prize for Drama plays a critical role in honouring the value and importance of playwrights and the craft of playwriting itself. At Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland we are privileged to continue our association with the Prize.

“It is thrilling to encounter truly original and innovative work from around the world during the judging – and be part of welcoming the shortlisted playwrights to Scotland for the ceremony.”

Linda Crooks, Executive Producer at The Traverse Theatre, said: “The Traverse passionately believes in the ability of new writing to change our perception of the world and better understand those around, and distant from, us – and this year’s finalists shine a crucial light on a range of urgent and important societal issues in the unique and innovative ways that only theatre can. We congratulate them all on their brilliant works and well-deserved recognition.”