Howe at the 2015 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony, June 2015
November 21, 1937 |
New York, New York
Tina Howe (born November 21, 1937) is an American playwright. She is the daughter of journalist Quincy Howe and was raised in a literary family. Over a career spanning more than three decades, Howe's best-known works are Painting Churches, Coastal Disturbances and Pride's Crossing.
Her works have won numerous awards, including the 1998 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play for Pride's Crossing, which was also a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Coastal Disturbances was nominated for the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play.
Howe was born in New York City to Quincy Howe, a radio and television newsman and Mary Post Howe, an artist. She is the granddaughter of biographer Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe and the great-granddaughter of the first Episcopal Bishop of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Howe’s parents and grandmother were essential to her success as a writer. Howe's family focused on reading and writing: "Thanksgivings and family occasions were always about, 'What are you reading, what are you writing, what are you working on, what poetry are you interested in?'" Her grandfather, M. A. DeWolfe Howe was a poet who lived to be 96; and her uncle, Mark DeWolfe Howe, was a law professor at Harvard. Her grandfather passed his love of literature on to his sons and daughters, and they did the same. When Howe was ill with hepatitis, her father visited her every day in the hospital, reading James Joyce's Ulysses to her during his lunch break.
Themes and style
C. W. E. Bigsby wrote that "art is plainly a central point of reference" for Howe, noting Painting Churches and Coastal Disturbances, and also states that "food and consumption" are important. He believes that she has a "commitment to experimentation" and writes that she has said that she is "firmly entrenched in the Absurdist tradition." Frank Rich, in his New York Times review of Painting Churches commented that the play "is in the dreamiest impressionistic spirit." The Variety reviewer of Painting Churches also noted that the play is a "group portrait painted in a soft, impressionistic style." The CurtainUp reviewer of Coastal Disturbances wrote of Howe's work: "Like all of Howe's work, the play's charm stems from its quirky characters. In this case joie de vie, despair, love, lust, anger and fear come and go like the waves hitting the shore in foamy bursts or gentle ripples." Writing in the Sarah Lawrence Magazine, Celia McGerr Regan described Howe: "Howe developed a voice that has been variously described as farcical and absurd, impressionistic and airy, graceful and perceptive, lyric and literate, vivid and language-driven, whimsical and demented. Odd things happen in the face of the recognizable: Trees grow up inside and through a New York State farmhouse (One Shoe Off)..."
Ben Brantley in reviewing Birth and After Birth for The New York Times, observed "The suggestion is of a natural world that thwarts and ultimately devours the ambitions and pretensions of the civilized. This is a theme that Ms. Howe would develop in later works, sometimes artfully (Coastal Disturbances), sometimes clumsily (One Shoe Off), but always in a style that was distinctively her own."
Howe noted about her time in Paris: "The most profound thing that happened to me that year... was seeing 'The Bald Soprano' by Ionesco. That exploded me all over the place." Ionesco, Beckett and Pirandello are still her heroes.
After college, Howe spent a year in Paris, where she continued to write. She did graduate work at Columbia University Teacher’s College and Chicago Teachers College. She started teaching high school in Monona Grove, Wisconsin, (while her husband was doing graduate work) and then in Bath, Maine, which is where she says she learned her craft through running the drama department, a position she agreed to take on the terms that only her plays would be produced.
Her first play to be produced was The Nest which premiered Off-Broadway at the Mercury Theater, running for one performance on April 9, 1970. Howe remembered: "My first play, 'The Nest', was about courtship and how women compete with each other to land a husband. That play closed in one night."
Her play Museum premiered at the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre on April 29, 1976, and was then presented Off-Broadway in a Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival production, opening in February 1978. The play has a large cast of characters, with actors performing several roles, and takes place at a group art show of three contemporary artists, titled The Broken Silence. The Papp production featured Dianne Wiest, Kathryn Grody and Larry Bryggman. A CurtainUp reviewer noted that Howe "explained in her author's note for the play's premiere at the Shakespeare Festival, her large cast of characters was created to provide directors and producers with endless staging possibilities." In her note in the Script (published by Samuel French), Howe wrote: "It is my hope that any group wanting to present 'Museum' use the large cast size as a challenge and not as a restriction. The play was wriiten to serve the versatility of actors."
The Art of Dining was first presented Off-Broadway at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in December 1979, directed by A. J. Antoon and starring Kathy Bates and Dianne Wiest, who won the 1980 Clarence Derwent Award and Obie Award. Howe won an Obie Award in 1983 for distinguished playwriting for The Art of Dining, Museum and Painting Churches.
Painting Churches is one of her most critically successful works, winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for best Off-Broadway play in 1984. The play premiered Off-Broadway on February 8, 1983. It was also produced as a telefilm by PBS's American Playhouse series in 1986. Coastal Disturbances opened Off-Broadway in November 1986 at Second Stage Theatre, and then on Broadway in March 1987, and Howe was nominated for a Tony Award, Best Play.
This was followed by Approaching Zanzibar, which shows the Blossom family traveling across the United States to visit Olivia, a sick relative. The play premiered at the Second Stage Theatre on April 8, 1989, directed by Carole Rothman, and starred Jane Alexander as Charlotte Blossom and Bethel Leslie as Olivia. The play was produced at the Southwark Playhouse, London in August 1997. The reviewer for The Independent wrote: "...a zany, expertly mimed sequence throws the tensions of cooped-up family car travel into rollicking relief when, in fantasy, the parents and children swap roles. But, like so much off-Broadway fare, the play insists on coating the pill of pain in the sickly sugar of false reassurance."
One Shoe Off opened Off-Broadway in April 1993 in a Second Stage Theatre production at the Public Theater. The Variety reviewer described the play as "the dining-room play that dissolves in an emotive crossfire of accusation, revelation and reconciliation", "offbeat, sometimes ferociously funny" with an "over-the-top tone".
Her play Pride’s Crossing, described by Playbill as a "family-inspired memory play" was produced Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center from December 7, 1997 to April 5, 1998 after an engagement at the Old Globe Theatre (San Diego) in 1997. The play was revived Off-Broadway in 2004. She received the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award for Best Play in 1998 for this play.
Rembrandt's Gift premiered at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2002, directed by John Rando and starring Penny Fuller and a revised version was produced by the Madison Repertory Theatre (Wisconsin) in September 2005. The three person play focuses on an "unlikely, poignant and very funny visit by the great 17th-century Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn.
Howe wrote English translations of Eugène Ionesco's The Bald Soprano and The Lesson, which were produced at the Atlantic Theater Company in September 2004. The plays were directed by Carl Forsman and featured Jan Maxwell, John Ellison Conlee, Michael Countryman and Robert Stanton.
The Atlantic Theater Company presented Birth and After Birth Off-Broadway at the Linda Gross Theater, opening in September 2006 in previews. Described by Playbill as "a play about parenting", the play was written in 1972; it was directed by Atlantic associate artistic director Christian Parker. The play was first presented at the Wilma Theatre (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) in September 1995, after being rewritten and having readings, and a workshop at the California State University Summer Arts Festival. The reviewer of this production wrote: "The play bears the mark of a youthful playwright. Howe's brilliant mind is teeming with enough ideas to fill several plays, and her themes and style at times suggest an early fascination with older playwrights such as Ionesco and Albee." Birth and After Birth is "a comedy... in which a self-centered, tantrum-throwing monster of a 4-year-old is played by a fully grown adult male."
Chasing Manet opened Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in April 2009, starring Jane Alexander and Lynn Cohen. The play takes place in a nursing home, with the "rebellious painter" and a Jewish woman becoming friends and planning on escaping to go to Paris abord the QE2. Jane Alexander is a friend of Howe's from Sarah Lawrence.
Howe provided the text for the interdisciplinary work Cheri, conceived, directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke, which opened Off-Broadway in a Signature Theatre Company production at the Pershing Square Signature Center-Irene Diamond Stage on November 19, 2013 in previews.
Howe's plays have been produced in regional theatres in the United States, such as Louisville, Los Angeles, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Annapolis, Maryland  and San Diego, as well as in London. Her plays have premiered in venues such as the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville (Rembrandt's Gift, 2002) the Public Theater (The Art of Dining, 1979), and the Second Stage Theatre (One Shoe Off, 1983).
Awards and honors
She received a Rockefeller Grant (1984), two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Guggenheim fellowship (1990), and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature (1993). She was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Whittier College (1997) and Honoris causa, Doctor of Letters from Bowdoin College (1998).
In 2012, she received the 3rd Annual Lilly Award Lifetime Achievement Award. The Lilly Awards were created to "recognize the extraordinary contributions made by women to the American Theater."
She was a Visiting Professor of playwriting and Playwright in Residence at Hunter College in New York City, retiring in 2015. She was the head of the two year MFA playwriting program which began in 2010. (Annie Baker has taken the position formerly held by Howe.)
Several of her works can be read in the volumes Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays by Tina Howe and Approaching Zanzibar and Other Plays.
- Museum (1976)
- The Art of Dining (1979)
- Painting Churches (1983)
- Coastal Disturbances (1986)
- Approaching Zanzibar(1989)
- One Shoe Off (1993)
- East of the Sun and West of the Moon (1994–95)
- Pride's Crossing (1997)
- Rembrandt's Gift (2002)
- The Bald Soprano (English translation of Eugène Ionesco, 2004)
- The Lesson (English translation of Eugène Ionesco, 2004)
- Birth and After Birth (2006)
- Chasing Manet (2009)
- Cheri (2013)
Awards and nominations
- 1983 Obie Award for Distinguished Playwriting (winner)
- 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Painting Churches (finalist)
- 1984 Rockefeller Grant for Distinguished Playwriting (winner)
- 1987 Tony Award Best Play Coastal Disturbances (nominee)
- 1990 Guggenheim Fellowship (winner)
- 1993 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature (winner)
- 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Pride's Crossing (finalist)
- 1998 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play, Pride’s Crossing (winner)
- 1998 Dramatists Guild Fund, Madge Evans & Sidney S. Kingsley Award (winner)
- 2005 William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater (winner)
- 2015 PEN/Laura Pels Award, Master American Dramatist
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