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LOWELL -- Prof. Joe Zaitchik of UMass Lowell's Department of English traveled to the Lambs Club in New York City on April 12 to receive the 2004 Stanley Drama Award for his new play, "Be Our Joys." The play is the fifth for the Wayland resident who just began playwriting three years ago.
The prestigious award, which includes a prize of $2,000, was established in 1957 by Alma Timolat Stanley to encourage and support aspiring playwrights. As many as 200 plays are submitted annually and ultimately judged by a panel of three guests which has included such notables as Edward Albee, Geraldine Page and David Susskind.
Zaitchik describes the play, which takes its name from the Robert Browning poem, "Rabbi Ben Ezra," as a comedy with a very serious them. The three-act play revolves around three characters. T.V. personality Anthony Satchel is a Jerry Springer-type at the height of his popularity. Mary Byrd was Anthony's college lover who he abandoned when she became pregnant 18 years earlier. Mary sought solace living as a lay Carmelite, but reappears when she realizes what Anthony has become. She and her disabled son Antonio come to see Anthony to encourage him to reject his life of coarseness and vulgarity.
Mary's Carmelite background allowed Zaitchik to explore an area of particular interest to him ─ asceticism, or the rejection of physical pleasures.
"I'm very much interested in mysticism. This play is based on the philosophical question of why good people suffer so much," says Zaitchik.
It was his youngest son Daniel, himself a professional actor, who got Zaitchik thinking about playwriting. Over the years, the self-described "dabbler" has published poems, short stories, academic articles and textbooks, but had not written a play.
"Once Daniel started acting in New York, I started seeing a lot of plays," says Zaitchik. "I found myself critiquing what I saw and decided I should give it a try. I got bit by a bug. It's exhausting, but I love it."
Despite the accolades for "Be Our Joys," none of his plays has been published.
"My career as a playwright has been less than moderately successful," says Zaitchik.
Of course, with plays, publishing is somewhat less critical than having them produced for the stage, and Zaitchik's award-winning play has received interest from numerous theatres. The American Theatre of Actors, an amateur company in New York, will present four showcase performances of "Be Our Joys" in June.
Zaitchik feels strongly that receiving the Stanley award will open doors for him in the theatre world.
"The competition was very keen. I think it may help me get an agent. And that's what you need to get the right people looking at your work," says Zaitchik.
Zaitchik, who has been at UMass Lowell since 1965, teaches 19th century American literature and Human Values courses, which are interdisciplinary. He says he plans to continue teaching another year or two, or ten. He's in no rush to leave teaching.