Submissions for the third annual Bridge Award are open for two more weeks!

Under the guidance of Pulitzer-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, we're looking to identify an exceptional play and playwright from the military community.

Anna O'Donoghue, Submissions Coordinator and Reading Committee Chair, spoke with Vinnie Lyman and Shairi Engle about their journeys as writers, first-time playwrights, and as new members of the Arts in the Armed Forces community.

Here's a look at the first two winners of the Bridge Award - who will be the third?

Highlights from the conversation: 

Vinnie Lyman started writing stories when he was six years old: 

VL: When I was six I had five life goals: I wanted to grow up to be a writer, an NFL player, a ninja, a movie director and a soldier. The lofty aspirations of a Lilliputian Renaissance man. Well, I'm 41 now, and all I can say is – five out of five! I went to a psychic once when I was 18 called Madame Betty, and I asked her if I'd ever be successful in the arts, and she said noncommittally, "I see you – on some land." Well played, Madame Betty! There's a writing lesson in there somewhere. Don't give too much away!

Shairi Engle found out about the Bridge Award from member of her writers group at La Jolla Playhouse:

SE: Francisco has a way of 'suggesting' things that feel more like a direct order. At the end of last year’s workshop, we had a small reading of all our work. Francisco ‘suggested’ I needed to stop quietly sitting on my work and strongly, STRONGLY, suggested the Bridge Award as a good deadline to continue working on my draft. And I did.

Vinnie found out differently: 

VL: I googled Adam Driver after watching Silence and saw a New York Times article about The Bridge Award. I figured I'd give it a shot!

Neither Shairi nor Vinnie had ever finished a full-length play before and approached the process differently. Vinnie looked at some other works:

VL: I took inspiration from some oral histories I really liked – The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich and The Good War by Studs Terkel, which turned out to maybe not be the greatest idea because my play ended up being like three hours long, which is a long time to listen to people sitting in chairs telling stories. Eventually it got sorted.

Shairi dove inwards and drew support from her writers group: 

SE: The idea of writing a full length play is not what fueled me. My goal has never been about reaching a number of pages. My goal has been to write honestly and push myself to dive deeper into whatever intimidates or scares me. The pages come easier that way for me. And sitting at a table with a very diverse eclectic group of veterans was, in so many ways, exactly what my stories needed. This play gave me A LOT of challenges - but, what a learning experience. I now have a better sense of what I’ll be going through as I work on new projects. I’m ready to embrace the rollercoaster.

Vinnie found out he won in a parking lot: 

 VL: I had a message on my phone from Erica Newhouse [AITAF Program Director] – on my way home from work I pulled over at the Edmondsmon Village Shopping Center and called her back. For those of you who saw the documentary The Keepers (which is great!), this was the last place Sister Cathy was seen alive before being murdered, possibly because she was attempting to expose sex crimes committed by Catholic priests. And that's where I found out I won, in the parking lot of the Edmondsmon Village Shopping Center, thinking about Sister Cathy. Of course I was also thrilled, humbled, anxious, happy, all of those things. It was kind of a freaky afternoon.

Vinnie and Shairi both stress how their experience workshopping their plays with AITAF impressed on them the joy of collaboration:

VL: It gets lonely creating things for no one, and it's nice to see work come to life and interact with other people who are also interested in it. Workshopping a play is energizing and fun, unlike say workshopping a short story or a poem, which is the opposite of those things.

SE: A play is a living thing that will shift and morph and grow as it continues on in the hands of other artists. It’s such a unique and special thing - to put so much of yourself onto a page, and then watch how that information unfolds for someone you’ve never met before.

Both Vinnie and Shairi have news!

SE: I’m so excited that La Jolla Playhouse has offered to workshop my play. This March I’ll be back at a table with Lucie Tiberghien, the director of the AITAF-produced reading of Tampons, to continue our refining and trimming of this play!

VL: My play had its Off-Off-Broadway premiere in November in a production directed by Neath Williams, put on by the Society for Artistic Veterans. There may be a production in the spring in Kansas with Charlie Mike Theater Company.

And they're both working on new plays:

VL: I have three other plays I've written and submitted to a few theaters and contests; fingers crossed.

SE: I’m slowly working on two plays. They’re both still fledglings, but one is starting to really grow its spine. I feel excited and after having one play under my belt, I’m less intimidated by the amount of work I have ahead of me. The process of creating is how I breathe…I feel lucky to have stories to tell.

They have advice for writers who are considering sending in their work to this year's Bridge Award: 

 VL: I don't submit things with the anticipation that they're going to be published or that I'm going to win anything. Those recognitions are often few and far between, but – that unwelcome observation aside – that's no reason not to create something and submit it. There's a singular satisfaction to creating something that is yours and you did a good job on, regardless of whether or not others "get it" (or, in this case, "win awards" and "get money"). So if I have any advice – which I'm not sure I do, or that I'm qualified to bestow – I'd say create on the basis that you, yourself, will find it cathartic or emotionally satisfying.

SE: Our stories need to be shared. It’s not a mission you need to complete on your own. Send in what you think is a draft. It’s a step toward acknowledging that you have something worth sharing - because you do. Especially if it’s about something mundane … like tampons. We don’t need to consider this an order. But it is a strong ‘suggestion’. I’m giving you a deadline. You can do it.

Suzan-Lori Parks






Shairi Engle, 2019 Winner

2nd Annual Bridge Award: Tampons, Dead Dogs, and Other Disposable Things by Shairi Engle

Suzan-Lori Parks






Tony Kushner,

2019 Final Selecting Judge

Suzan-Lori Parks






Vinnie Lyman, 2018 Winner

1nd Annual Bridge Award: War Stories by Vinnie Lyman

Suzan-Lori Parks






Suzan-Lori Parks,

2018 Final Selecting Judge