M. Elizabeth Osborn

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M[argaret] Elizabeth (Betty) Osborn, (born in Alabama in 1939; died of pancreatic cancer in Virginia in 1993, age 54), was a playwright, author, theater director, actress, critic, editor, and educator. From the 1980s to early ‘90s, she was a prominent member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).

Her work on behalf of emerging playwrights has been honored since her death by ATCA’s establishment of the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award,[1] now granted annually to a promising new American dramatist.

A Dramaturg in Virginia[edit]

Osborn received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1970s, she was an Assistant Professor of Theatre at St. Mary's College of Maryland. While on leave she was accepted as a student of directing in the Virginia Museum Theater Conservatory. From that base, she helped to pioneer the resident professional theater movement in Richmond, where she served as a “Dramaturg"—at the time a relatively new position in American regional theatre—of the Repertory Company of the Virginia Museum Theater (VMT).[2]

Osborn not only composed and published program notes for VMT shows[3] but exercised a strong advisory influence on the selection of the theater’s repertoire. She took the lead in organizing the literary and conservatory operations of the company, including the direction and co-direction of conservatory shows. At the end of the decade she took the post of associate artistic director of the American Revels Company (Revels), also in Richmond. With director Keith Fowler she aided in the administration of Revels, shared responsibility for the company's focus on bringing the black and white communities of Richmond together in a "unity audience," and also served as the company’s unofficial dramaturg.

Her literary prowess earned her the direction of major productions. She staged Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1978) and, consistent with her career-long encouragement of new plays, she mounted the Revels' premiere of Kevin Heelan's Hope I hear it Again (1979). In 1979, her own poetic drama of America's wars, Ashes of Soldiers, received its world premiere by Revels, with Osborn co-directing and acting in the ensemble.

Osborn appearing in her play, Ashes of Soldiers. Left to right: Ron Burn, M. E. Osborn, Gil Shaw, Rusty Owen, Kent Thompson

Colleagues recall that in her directorial work in the Virginia theatres, she was always a generous, stable, and even-handed leader. She is remembered for the supportive artistic and intellectual guidance she offered her actors.[4]

”Betty-O,” a Supportive Critic[edit]

New York: Work at Theatre Communications Group[edit]

In the 1980s, Osborn joined the staff of Theatre Communications Group (TCG) in New York City, where she focused on editing and criticism. In her capacity as a theater critic, Osborn—known to friends as “Betty-O”—leaned away from the acerbic and caustic, toward support and encouragement. She was always highly appreciative of theater artists, as typified by her obituary tribute to director colleague John Hirsch in the New York Times.[5]

She was especially known for promoting and fostering little-known playwrights, using her influence to encourage major directors and playhouses to utilize them more frequently and consistently.

Support of traditionally marginalized voices and works in theater[edit]

From the 1980s to her death in the early '90s, Osborn sought to bring attention to marginalized theater voices. Her emphasis on new plays by Hispanic authors and on dramatic works dealing with the AIDS crisis can be seen in her critical anthologies.

Support of Latino Playwrights[edit]

She brought focus to late-20th century Latino playwrights in 'her book 'On New Ground[6]

Writings on the impact of AIDS on American stage theater[edit]

Osborn showed how American theatre artists confronted the plague of AIDS in her book The Way We Live Now.[7]


Osborn's work in these volumes is recognized for revealing the “most important trends in contemporary American drama.”[8]

The M. Elizabeth Osborn Award[edit]

The Osborn Award, a plaque shown here for Jason Wells, 2010 winner

The M. Elizabeth Osborn Award was established in 1993 by the American Theater Critics Association (ATCA) to honor Osborn's memory by continuing her mission of recognizing outstanding but little known authors. Colleagues recall how she would politely but persistently urge producers to mount productions of untried authors.[9]

Her record as a supporter of new writers has been extended for years to come by the creation of the prestigious award. The prize includes a monetary grant. The "Osborn" is conferred on a new American playwright at the Humana Festival of New American Plays held each year at the Actors Theater of Louisville.[10]

Seattle-based playwright Keri Healey was the 2013 Osborn Award winner, honored for her play Torso.[10] Darren Canady, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas (KU), received the award in 2012 for his play about rural African-American life, Brothers of the Dust.[10] [11] Among other Osborn laureates are Rebecca Gilman,[10] Los Angeles author Dan O'Brien,[10] and Brooklyn playwright J.T. Rogers.[10]

List of Osborn Award winners ("Laureates")[edit]

  • 2015: Tom Coash, Veils, premiered in 2014 at the Portland Stage, Maine.
  • 2014: Topher Payne, Perfect Arrangement, premiered in June 2013 at The Source Festival in Washington D.C., directed by Linda Lombardi.[12]
  • 2013: Keri Healey, Torso, premiered in March 2012 at Printer’s Devil Theater in Seattle[10]
  • 2012: Darren M. Canady, Brothers of the Dust, premiered in May 2011 at Congo Square Theater Company in Chicago, IL[10]
  • 2011: Cori Thomas, When January Feels Like Summer, City Theater, Pittsburgh[10]
  • 2010: Jason Wells, Perfect Mendacity, Asolo Repertory Theater[10]
  • 2009: Yussel El Guindi, Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, Silk Road Theater Project, Chicago[10]
  • 2008: Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, Gee’s Bend, Alabama Shakespeare Festival[10]
  • 2007: (A gap exists for 2007 because the award dating was changed. Previously the award was dated by the year it was decided, but now it is dated by the year it is presented.)[10]
  • 2006: Ken LaZebnik, Mixed Blood, Theatre Company, Minneapolis, MN[10]
  • 2005: J.T. Rogers, Madagascar, Salt Lake Acting Company, Salt Lake City, UT[10]
  • 2004: Rolin Jones, South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, CA[10]
  • 2003: John Walch, State Theatre, Austin, TX[10]
  • 2002: Mia McCullough, Stage Left Theatre, Chicago, IL[10]
  • 2001: S.M. Shephard-Massat, Denver Center Theatre Company, Denver, CO
  • 2000: Coby Goss, Senachai Theatre, Chicago, IL[10]
  • 1999: Dan O’Brien, the Perishable Theatre Company, Providence, RI[10]
  • 1998: Rebecca Gilman[10]
  • 1997: Keith Glover[10]
  • 1996: Richard Kalinoski[10]
  • 1995: Charlie Varon[10]
  • 1994: Anne Galjour[10]


M. Elizabeth Osborn wrote or edited the following books:

  • Osborn, M. Elizabeth (Editor), The Way We Live Now: American Plays and the AIDS Crisis, plays by Terrence McNally, Tony Kushner, Christopher Durang, Lanford Wilson, Susan Sontag, Harry Kondoleon, David Greenspan, and Paula Vogel. Paperback, 304 pages, Published January 1, 1990 by Theatre Communications Group, ISBN 1559360054, literary awards Lambda Literary Foundation Award for AIDS (1990)
  • Osborn (Author), On New Ground: contemporary Hispanic-American plays, Paperback, 288 pages, Published December 1, 1987 by Theatre Communications Group ISBN 0930452682
  • Osborn (Author), John Hirsch at Yale, Duke University Press, doi: 10.1215/01610775-21-1_and_2-120 Theater 1990 Volume 21, Number 1
  • Osborn (Author), Dramatists Sourcebook, 1986-87, Theatre Communications Group, December 1986, ISBN 9780930452575


  1. ^ Thursday (2011-02-24). "American Theatre Critics Association - Osborn New Play Award - The M. Elizabeth Osborn Award". Americantheatrecritics.org. Retrieved 2016-03-17. 
  2. ^ ”Theatre Staff” listing, “Festival of Britain: The 1976-1977 Season,” program of the Repertory Company of the Virginia Museum Theatre
  3. ^ cf. “Festival of Britain,” Hamlet issue, 1976.
  4. ^ Fowler, Keith (former artistic director of VMT and Revels), “Betty... was one of the least assuming theater people I know... She was an exceptionally quiet soul on the surface but this masked a taut theatrical imagination. Actors felt her radiance; while she rarely lectured them, she had what I call a staunch presence; her shy smile gave them confidence, and they responded to her few firm words as if she were a coach at half time.” Memorandum of February 23, 2013,
  5. ^ Osborn, M. Elizabeth, “John Hirsch: In Memoriam,” N.Y. Times, August 27, 1989; http://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/27/arts/l-john-hirsch-in-memoriam-386289.html
  6. ^ Osborn, On New Ground, Theatre Communications Group; 1st edition (January 1, 1993) ISBN 0930452682
  7. ^ Osborn, The Way We Live Now: American Plays and the AIDS Crisis , Theatre Communications Group (January 1, 1993) ISBN 1559360062
  8. ^ Library Journal, http://www.amazon.com/On-New-Ground-Contemporary-Hispanic-American/dp/0930452682/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1330710011&sr=1-2
  9. ^ As exemplified by the Burbank (California) Victory Theater's west coast premiere of Jon Klein's T Bone N Weasel in 1987. Osborn had promoted the play to co-producers Ken Letner and Keith Fowler, and it played for an extended run and subsequently won the HBO Playwrights USA Award. http://www.jon-klein.com/awards--honors.html
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y Complete List of Osborn Award Winners, http://americantheatrecritics.org/osborn-new-play-award/
  11. ^ Osborn winners typically offer grateful appraisals of the impact of the award. Canady expressed gratitude on the KU web site, stating that the Osborn Award brought national recognition to his very personal writing: “I grew up hearing, seeing, and listening to family stories that were only told if they could be performed with as much blood, life, exuberance, and expressiveness as possible." http://archive.news.ku.edu/2012/april/19/canady.shtml
  12. ^ Friday (2014-03-14). "American Theatre Critics Association - ATCA Home - Topher Payne wins 2014 Osborn Award". Americantheatrecritics.org. Retrieved 2016-03-17.