The Playgoer: Pulitzer Puttering

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pulitzer Puttering

LA Times' Scott Timberg has more dope on the backstage drama of Drama at the Pulitzers, 2007:

The 17-member Pulitzer board couldn't reach a required majority vote on the nominees and faced a second consecutive year without awarding a prize in drama, Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler said Monday. "Rabbit Hole" also had been "mentioned favorably" in the jury's report, Gissler said, and the board, by a required three-quarters majority, sidestepped the nominees and gave it the prize.
So, to recap, here's what happened. The "jurors" selected to nominate plays (Ben Brantley, Paula Vogel, two regional theatre critics, and a Haverford English professor) submitted three titles they deemed the best of the year. Surprisingly, and to their credit, all three were relatively little known, aesthetically and/or politically challenging pieces nowhere near Broadway. They were:

"Orpheus X" by Rinde Eckert
"Bulrusher" by Eisa Davis
"Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Now some are already chiming in with ho-hum reactions to having seen these. I didn't see them. But I'm still impressed that the jury (a jury that included the New York Times lead drama critic!) went ahead and submitted such refreshing and unorthodox titles without even making a gesture not only to Broadway, but even to sanctioned nonprofit "safe houses" for new plays like Manhattan Theatre Club, South Coast Rep, etc.

So then those three titles had to be voted on by the gang of seventeen. Who are these Pulitzer Board members, you may ask?

In alphabetical order:
Lee C. Bollinger, President, Columbia University

Danielle Allen, Professor, Departments of Classics and Political Science and the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago

Jim Amoss, Editor, Times-Picayune, New Orleans, La.

Amanda Bennett, Executive Editor/Enterprise, Bloomberg News

Joann Byrd, Former Editor of the Editorial Page, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Kathleen Carroll, Executive Editor and Senior Vice President, Associated Press

Thomas L. Friedman., Columnist, The New York Times

Donald E. Graham, Chairman, The Washington Post

Anders Gyllenhaal, Executive Editor, The Miami Herald

Jay T. Harris, Wallis Annenberg Chair, Director, Center for the Study of Journalism and Democracy, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California

David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Stanford University

Nicholas Lemann, Dean, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University

Ann Marie Lipinski, Senior Vice President and Editor, Chicago Tribune

Gregory L. Moore, Editor, The Denver Post

Richard Oppel, Editor, Austin American-Statesman

Mike Pride, Editor, Concord (N.H.) Monitor

Paul Tash, Editor, CEO, and Chairman, St. Petersburg Times

I'll tell you something I notice about this list. None of them, not one, could remotely be considered an artist or even an arts specialist. Given the Pulitzers are a Journalism/Media entity--famous for giving certain highly prestigious awards to the arts, the fact not one critic is on the ultimately decisive board is pretty shocking. And insulting to the arts.

Can you really imagine any of these people--let's just say even the New York-based ones--seeing any of the plays nominated? Or is the theatre going experience of journalist cognoscenti like Nicholas Lemann and Tom Friedman limited to a token Manhattan Theatre Club subscription?

Ok, I don't know if either of them subscribes to MTC. But it shouldn't surprise us that not even 9 out of this group (that "majority") could get behind any of the three choices of the eminent juror panel. And that a "three-quarters majority" (so, 12?) had no problem completely overruling them in favor of probably the only play they had seen all year that fit the qualifications (i.e. it wasn't British, it wasn't Shakespeare, and it wasn't a revival).

Here's another theory: are the scripts of the plays provided for the jurors, and the board, to read? Since very few people saw the nominated plays, one would hope everyone at least read them. However--while I didn't see them, I know enough about the work of Rinde Eckert and Eisa Davis (basically performance artists) and know from the reviews of "Elliot"--that these are profoundly visual and performative works. In nominating these titles, the jurors were also taking the bold step of saying the most exciting new plays out there are not necessarily primarily literary.

(I can't help wondering if the same problem is what hurt the two-woman AIDS documentary piece In The Continuum--the play rumored to be the juror's favorite last year.)

I can only imagine these three scripts might have been baffling reads for the board. (Imagine reading an avant-garde theatre text for the first time, without the visual aid/supplement of performance.) At least, a lot more grueling a read than... Rabbit Hole?

Yes, Rabbit Hole is easy to like, if what you ask from theatre is just good story, poignant emotion, and a glamorous lead performance. And, yes, it also hails from both Manhattan Theatre Club and South Coast Rep. (Ok, I dropped those names earlier as a setup.) So no matter the merits of the play, what a safe, safe pick.

Which is probably exactly what the board considers its charge to do.

All Pulitzer info from the official site. (No direct links to specific pages possible. So, happy hunting!)


Art said...

Yes Garrett,

I think you have hit on the two key points, and they happen to be things you and the blogosphere have been discussing in posts for the past couple of years:

1. New York Centrism

2. Avante Garde's place in the canon of theatre.

If Pulitzer finalists increasingly become productions that haven't seen a New York engagement then how are you even going to arrive at any sort of consensus with a board like that? And add to this the fact that a play's text will require more imagination in a reading.

Think beyond this as well. Proof, Doubt, Rabbit Hole, (go back a long way,) these are all plays that are simple enough to stage at smaller and mid-sized theater companies, not to mention all of the community theatres across the land.

Heck, Rabbit Hole will no doubt even be able to be called "edgy."

Anonymous said...

I think the key point Playgoer makes is the utter lack of theater expertise on the governing panel. The Pulitzers are primarily journalistic awards; if they want the drama Pulitzer to be taken seriously instead of being viewed as a seal of approval for a certain kind of middlebrow narrative-driven playwriting, maybe they should leave the choice to the panel.

On the other hand...sorry to be blunt, but the composition of this panel is really unimpressive. Two local newspaper writers, an academic, one playwright and Ben freakin' Brantley? Surely the panel's recommendation would be more meaningful if the panel had a little more prestige to it.

And while we're on the subject, what is Ben Brantley doing on this panel at all? The New York Times has a rule that forbids its critics from participating in awards-giving organizations; it's why, for instance, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis aren't part of the New York Film Critics Circle. The Times already has far too much influence on theater; its critics should not be permitted to have a hand in the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Anonymous said...

To respond to Anonymous 1:

Are you familiar with the writing of the two "local" (i.e., "regional," as Garrett rightly identified them) critics? If not, how can you dismiss them out of hand as "unimpressive?" (They seem to be more adventurous in their choice of nominations than the "prestigious" editors and columnists who made the final call, FWIW.) Karen D'Souza, for example, writes for a paper in San Jose and covers theater throughout the Bay Area, which is hardly Mayberry.

What in your mind constitutes "prestige," absent the presence of the lead critic in the NY Times, which you deem wholly problematic? Academic credentials? Past recognition with a Pulitzer? In which case Paula Vogel qualifies, though I suppose one could make a case that a working playwright might be ethically problematic, and a working playwright who teaches playwriting, as Vogel and so many others do, should recuse themselves if it appears they would be favoring students. For instance, Vogel and Sarah Ruhl have a close relationship so if "The Clean House" happened to be eligible this year and won, I could imagine some rumblings about "nepotism."

Perhaps you can clarify for us.

Kerry Reid
(freelance theater critic in the "local" market of Chicago)

Anonymous said...

Let's suggest to the Pulitzer committee that next year, we will assemble an august body of playwrights, actors, directors, critics, designers, techies and dramaturgs to pick the winner in international reporting.

George Hunka said...

Alternatively, Lindsay-Abaire could refuse the award, citing the irrelevance of the prize as well as the conflicts surrounding its selection this year. Or, for that matter, in any year. Before we consider that these awards have any significance whatsoever, we should remember that among the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize was Henry Kissinger.

It may mean that the published version of "Rabbit Hole" will enjoy a brief increase in sales (it did this morning at Shakespeare & Co., where I heard two people request the play), or that the prize will increase the play's chances of production in regionals around the country. But that speaks more to the sham significance that surrounds the Pulitzer, especially its arts prizes, not to the play itself.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you've seen this, but apparently the kid who shot up the campus at Virginia Tech was something of an amateur playwright:

Jason Grote said...

Jesus, Thomas Friedman? There go my chances.

Anonymous said...

"In nominating these titles, the jurors were also taking the bold step of saying the most exciting new plays out there are not necessarily primarily literary."

This is an interesting point, but for better or for worse, the Pulitzer Prize IS a LITERARY award. It's about text, story, and language. It's a playwright's award. There are plenty of other awards out there which aim to honor the whole package, but the Pulitzer is a writer's award. Which leads me to -

"Yes, Rabbit Hole is easy to like, if what you ask from theatre is just good story, poignant emotion, and a glamorous lead performance."

You say this like poignant emotion and good story are EASY to craft effectively. They're not. There's a reason most people consider drama to be the hardest form of literature to write. If anything, it's arguably "easier" to dare your audience to not "get" your play by crafting an intentionally obtuse piece and hiding behind heady, emotionally-distant slight-of-hand gimmickry than it is to craft a good story that manages to pack a genuine emotional punch. I don't mean to put down the avant-garde (since it seems that's the umbrella under which we're lumping anything that's not an MTC play), but one could just as easily be dismissive by saying "BLAH BLAH is easy to like if all you ask of theatre is some heady presentational pulpit-preaching exercise that eschews story and constructed, muscular narrative in favor of hightened poetic imagery and fragmented structure."

Anonymous said...

Lindsay-Abaire refusing the Pulitzer? On principle?

That sounds about as likely as Sanjaya stepping down from "American Idol" because he's a truly sucky singer.

By the way: I only watch PBS and listen to NPR.

Anonymous said...

Rabbit Hole was a bore anyways!!! Who cares??!!! I agree with Hunka.