To mark the 20th anniversary, the theater has surveyed past winners and in other ways revisited the history of the festival, which Henning started three years after he founded the Blank in 1990. One source of inspiration was New York-based Young Playwrights Inc., which Stephen Sondheim established in 1981. The Blank has presented more than 230 plays by 175 writers, its focus expanding from local to national, readings eventually replaced by staged performances.
Actors receive small stipends; others volunteer their time. A team of apprentices — mostly college students and recent grads — helps put on the shows. "We can't cover all expenses for out-of-town students," Henning says, "but we do what we can." Funding for the event comes from grants, individual donations and ticket sales.
Many winners say the festival gave them the confidence to keep writing. As a kid in Scranton, Pa., Karam spent a lot of time in his room working on plays but never envisioned a career in playwriting. "There was no clear path for pursuing this kind of passion," he says. "Getting this validation was crucial."
Karam's "Speech & Debate" debuted in New York in 2007 as part of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Roundabout Underground series before its 2nd Stage production. His play "Sons of the Prophet" was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Austin Winsberg grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended Brentwood School and thought about becoming a studio executive. He says the festival, in which he was a five-time winner, "taught me a lot and made me believe in my ability to write."
Now 35, he is an L.A-based writer-producer whose credits include creating the ABC series "Jake in Progress," working on the CW's"Gossip Girl" and writing the book for the musical "First Date," which premiered in Seattle this spring.
Winsberg, who like Karam graduated from Brown University, has served as a selection committee member, director and mentor. As have many winners, he has kept in touch with Henning, whom he calls "the epicenter of the festival."
The Blank program's influence extends beyond helping to launch careers. At the end of one opening night, Henning says, he found a boy who had written about a school sports hazing incident sitting outside the theater. When Henning asked if he were OK, the boy said yes. "Then, he said, 'This is amazing.' And then he told me this was the first play he had ever seen."
"To give somebody the opportunity to have their voice heard and also be part of something they may not have known about is very exciting," Wyle says.
"Every year, we finish a festival and say, 'Gee, do we want to do all that again?'" Henning says. "And then we remember experiences like that one and we say, 'Oh, yeah, we'll be back.'"