Winner of William Van Wert Award in Fiction

Winner of William Van Wert Award in Fiction

Hidden River is pleased to announce Mark Wagstaff as the William Van Wert Fiction Award winner for his short story, “Some Secret Space.”

Mark tells us that he was born by the sea, and now lives in London. His stories have been published in journals and anthologies in the US and UK. Recent publications have appeared in Cobalt Review, Tethered by Letters and Prick of the Spindle. In 2012 Mark won the Machigonne Fiction Contest, hosted by The New Guard of Portland, Maine. In 2011 he won two UK first prizes, the Aesthetica Creative Writing prize and The Big Issue in the North short story contest. Mark has published four novels and a story collection. His second collection of short stories will be published by InkTears later in 2014. More information about Mark and his work can be found at his website: http://www.markwagstaff.com

Check back soon for a more complete interview with Mark.

The William Van Wert Prize in Fiction offers $1000 to the winning manuscript. Our next cycle ends soon – the submission deadline is June 30. See our guidelines for full submission requirements.

Winner of 2013 Hidden River Playwrighting Award

Winner of 2013 Hidden River Playwrighting Award

We are proud to announce Lee Edward Colston, II, as winner of the most recent Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award for his play, Solitary.

Lee is a prison guard turned actor, playwright, director, acting teacher and author. After leaving his job at the Department of Corrections, Lee trained classically as an actor, receiving a BFA from the Brind School of Theatre at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Acting at The Juilliard School, as a member of Group 45. In addition to his talents as a playwright, Lee has appeared in over twenty-five productions, including Avenue X (7 Barrymore nominations), Cradle Will Rock (Irene Ryan nomination), Romeo & Juliet, SANKOFA, Once on This Island, and Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love. He also starred as Harpo in the Broadway National Tour of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and as Othello for the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival.

Lee is also a second-generation Meisner trained actor and is a founding director of The Philadelphia Meisner Technique Intensive where he teaches acting technique. He has taught over 170 actors in the Philly, DC, & New York region.

In 2014 The Juilliard School named Lee as a recipient of the Jonathon Madrigano Entrepreneurial Grant to provide funding to PMTI to help offer more access to theater arts training in the Philly region.

As a playwright, Colston’s play Solitary was a 2009 winner of the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop PlayShop festival, where it received intensive workshop attention: work with a dramaturg, director and actors. His newest play Roost won the 2010 Life Media Award for BEST NEW PLAY in the Philadelphia Urban Theatre Festival. In 2012, Roost was later revived for further development by Ritual Theater Company for a reading starring veteren actor Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) and Cheryl Freeman (Disney’s Hercules, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Dead Presidents) at the Ars Nova Theater & PS 122 in New York City.

His book of poetry Phenomenal Brotha: Blood, Sweat, & Ink was released in 2005.

Our Founding Director, Debra Leigh Scott, caught up with Lee on his summer break from Juilliard, here in Philadelphia where he is running his summer sessions of the Meisner Intensive, to talk a little bit about this play, and about his work.

DLS: “Solitary” was your first play? Can you give us a bit of its backstory?

Solitary was born during my time working in the prison system. I had the privilege to come in contact with a lot of different kinds of people. Those experiences helped to shape my artistic sensibilities tremendously. I wanted to tell the stories of the men and women I met. I not only wanted to tell the stories of the incarcerated men at the prison but also the people in my neighborhood of North Philly. I wanted to tell my story.

DLS: Before heading to college, you worked for a time as a prison guard in Philadelphia. How did that experience color your feelings about Jamal and Lucius*, two of your characters in “Solitary”?

LEC: I felt like working in that environment helped me to find where my voice lived and what stories I was interested in. Jamal’s story is not unique. It’s so easy to pass judgment on him. But I often wonder what were the environmental conditions that created him. Men like Jamal don’t just ‘happen’. There are outside forces that forge men like that into who they are.

DLS: The play is largely about the interior and exterior realities of Jamal, but it is also about the times in which we live, the prison pipeline, poverty and desperation. So, can you talk a bit about the atmospheric elements of the play – the prison, the decimated community, poverty, desperation?

LEC: I wrote those elements as I experienced them. I was raised in the neighborhood Jamal describes. I’ve seen what severe poverty, drugs and educational apartheid can do to both a person and a community. It’s heart-breaking. In neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, it’s difficult for anyone to see beyond the hurt and broken glass strewn about.

DLS: Are you familiar with Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow? She talks about the ways in which the mass incarcerations in this country quite successfully replaced the old Jim Crow society and culture. How do you see your play in light of Alexander’s work?

LEC: Yes, I am familiar with the book. I actually finished it recently. I feel like much of what Ms. Alexander states is spot on and Solitary is a poetic manifestation of that. I also feel like Solitary echoes the Allegory of The Cave by Plato. Both personal responsibility and institutional racism and inequity are in a constant tug of war with one another. While men like Jamal do have to take responsibilities for their action and overcome tremendous circumstances, we cannot dismiss the handicap and booby traps placed in front of them. 

DLS: You have a therapist in the play who attempts to interact with Jamal, to collect data, to make an “assessment” – what role would you say does psychiatry and psychology play in “pathologizing” our young men, especially young men of color, of impoverished conditions? 

LEC: Young men of color, especially those growing up in inner cities, face near impossible odds. In the age of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, it almost feels as if we’re living in a real world version of ‘The Hunger Games’. PTSD among inner city youth is real. These kids are growing up under similar conditions that soldiers at war face. But, unfortunately, there is no VA Hospital or any other kinds of services (other than incarceration) to help these young men cope with being constantly taught that their lives have no value in America. These young men are not anomalies or monsters. They are behaving the same way anyone of any race or ethnic background would when you take away access to good education, healthcare & social services, when you offer minimal employment opportunities, when you strip arts, sports, and music programs from schools, when you cram 45 kids into a classroom, pump drugs into the community, and train the police to shoot first and let the system sort everything out. I don’t care what your race or ethnicity is; if you live under those conditions, what can we expect to happen other than the results we see every day on the news?

DLS: What are your hopes for the play? What are your hopes for the young Jamals trying to grow up in the very difficult times of 2014 America? 

LEC: In all honesty, I’m not sure what I hope for with this play. What I know is that it has the power to start a conversation— with not only the Jamals of America but also those who have the power to tear down the structures in place that help to create them.

DLS: What are your own hopes? As a playwright. As an actor. You are about to enter your third year at Juilliard, to finish up an MFA in acting. Can you talk a little about your own personal journey, and about your visions and dreams for the future?

LEC: Every time I think about my personal journey I start to cry. I’m very fortunate. I could have very well been Jamal. Actually, now that I think about it… I am Jamal. I’m who Jamal could be if we remove even just two or three cards from that deck that’s stacked against him.

I don’t know what the future holds for me. What I do know is that whatever it will be, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

The Hidden River Playwrighting Award offers $1000 to the winning manuscript as well as a public reading of the winning play. Please check back for updates regarding the scheduling. Our next round of Hidden River Arts writing awards, including the playwrighting award, will deadline June 30. Please see our guidelines for further details.

Hidden River Arts is happy to announce the finalists and award winner for our last cycle of the Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award.

Our finalists are:

Cole, William, “Odyssey’s End”
Reynolds, Andy, “Dark Hole”
Spector, Donna, “Manhatten Transits”
Sutton, Chelsea, “The Dead Woman”
Zimecki, Michael, “Negative Velocity”

We would like to offer our sincere congratulations as well as our thanks for sharing their work with us.

The winner of the 2013 Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award is:

Lee Edward Colston, II for his play, “Solitary”.

The Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award provides $1000 to the winning manuscript as well as a public reading of the winning play. Please check back with us about the scheduled date(s) for the reading.

Again, we wish to thank all of our playwrights for their generosity in sharing their work with us. We feel nothing but love and respect and gratitude for all of you, and your incredible talent.

Due to the large number of submissions this year, it has taken a little longer to make our decisions. So many strong manuscripts and writers offer a wealth of talent, but also provide a real challenge! Congratulations to the semi-finalists and finalists named below. Please check back shortly, since we are doing one last reading of the finalists, and will be announcing our winner shortly.
Thanks to everyone who shared their work with us; we honor and cherish each and every one of you, and wish you the best of success in your writing.

The William Van Wert Fiction Award offers $1000 to the winning manuscript.

The next round of our William Van Wert competition deadlines June 30, 2014. Information and submission requirements are found here on our guidelines page.


Brennan, Joan, Such is her Power
Brennan, Joan, The Drowning Land
Brown, Laura, Made By Mary
Carey, Crystal, Husbanding Dreams
Cole, Douglas, Villagers
Connelly, Mark, Can’t You See the Walls?
Connelly, Mark, The Price
Coyle, Caryn, Grace
Early, Elizabeth, Backbone
Goodkind, Anna, Counting
Goodkind, Anna, Sevilla
Goodwyne, Owen, Tropical Tonic
Henry, Joy, Stillborn
Kann, Lydia, The Circle of the Whale
Kearns, Margeurite, Stand Up For Freedom & Put Your Body on the Line
Landt, Kris, Sun Jelly Pastures
Lewis, Steven, The Man Who Hated the New Yorker
MacGowan, Mary, Jane
McFadden, McKay, In the Hammam
Matthews, Kelly, The Memorialist
Merritt, Ave, Circa
Paige, Paula, Posslqs
Partington, Deborah, It’s What I Was Given
Partington, Deborah, So Many Sentences
Peterson, Paula W., Frances and Elana
Randolph, Anne, The Sweet Not Enough
Reyes, Ronny, 9.81 Meters Per Second
Rile, Karen, The Snow Queen
Sakariassen, Eric, Summer Place
Samples, Susan, Chekhov’s Toothbrush
Sarkis, Meli, Ah, Tamar, excerpt
Saxby, Katherine, Burntime
Scanlon, Seamus, The Tennessee Waltz
Selber, Lones, The Circuit Rider
Smith, Morgan, The Perfect Horse
Stegner, Lynn, In the Not-Too-Different Future
Stevens, Sally, The Unkindest Cut
Spafford, Roz, To Do With It
Stuart, Marley, Jack’s Guitar
Sulmers, Gail Gross, Family Vacation
Terence, Susan, Bean Alley, excerpt
Tiefer, Hillary, The City of Brotherly Love
Ullo, Karen, The Tree Behind the Carousel
Wagstaff, Mark, Some Secret Space
Waller, James, Premonition
Warah, Holly, My Mecca

Brennan, Joan, Such is her Power
Cole, Douglas, Villagers
Connelly, Mark, The Price
Goodkind, Anna, Counting
McFadden, McKay, In the Hammam
Partington, Deborah, It’s What I Was Given
Rile, Karen, The Snow Queen
Sakariassen, Eric, Summer Place
Scanlon, Seamus, The Tennessee Waltz
Smith, Morgan, The Perfect Horse
Ullo, Karen, The Tree Behind the Carousel
Wagstaff, Mark, Some Secret Space
Waller, James, Premonition
Warah, Holly, My Mecca

Once again, congratulations to all semi-finalists and finalists. Thanks to all of our writers!


It is with great pleasure that we at Hidden River Arts announce Christine Whittemore’s novel, Inscription, the winner of our 2013 Eludia Award. This is the second year of the Eludia Award, and the submissions for the competition were numerous, and of very high quality. We want to congratulate not only our winner, but our finalists and semi-finalists. A sincere thank you is extended to all the wonderful women writers who shared their work with us.

A bit about our winner

Christine Whittemore was born on October 6, 1956 in England where she was brought up and educated. After college in England, she lived in Italy for five years where she taught English and did some translation. Then followed five years in New York City, twenty-two in Pennsylvania, and three in Lyon, France. Now she and her husband divide their time between Gloucestershire, England, and Pennsylvania. They have three adult children.

Christine’s poems have appeared in various American and British journals including The American Scholar, Plains Poetry Journal, Hunger Mountain, Piedmont Literary Review, The Lyric, Orbis (UK), and The Christian Century, as well as in anthologies. Her work has won several awards in the US and the UK, including a Fellowship in Literature (Poetry) in 1998 from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her essays have appeared in several publications including Parabola, Islands, Weekly Telegraph (UK), Christian Science Monitor, and New York Newsday. Journalism has included feature articles in various publications on the arts and local history, and a monthly essay column for the regional newspaper.

As well as having written the novel, Inscription, she has co-authored a memoir about a hidden child of the Holocaust.

Christine will receive $1000 prize money and publication of Inscription on Hidden River Publishing’s Sowilo Press imprint, which is dedicated to publishing literary fiction and non-fiction by and about women.

The Eludia Award

Our current round of the Eludia competition is still open. We will be accepting manuscripts for the 3rd annual prize. The deadline for submissions is March 30, 2014. See the guidelines for all details.

Basch, Rachel photo Wm. Van Wert 2011 winner

Rachel Basch, our most recent winner of the William Van Wert Fiction Award at Hidden River Arts, for an excerpt from her novel, The Listener, offers up answers about her winning manuscript, and about her writing practice.

1.  Rachel, can you talk a little bit about The Listener — your inspiration, the entirety of the novel, and where the project is, currently?

The inspiration for The Listener came while I was finishing up my last novel, The Passion of Reverend Nash. That book was about a Congregational minister, and while I was working on it, I attended Sunday church services as a way of steeping myself in that world, that culture. One Sunday morning I spent nearly the entire service watching a young person in the row in front of me. He was no more than 16, and he was dressed in what most of us would consider feminine attire. He did not appear to be with his family, and basically I was fascinated at the courage it took for him to be himself in that place. There was something provocative about his stance, his appearance, even his facial expression. I wondered at the challenge his parents had in embracing him. And this phrase started spinning around in my head, “loving what’s hard to love.” Often in the course of our lives we’re asked to keep ourselves open to giving and receiving love when it’s not our initial inclination, when it’s not easy.

Right now the novel is with my agent who is sending it out to editors. I’ve never spent so long writing and rewriting a book before. The book has been something of a difficult child.

2.  Can you talk a bit about your writing in a larger sense?  What are your fascinations, your focus, what kind of writing are you most attracted to?

I do think that most writers have one, if they’re lucky, two, central obsessions. My books are almost always, in some way, about the nature and extent of our responsibilities to one another. I’m fascinated by the psychodynamics of families, of couples, of friends. I’m drawn to exploring the elasticity, the expansiveness and the limits of human love. And I’m extremely interested in the ways in which we can transcend what we consider to be our limits. I’m curious about the ways in which our souls can grab the reigns from our egos.

Jonathan Franzen recently said in an interview that he was most interested in writers who had “skin in the game.” I love that. Writing that matters, that really makes a difference is writing that I’m attracted to. I want to be pushed past where I am, always. I want to be made to think deeply and feel greatly.

3.  Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?  What should they be doing to move their craft forward?….to support themselves as writers?

I think the most important advice, advice I still need to give to myself, is to take the long view. Stamina and patience, perseverance and faith are essential qualities if you want to write. You need to sustain yourself over a lifetime of writing, and you need, early on, to lose your desire for external validation. It seldom comes and when it does it’s fleeting. Enjoy the process, the making of the art – that’s the part you can control, that’s the aspect of it all that belongs to you. Surround yourself with other artists and with other kinds of art – drama, music, painting. Art begets art. Always remember that you are doing something that, at its best, will be ignored by the larger society in which we live. You will need to invent your own measure of success, something very different from the yardstick that’s used by the prevailing capitalist culture. Making art is hard, and you need to actively respect your own efforts. As for practical advice, I’m well past the middle of my life, and I’ve still not figured out an adequate way to support my habit.

The next round of submissions for The William Van Wert Fiction Award, which provides $1000 to the winning manuscript, deadlines June 30, 2013 at midnight. Please see our guidelines on this site for further details.


Our most recent winner of the Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award, Michael Tooher, was kind enough to sit down and talk about his winning play, The Perfect Sameness of Our Days which received a reading in Philadelphia this past April, as part of being the winning manuscript. Michael also received $1000.

His play, which addresses the suffering of a veteran with PTSD, was very well-received, and our audience was quick to discuss, during talk back time, how powerful the subject matter was, how sensitively the subject was handled.

1. The Perfect Sameness of Our Days addresses some very serious issues regarding returning vets in the United States, and the difficulties they experience. It focuses specifically on PTSD. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for this play, and your hopes for it?

It was a combination of thoughts and images, mostly from television and the Internet that were the start of the inspiration.I remember being appalled at the images of the casual brutality against the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point we had a general state that they didn’t keep statistics about citizens killed because “it wasn’t our job.” That, coupled with the neglect and abandonment of our returning soldiers by the very individuals and organizations that are supposed to care for them made me realize a terrible truth. No matter what side they are on, they are all victims. Days is the story of what happens when two of them meet. And because all intimate relationships are opaque to outsiders, you don’t learn the truth about the characters until the end. And even then it may or may not be the truth because they are hopelessly lost.

It strikes me that war, combat and conflict is not a normal state for human beings to find themselves in. So the only surprise here is that PTSD isn’t more prevalent. Ot perhaps it is and we have just chosen to employ magical thinking to deny to ourselves the horrible cost of our actions on warriors and civilians alike. This is tragedy in its purest form and Days, to me, reflects that. It’s a brief retelling of a terrible incident in an ugly place and there is absolutely no laughter or joy in it.

2. How would you describe yourself as a playwright? What are some of your primary interests and themes?

I like to think of myself as a wordsmith. It’s a job I like to do. I come from the technical end of the performing arts so the idea of crafting words has great appeal for me.

I’ve been writing for about 6 years now and what themes I’ve been able to identify are few because of the way I work. Almost everything I write is an experiment in form and style and I never know how it will turn out. That said it seems to me that dramatists have one universal truth,, that emotion is the language of mankind. I believe the more you can get on the page the better the play will be. As for themes, it seems to me that loneliness is the number one disease affecting humans. Also the terrible unknowable future of our planet, our society and in the end, ourselves, seem like fertile ground for drama.

Also, for some odd reason, I am completely obsessed with trees and doors. They keep popping up in my work and I haven’t a clue why. The Perfect Sameness of Our Days has a magical apricot tree in it that is a hallucination of a dimly remembered yet happier past.

3. Can you talk a little bit about the opportunities and the theatre community in your home area? What opportunities have you had to develop and produce locally?

Portland, Maine is a rocking theatre town. Not only are the professional theatres very active, there is a huge amount of constantly changing production activity. Informal groups come together all the time to produce work in storefronts, art galleries and the smaller theatre spaces. In June we have Portfringe, which this year is 50 performances in 7 days all over the city. I’ve been fortunate that my work has been featured in the Maine Playwrights Festival for the last 5 years and has won prizes and readings in other local festivals. On the production end, almost all of my full length productions and readings have been out of town. I’m not sure why, it’s really just the way it has worked out so far.

4. Do you have any advice to other playwrights, especially emerging playwrights?

Free advice is worth what you pay for it. This is what works for me. Your mileage may vary.

A) Treat writing like any other job. When you aren’t doing your day gig, write. Set a modest goal, say a page a day. You will quickly discover that you exceed your goal and very soon after that you will have a play.

B) If you start something, finish it.

C) Don’t edit while you write. Ever. Finish your first draft, put it to bed for 2 weeks then look at it with fresh eyes.

D) There is no such thing as writer’s block, you just need to go fill up your life experience tank. The inspiration will come in it’s own time and place. Like stagehands or cats, it can’t be controlled, just received.

E) Pinter said that “Acting informs playwrighting.” Try it, It’s fun and terrifying at the same time.

F) Trust your process. What works for you is what’s right.

G) Believe in yourself like a sickness. The theatre world is very competitive and some cope with their anxiety with smack talk. Ignore it, especially if it’s directed toward you.

5. Is there anything else you would like to share?

I would just like to take this moment to thank Hidden River Arts for the award. But what I am most grateful for was the extraordinary reading during
AprilFest at the Shublin Theatre. Days was very much a drawer play for me, Personally my favorite but I had real doubts as to it’s playability considering it’s subject matter and unrelenting grimness.
But the reading changed my perception of the play, The amazing response of the audience at the talkback, where they ignored the artists completely and proceeded to have
a conversation among themselves for an hour about the issues the play raises, will be forever etched in my memory.

Thank you.

And thank YOU, Michael, for your generous answers. Our actors were honored to take part in the play, and as they told you after the performance, it was something that struck very close to home for several of them. We had several actors who were also veterans performing during the reading, and for them, your play was nothing short of a miraculous way to express the struggles that they saw personally, among their brethren.

The 2013 Hidden River Playwrighting Award submission deadline is June 30, 2013 at midnight.
We are always looking for provocative, powerful plays, and welcome your submissions.

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