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Pulitzer shutout stings writers

Board's decision to give no award in the drama category is viewed by some as a rebuke to new theater in the U.S.

April 19, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

As journalists, novelists, photographers and poets toasted their winners of the 2006 Pulitzer Prizes, playwrights were left with empty champagne glasses Monday when it was announced that the Pulitzer board had selected no recipient in the drama category for the first time since 1997.

And although some Pulitzer competition representatives denied that the decision represented either a snub to the finalists or a comment on the sorry state of new American theater, some in the theater community felt different.

Adam Rapp, who was among the three finalists for his play "Red Light in Winter," said Tuesday that the lack of a drama award was like "a year without a Santa Claus" for playwrights.

Rapp would have been happy if either of the other finalists, Christopher Durang for his play "Miss Witherspoon" or Rolin Jones for "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow," had won. (Jones' play premiered at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.) But Rapp added: "Not to name a winner when there are three plays worthy of being finalists is a little obnoxious. I feel like our vocation is a dying species in America. We need everyone supporting us as much as possible. Telling stories in the theater is an important thing. Playwrights are moving to the West Coast to do TV and film just to stay solvent."

Craig Lucas, whose book for the Broadway musical "The Light in the Piazza" was believed to be in Pulitzer contention, was highly vocal in his disrespect for the Pulitzer committee, saying that the group "wouldn't know the world if it ran over them with a truck." However, he did say that if he had won a Pulitzer, he would have been "thrilled for my bank account," and he called the award important to the potential financial success of a playwright.

John Weidman, president of the Dramatists Guild of America, said winning a Pulitzer can give a definite boost to a young playwright's career and called the lack of an award in 2006 "a negative statement" for theater.

Pulitzer prize administrator Sig Gissler disagreed. "I'm no expert on the theater business. All I can say with some confidence is this is not a definitive comment on the state of drama in America," he said, citing the fact that the Pulitzer board has named no winner in drama 15 times in the past and has done the same "58 times altogether" in various categories, including fiction and public service.

This year, the Pulitzer committee changed the time parameters for a play to qualify to the calendar year rather than spring to spring. That had some observers grumbling that worthy plays, including David Lindsay-Abaire's "The Rabbit Hole," would have to wait until next year to be eligible, because the switch limited the eligibility period to 10 months.

Linda Winer, the Long Island newspaper Newsday's chief theater critic, led a panel of five jurors who selected the finalists and said that a longer theater calendar still would not have revealed a play that "was jumping up and down and saying, 'I'm a Pulitzer Prize-winning play.' "

" 'The Rabbit Hole,' " she said, "was a play I didn't like anyway. I'm on the record with the fact that it was a play that was beautifully performed, but it was a movie of the week."

Richard Nelson, a playwright and chair of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama, called the no-award decision "unfortunate" and "disappointing," saying it seemed indicative of a lack of support for new play production in the United States.

"It's not about support for new play development but new play production, which is somewhat different," Nelson said. "You're never going to get a Pulitzer for a play that is sitting in development."

However, Nelson also believes that not winning a Pulitzer can also have a beneficial effect -- not for the disappointed finalists, but for the theater community at large.

"It sort of gets people thinking that maybe we're not quite giving the focus to new writing that we should in our theaters," he said. "Sometimes I think it galvanizes things in a healthy way."

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