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Will new drama erupt over the Pulitzer Prize for drama?

April 14, 2011 |  9:12 am

Next to normal pulitzer prize newsOn April 18, Columbia University will unveil the newest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for theater, an announcement that often triggers as much drama as can be found on a Broadway stage. Mention of Broadway is appropriate because this prize often has an obvious bias toward high-profile theater in New York –- where Columbia is located, of course. Will that occur again? Last year a huge flapdoodle erupted when Pulitzer chiefs ignored the recommendations of their jury and picked Broadway musical "Next to Normal" for the prize, even though there were concerns about its eligibility.

What'll happen this year? One of our readers -– Chicago actor Spenser Davis –- offers his perspective below:

Almost one year ago today, pundits and theater enthusiasts were wracking their brains trying to predict what three plays that a very special five-person jury would nominate for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. As they numbered their preferences and filled out their own faux ballots, message board prognosticators across the country threw several titles into the ring of possibilities in hopes that they could predetermine even one of the three finalists.

Some said that a sure-fire finalist was Tarell Alvin McCraney's "The Brothers/Sisters Plays," a trilogy of plays that premiered in New York Off-Broadway, before finding a well-received production in Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Others sang the praises of "Circle Mirror Transformation," which premiered at New York's Playwrights Horizons, where it was voted as one of the top 10 plays of 2009 by the likes of the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Time Out New York (it went on to win the 2010 Obie Award for best new American play). And there were those who even thought the Geoffrey Nauffts' (Elton John-endorsed) Tony-contending "Next Fall" had a shot at the shortlist. But on the day of the announcements, everyone, including myself, was caught off guard.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Pulitzer process, it is one of the most unique of all the major arts prizes -- for many reasons. To start with, there is a five-person jury that sifts through all of the year's major contenders. Last year, this jury consisted of former Variety theater critic David Rooney, L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty, playwright Nilo Cruz (a prize winner himself), Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss, and John M. Clum, professor of theater and English at Duke University. These five individuals read all submitted play scripts, congregate, discuss, and then agree on whom they choose as the three finalists of that year. These three finalists are then sent to the award's advisory board, made up of a group of trustees from Columbia University in New York who look over the three suggested finalists and ultimately come to a decision of winner. The second-most unique aspect of the Pulitzer voting system is that, on the day of announcements, both the three finalists and the winner are announced.

Suffice to say, on April 12, 2010, the announcements hit like a one-two punch.

Punch one: Only one of the finalists ("In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play," by Sarah Ruhl) had had a New York production at that point. Another of the finalists (Kristoffer Diaz's "Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety") was an obscure play that had a successful run in Chicago but whose plot summary -– professional wrestling that symbolizes the exploitation of race? –- left some baffled. And the third finalist? "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo"? No one had even heard of it.

And punch two: In a very controversial decision, the Columbia University trustees ignored the jury's three finalist submissions and chose "Next to Normal," the Kitt-Yorkey musical that premiered in Washington, D.C., in 2008, and therefore wasn't even technically eligible for the 2010 Pulitzer. Although most Americans went about their daily lives without ever catching wind of the controversy, theater circles from the East Coast to the West had something new to mull over. Jury member McNulty released a firestorm in his L.A. Times column, accusing the New York-based Columbia trustees of letting their NYC prejudices get the best of them, and displaying a "failure to appreciate new directions in playwriting."

Whereas the five jury members were consistently obligated to fly across country to see upwards of 70 submitted productions throughout the year, the Columbia advisory board members were, in McNulty's words, firmly planted in the Big Apple.

"In an era in which important new dramatic works rarely get their start in New York," McNulty continued, having "a vision of the American theater that starts in Times Square and ends just a short taxi ride away is especially disheartening." He even brought to light that "Next to Normal" was not selected for the prize when in D.C., when it could have initially been.

Slowly, the dust began to settle. And though I doubt very seriously that McNulty will be serving as the head juror for the prize this year, his words do still spark a lot of questions in message boards across the Net: Who will the finalists be this year? Will the advisory board overlook them again, before choosing its own favorite (New York-based) winner? Will the board break its own eligibility rules again, and choose a play or musical from a year or two back? Or, as it did in 2006 and before, will the board refuse to award any of the finalists and declare it a year for "no award"? Just as we begin to speculate on one question, another pops up.

The contenders this year make this a remarkably open race. "Clybourne Park," Bruce Norris' sequel-of-sorts to "A Raisin in the Sun," has many buzzing, as does "Middletown," an "Our Town" post-modernization that, realized, premiered in November of last year, just one month before the cutoff date. But we certainly should not count out "Time Stands Still," which past prize winner Donald Margulies actually pulled from 2010 consideration when he decided he would be making some significant changes to the text. Also in the running: John Logan's "Red," winner of the 2010 Tony Award for best play, which speculates on the relationship between painter Mark Rothko and his young assistant. Amy Herzog's "After the Revolution" centers around a blacklisted man's descendants and is surely not one to discount from the race either.

Ah, but I am being far too New York-centric. Let's not forget that both the 2008 and 2009 prize winners –- "August: Osage County" and "Ruined," respectively -– came from Chicago. As for contenders from the Windy City, there are plenty to choose from. Dan LeFranc's "The Big Meal," set in a suburban restaurant, calls for a cast of eight to represent five generations of a modern family. "A Twist of Water" by Caitlin Montanye Parrish is set in Chicago, sure, but it is a subtly political statement on adoption, parenting and the loss of a loved one that is relatable across America.

Truth be told: We don't know. Speculate as we may, there is always a title -– even in a list as short as three –- that surprises us. Maybe we'll have an upset this year. Maybe no award will be handed out. What I'm mostly curious about is, will the advisory board look outside of New York for the winner?

Photo: "Next to Normal" was chosen for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in drama, which led to a controversy over its eligibility. Credit: Booth Theatre / Playbill