To Award, or Not to Award

How do you solve a problem like this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama?

As detailed on the occasion of last year’s A Strange Loop taking home its much-deserved trophy, the Pulitzer’s qualification rules are a bit hazy. Though the winning text is often tied to an attention-garnering New York City production, it’s not a prerequisite; back in 2018, Tracy Letts’ The Minutes was pronounced a finalist after premiering at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, years before its big apple debut was planned for, tear, this season (JR, bring it back, baby!).

A year without NYC as the industry’s focal point could open up the Pulitzers to more regional consideration, thereby emphasizing to the theatre community at large that there’s theatrical life outside your NYC apartment. The snag: the other big cities are similarly shut down, with no plans to reopen with enough time to book potential Pulitzer contenders. Could this pave the way for either Pulitzer-caliber writers to take their talents to farther-flung locales, or perhaps the Pulitzer committee can elevate “small-market” theatremakers to awards-heights usually reserved for names up in lights.

BUUUUUT the Pulitzers will probably be wary about incentivizing any physical productions right now, for fear of their questionable safety. As such, the Pulitzers could return to the prize’s stipulated roots and focus exclusively on texts. If they wanted to promote widespread engagement with the adjudicating, they could even release a longlist — like the Booker Prize and the National Book Award! — from which the winners will be chosen, which Joe Shmoes and Jane Schmaes at home could read along with to have an opinion — which I’m sure they’d keep to themselves, in this social media age — on the proceedings. Despite being a national award, in the past, it’s been almost impossible for anyone outside of the tri-state area to be familiar with Pulitzer competitors, the vast majority of which have not — and may never — come to their hometowns.

OR, in a year without normal entries, is this as good a time as any to finally reward Richard Nelson’s Rhineback Panorama? Over the decade since its first entry, each play has tied the personal to the political; viewed together, they provide a sort of flip-book, a moving image of change and progress in action — or not — over the last ten years of American history. It’s by no means all-encompassing — what art could be? — but since Nelson and his repertory have added two new Zoom works to the Panorama this year, in lieu of other options, the Pulitzers could recognize the whole Panorama while still tying the citation to a uniquely 2020 theatrical piece, one that speaks to the possibility of the form (perhaps necessarily) merging with other mediums to survive.

That seems to be truer to the Pulitzer’s stated mission — “for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life” — than forgoing the year entirely. Theatremakers are still making, albeit in altered forms, so the Pulitzers should keep awarding, albeit to unconventional choices.

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