Minneapolis native Ike Holter has won the highest monetary award for an English-language playwright. Yale University announced Wednesday that he is one of two dramatists who will be honored with the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize in September, a designation that comes with a $165,000 no-strings-attached grant.
Holter, 31, grew up in Seward, graduated from South High and went on to the attended the prestigious Theatre School at DePaul University. Unfortunately for the Twin Cities, he has never returned as a full-time theatermaker, although he has workshopped scripts at the Playwrights Center. Instead, he quickly rose through the ranks of Windy City playwrights and was named the Tribune's "Chicagoan of the Year" for theater in 2014.
Many of Holter's plays are set in the same fictional Chicago neighborhood, but in his review praising a play about a failing urban school, critic Tribune Chris Jones wrote that, "Holter has plenty of say about the long legacy of racism and unequal resources in the way we educate our children in big American cities. … But this never feels like one of those arty plays, common today, that fuse shocking theme (race, sex, history, whatever) with the new-fangled dramaturgy they like to teach in posh graduate schools."
Both "Exit Strategy" and "Hit the Wall," Holter's drama about Stonewall, have enjoyed successful off-Broadway runs. He has a show opening later this month at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, and is at work on commissions from both the Goodman and Writers Theater. But critical and popular success for a playwright—especially for one who's not writing for cable TV on the side—rarely translates into financial security.
"I'm not going on a fashion spree or anything," Holter said, while on a rehearsal break Tuesday. "I'm one of many millions of other Americans who are in debt. I'm still wrapping my head around this."
The Windham-Campbell Prizes were established in 2011 at the request of Tennessee Williams' collaborator and confidante Donald Windham, a novelist who died in 2010. A Yale library administers the awards, which are somewhat mysteriously determined by global nominators, juries and selection committees. This year, two awards each went to practitioners of poetry, fiction, prose and playwriting.
Thus far in their young history, the Windham-Campbell Prizes have gone to writers who are more than emerging but not quite mid-career. Irish dramatist Marina Carr took home the other 2017 theater award. Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose play "We Are Proud to Present …" is currently running at the Guthrie, won the prize last year while 2014 winner Kia Corthron is adapting Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" for the Guthrie next season.
Holter credits his own early trips to the Guthrie with hooking him on theater, particularly a 1999 performance of the musical "Sweeney Todd."
"That show changed my life," he said. "I saw it one night in the summer when all the power had gone out during the second number. They said we could leave and get a refund, or stay and watch it with work lights."
He stayed, obviously.
"It was amazing, seeing such a raw show," he said. "It was a really great night of theater."
Winning the Windham-Campbell hasn't made him too nostalgic, however.
"I am making it my business to keep working," Holter said. "As awesome as this is, I've got a bunch of deadlines to meet."