Play about communal healing wins Yale Drama Series Prize

The Yale Drama Series Prize, one of the theater world’s most prestigious playwriting prizes, will be given to Lily Padilla for her play “How to Defend Yourself.”

Lily Padilla
Lily Padilla (Photo credit: Idris Ademola)

The 2019 award recipient was chosen by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar. The winning play will receive a private staged reading at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theater in the fall.

Now celebrating its 13th year, the Yale Drama Series Prize is given in cooperation with Yale University Press, and is solely sponsored by the David Charles Horn Foundation. The prize is awarded annually for a play by an emerging playwright selected by a panel of one — a distinguished playwright. The winner receives the David Charles Horn Prize of $10,000, as well as publication of the winning play by Yale University Press and a staged professional reading. The Yale Drama Series is an annual international, open-submission competition for emerging playwrights for an original, unpublished, full-length, English-language play. All entries are read blindly.

This year’s runner-up is Gina Femia for “Allond(R)a,” a coming-of-age story about friendship and heartache.

Ayad Akhtar
Ayad Akhtar (Photo credit: Florian Thoss)

It was a year of strong submissions, with a particularly muscular sample of deft, moving plays about the toxic interplay of power and sexuality,” said Akhtar, who chose “How to Defend Yourself” from over 1,750 submissions from 65 counties. “Lily Padilla’s play about desire, defense, and the insidious, labyrinthine reach of rape culture is that rare thing: formally inventive, timely, accessible, and soulful. I can’t wait for people to experience it.”

Francine Horn, president of the David Charles Horn Foundation, said, “The intensity of Lily’s play is intertwined with a deep respect for how healing comes from a sense of community. Her characters approach the news of their mutual friend’s rape by participating in a self-defense class. This communal interaction not only prepares them to take charge of their fate, but also to love. Humanity wins. Ms. Padilla is a very worthy winner. We applaud Ayad’s choice.”

In Padilla’s play, seven college students gather for a DIY self-defense workshop after a sorority sister is raped. They learn to use their bodies as weapons and to fend of their attackers. Learning self-defense becomes a channel for their rage, anxiety, confusion, trauma, and desire. “How to Defend Yourself” explores the insidious ways rape culture steals one’s body and sense of belonging.

I feel so grateful and inspired to win the Yale Drama Prize,” said Padilla. “‘How to Defend Yourself’ comes from listening to the parts of me that were shamed into silence: To be able to write it was healing beyond what I had imagined. That folks are connecting deeply with the play is gorgeous affirmation of what is possible when we act together in service of our collective liberation. I am in awe of and deep gratitude for the many folks who have given their energies, time, talents, and hearts to holding these stories with me. Kim Rubinstein encouraged me to keep writing this play, even when I was terrified. She directed the UCSD [University of California-San Diego] production with extraordinary compassion, boldness, and presence simultaneous with her brave process of calling out sexual harassment in the American theater. My partner, Dylan Key, is the first reader on everything I write, and holds incredible space for me to show up bravely and see myself. I am ever grateful to the communities of artists, peers, healers, supporters, and mentors at UCSD, the Ojai Playwrights Conference, Victory Gardens, the upcoming Humana Festival production directed by Marti Lyons, and beyond who have supported and nourished my voice and becoming.”

Padilla’s plays are about sex, intersectional communities, and what it means to heal in a violent world. “How to Defend Yourself” is a Susan Smith Blackburn Finalist and will be produced in the 2019 Humana Festival and at Victory Gardens Theatre in 2020. Padilla’s work has been developed with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ojai Playwrights Conference, Victory Gardens, WP Theatre, INTAR Theatre, and San Diego REP. Padilla facilitates playwriting workshops with the La Jolla Playhouse/TCG Veterans & Theatre Institute and teaches playwriting and devised theater at the University of San Diego and UCSD. Padilla is also a director, actor, and community builder who looks at rehearsal as a laboratory for how people might be together.

Previous winners of the Yale Drama Series Prize include John Austin Connolly, Neil Wechsler, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, Virginia Grise, Shannon Murdoch, Clarence Coo, Jen Silverman, Janine Nabers, Barbara Seyda, Emily Schwend, Jacqueline Goldfinger, and Leah Nanako Winkler.