Andy Sandberg, Artistic Director and CEO of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, announced today that UK-based playwright and Olivier Award-winning lyricist Chris Bush has been selected as the fourth recipient of the Hermitage Major Theater Award (HMTA). This jury-selected prize, established by the Hermitage in 2021 with generous support from Flora Major and the Kutya Major Foundation, offers one of the largest nonprofit theater commissions in the United States, and now adds the United Kingdom to its expanding international footprint. Bush will receive a cash prize of $35,000, as well as a residency at the Hermitage (Sarasota County, Florida) and a developmental workshop in a major arts capital – which for this commission will be London in late 2025.
Chris Bush is an award-winning playwright, lyricist, and theater maker based in the United Kingdom. Her comprehensive body of work includes Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which won her an Olivier Award and a UK Theatre Award for Best Musical. Following sold-out runs at the National Theatre and Sheffield Theatres, the acclaimed production is opening this month on the West End and has been described as “the most exciting new British musical in years” by WhatsOnStage and heralded by The Times as “a moving and resonant piece of popular entertainment — magnificent and meaningful.” Bush received a UK Theatre Award for Best Show for Children & Young People for her production Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World and a UK Theatre Award for Best Musical for Assassination of Katie Hopkins, heralded by The Guardian as “an intelligent, thoughtful, and often wryly enjoyable look at the polarization of public debate in the age of social media.” Raised in Sheffield, England, Chris Bush currently lives in London.
“I’m delighted — and still a little surprised — to be the recipient of this year’s Hermitage Major Theater Award,” said 2024 HMTA winner Chris Bush upon receiving the news. “Having spent a lot of my career writing specifically about northern England, I’m excited to shift my gaze across the Atlantic and dive into a new landscape. I’m very grateful to the Hermitage and Flora Major for this opportunity. I hear the weather in Florida is a little better too.”
“This is the first time a Hermitage commission has been presented to an artist in the United Kingdom,” added Andy Sandberg. “With a goal of bringing this initiative to London, we deliberately selected a committee of preeminent arts leaders in the U.K. who identified four outstanding playwrights among a wealth of worthy theatrical talent, broadening the international reach and impact of the Hermitage and this initiative.”
The Hermitage Major Theater Award (HMTA) was established in 2021 to recognize a playwright or theater artist with a $35,000 commission to create a new, original, and impactful piece of theater. Three distinguished finalists for the fourth Hermitage Major Theater Award include Natasha Gordon,an Olivier Award-nominated British playwright and actor of Jamaican descent, whose play Nine Night enjoyed a sold-out run at the National Theatre in 2018 before transferring to Trafalgar Studios in 2019; Beth Steel, an award-winning playwright whose new play Till the Stars Come Down is currently running at the National Theatre; and Sam Steiner,an accomplished playwright and screenwriter whose play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons has been performed all over the world and made its West End debut in 2023. Each finalist has been awarded a Hermitage residency and Fellowship, in addition to a cash prize of $1,500.
HMTA winners and finalists are nominated and selected by a jury of visionary and forward-thinking artistic leaders. The 2024 HMTA Award Committee included Michael Grandage, Tony and Olivier-Award winning director of stage and screen, former Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, and current Artistic Director of the Michael Grandage Company; Tessa Ross, CBE and BAFTA Award-winningCo-CEO of House Productions; and Indhu Rubasingham,an Olivier Award-winning director, longtime Artistic Director of the Kiln Theatre, and newly announced as the incoming Director of the National Theatre.
“The Hermitage Major Theater Award is an incredible opportunity for an artist to develop their craft,” said Michael Grandage, “and Chris Bush is a hugely talented playwright who has already demonstrated that big ideas can change the world. I’m delighted this award will afford her an opportunity to continue to evolve in a fully supported environment.”
“We were thrilled by Chris Bush’s proposal – by its ambition and articulacy and by its relevance to our world,” added Tessa Ross. “Here is an exciting, brave writer, and we feel very proud to be able to support the next stage of Chris’ journey with this wonderful award.”
“Chris Bush is an artist the theater world cannot ignore, and this award from the Hermitage offers her the opportunity to make a work that is deeply personal,” said Indhu Rubasingham. “I know that Chris will make a really powerful play that I can’t wait to see. Truly, all four finalists are talented and interesting artists worthy of this commission and great success.”
“Amidst four extraordinary and deserving finalists, Chris Bush confirmed herself to be a passionate theater artist who impressed us all with her compelling and inspiring proposal,” said Hermitage Artistic Director and CEO Andy Sandberg. “We are honored to support Chris as she creates this ambitious and inventive new play. I must thank our brilliant and dedicated Award Committee – Michael Grandage, Tessa Ross, and Indhu Rubasingham – for their passion, intelligence, and care throughout this process. I also want to congratulate Natasha Gordon, Beth Steel, and Sam Steiner, each of whom are exceptional playwrights with bold voices and thrilling ideas.”
In addition to the $35,000 commission, the recipient of the annual HMTA will receive six weeks of residency at the Hermitage’s historic beachfront campus to develop the new theatrical work, as well as a reading or workshop in a leading arts and cultural center. Chris Bush’s commission is expected to receive its first presentation in autumn of 2025 in London.
In describing her intended HMTA commission, currently titled Orlando (FL), Bush shares: “This original play will be a story of transformation, translation, and self-determination. The play follows Lana, a trans woman living in Orlando, Florida, whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of a fantastical stranger. Lana is stuck in a rut; her friendship circle is dwindling, her acting career is going nowhere fast, and she’s ejected from her Doomsday cult for being too unreliable. The world outside is too terrifying for her to deal with, so she opts to self-medicate and disassociate. Then crashing into her life headfirst comes Orlando, the freewheeling, gender-switching protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s iconic novel. Orlando is sexy, confident, unguarded — when Lana is with them, anything seems possible. Together, maybe they could take on the world. Orlando (FL) aspires to be a queer fantasia set against a backdrop of rising hate; a gloriously funny, angry, and defiant testament to the power of literature and the resilience of LGBTQ+ communities.”
In the spirit of the Hermitage’s commitment to the arts across multiple disciplines, recipients of the Hermitage Major Theater Award are encouraged to create a commission that directly or indirectly represents the role and impact of art – musical, literary, theatrical, visual, dance, or otherwise – in our culture and society. As to how this will infuse Bush’s commission, she explains that “Orlando (FL) takes Virginia Woolf’s classic novel as a jumping off point to explore contemporary queer identities. This piece is all about the power of fiction,” notes Bush. “Art can offer us a means of escape, but also become a tool for our own liberation.”
This distinguished Hermitage Major Theater Award recognition is not an award for an existing work, but rather it is designed as a commission that shall serve as a catalyst and inspiration to a theater artist to create a new, original, and impactful piece of theater. Further, the prize is intended to bridge the connection between the Hermitage in Sarasota County, Florida – where the commission is born – and other leading arts and culture centers around the world, including New York, London, Chicago, and other notable arts capitals where great theater is frequently developed and presented. Previous recipients of the HMTA have included acclaimed playwright and “Only Murders in the Building” writer Madeleine George; The New Group’s Director of Artistic Projects, theater-maker, and director Shariffa Ali; and award-winning composer and theater artist Imani Uzuri. George and Ali had their first readings at New York’s MCC Theater in November of 2023. George’s The Sore Loser is a Faustian comedy reimagining the patriarchy through a small-town bowling tournament, and Ali’s play Hero chronicles a South African village faced with an opportunity for national glory through a singling competition.
“This award is designed to be transformational for its recipients, providing not only significant funds and recognition, but also invaluable time, space, and inspiration at the Hermitage, plus an opportunity for these innovative theater artists to workshop and develop their original ideas,” said Andy Sandberg. An acclaimed director, writer, and Tony Award-winning producer who recently directed the U.K. premiere of Operation Epsilon, Sandberg took the helm as Artistic Director and CEO of the Hermitage in early 2020. “In addition to introducing a new work of theater to the world each year, this is a meaningful way for the Hermitage to take a further step in supporting the artistic process, offering developmental resources to these extraordinary artists and their new commissions.”
The Hermitage Major Theater Award is made possible with a generous multi-year gift to the Hermitage from Flora Major and the Kutya Major Foundation. In the aftermath of the pandemic and recognizing the difficult challenges facing theater artists, the Hermitage and Major awarded three HMTA commissions in the inaugural twelve months of this initiative. Moving forward, the recipient will be selected annually and will have two years to complete their commissions.