Pulitzer Prize Winning Play, and a Winning Director, Too

The main hall in a new performing arts center in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Monday, Nov. 8, 2010. An artists'
The main hall in a new performing arts center in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Monday, Nov. 8, 2010. An artists' boycott of a $11 million performing arts center opening Monday in the Jewish settlement of Ariel is giving a new twist to a pressing question, where should Israel's permanent borders run? Leading Israeli playwrights, actors and artists say they will not cross the "Green Line", Israel's frontier before it captured the West Bank in 1967, to perform in the new theater in Ariel, an Israeli enclave of 19,000 people. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama was given to the writer of a fast and funny and poignant new American play that I had the good fortune to see, Between Riverside and Crazy. The Pulitzer is awarded to a playwright, but I'd argue there should be a citation in there somewhere for the director of the first production.

A brand new play comes into the world gestated by a playwright, sometimes for as long as a decade, the ideas growing and developing until they demand to see the light of day. But the midwife whose job it is to insure that the baby comes out alive and kicking is the director. And Stephen Adly Guirgis had the good fortune to have Austin Pendleton in the delivery room.

I say that as a playwright myself, and one who has worked with many directors, including (full disclosure) Austin Pendleton, on the first steps of a new play, the early readings. Taking nothing away from the playwright, let's add at least a paragraph about the director to all these articles about the new Pulitzer Prize winning play.

Theater is a team sport; surely the actors, and the designers too, get credit for their efforts in the development of a new play. An actor's own speech patterns are suggestive of a new line here, a question from a designer clarifies the plot for the playwright. A lot can happen in the unseen world of new play development that fundamentally alters the course of a play. But most theater professionals would agree that the lion's share of shaping comes in the fertile and sometimes frantic process of a playwright and a director, huddled together after rehearsal, deep in thought and conversation.

Directors like Pendleton don't want the credit; they reflect it back on the playwright and modestly demur that they were lucky to be part of it all. But we playwrights know when we get lucky as well. Virtually every review of the show mentioned the terrific direction given in not just one, but two productions of Between Riverside and Crazy just months apart, a rare thing in New York theater history, both productions helmed by Austin Pendleton.

Some might argue that the Pulitzer is supposed to be an award purely for the script, unlike the Obies or the Tonys or the Outer Critics Circle Awards, where the prize for Best Play cannot help but be influenced by the production. Everyone in theater understands that seeing a production on stage deeply influences the way the work is perceived, even by a jury of the most scrupulous peers.

A bad play with great performances and superb direction sometimes makes it into the winner's circle for numerous awards, but then fails to catch on in subsequent productions. And there are rare cases, such as Nilo Cruz's win for Anna in the Tropics, where the Pulitzer came before the first production.

But as a working playwright, I'd argue that even in the case of Anna in the Tropics, the script that is read by the Pulitzer Prize Committee comes with a history of false starts, dropped subplots, and often a whole variety of possible endings that came and went during the process of hearing the play read or in a staged reading, and each of these readings came with a director willing to patiently sit with the writer and go, sometimes word by word and action by action, through a new script.

So let's hear it for the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose imagination, comic timing, sense of pace and diction have given us many fine plays, including his latest, the Pulitzer Prize winning Between Riverside and Crazy. But let's also tip the hat to the director who helped him get there.