On Monday afternoon, Ray Beauchamp looked at the front page of The New York Times website and started to scream. In the Bronx offices of Legal Services NYC, where Beauchamp works, the hard-bitten public defenders working alongside him sussed out what was going on and they, too, started screaming.
Beauchamp’s wife, 34-year-old Quiara Alegria Hudes, who was at that moment teaching a roomful of Wesleyan University students how to write plays, had just unexpectedly won a Pulitzer Prize. She was the last to find out. Hudes' phone was off, as it always is during her weekly seminar.
“My class runs from 1 to 4, and I think that’s when the announcement went out,” she told The Huffington Post (that is, by the way, when the announcement went out, as HuffPost staffers were acutely aware). “When class was over, I turned on my phone and my computer, and there were so many messages! It was a big surprise. I had no awareness even that it was being announced that day.”
Like the critics, Hudes counted her play “Water By The Spoonful” out of the game. The second installment in a trilogy, “Water” weaves the parallel stories of an Iraq veteran with the online lives of a group of far-flung substance addicts who meet regularly in a chatroom. As global as its sourcing is, it's a decidedly regional production, commissioned by and performed exclusively at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut where it’s more than pleased local critics (The Courant's Frank Rizzo called it “one of the best new plays I've seen in years”).
When the time came, the Stage rightly sent their pride and joy to the Pulitzer committee for consideration, but to betting parties, Hudes was destined for a respectable loss to either Jon Robin Baitz, whose “Other Desert Cities” was this season's favored original on Broadway, or Stephen Karam, who penned the darkly comic off-Broadway hit “Sons Of The Prophet.” Due to one of the many quirks of the Pulitzer system, finalists don’t know they're finalists until the winner is announced (among the rest: plays can be considered without ever having entered), and Hudes, thinking the whole thing over before it started, forgot to pay attention come Monday.
But that was then and this is now. Twice a Pulitzer finalist -- in 2008 with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the Broadway musical “In the Heights,” and the year before for “Water”s predecessor, "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue” -- Hudes is a bonafide winner today with all the privileges that title confers. One such privilege is a frenzied courtship by the media, and the suitors are already lined up around the block. We managed to get the girl herself on the phone long enough yesterday to leave the conversation totally charmed. With the clarity of a Pulitzer Prize winning-playwright, Hudes gave us a rundown of the last installment in her trilogy, the angsty plot of the very first play she ever wrote and told us in no uncertain terms why the Pulitzer has set her free.
In interviews, you describe "Water by the Spoonful" as a new direction for you. Since everyone's about to become an expert on your work, can you clarify what you mean by that?
Edward P. Jones, who’s a novelist whose work I greatly admire, says you’re always becoming a writer. You’re never a writer. I wanted to continue doing what I had done with "Elliot" ["A Soldier's Fugue"], but as a writer there has to be something new each time. "Elliot" had all Latino characters in one family. But then I thought, it’s 2012, and that isn’t the kind of world I live in. So this play is the first I wrote that has people from all over the world. There’s an online community that brings them together -- there’s an African American man, and a Japanese woman. Broadening my palette of characters was a real breakthrough. I felt more at home than I ever have.
What's your writing process like?
It’s horrible and wonderful. I love writing. It makes me so happy. If my husband heard that he’d be rolling his eyes and showing me all those emails I’ve written that say “I’m so miserable! I hate myself.” But I do really love it! I'll kind of get interested in a subject and I won’t know why. It’ll be in my head for many years and I’ll say, “Do I know enough here to research?” I love researching, I love interviewing. The best way for me to procrastinate as a writer is research. I’ll research for a year or longer and then I put it aside and I write my first draft very quickly. Like in two to three to four weeks, and then I’ll spend a year rewriting, developing, putting meat on the bones. But it’s very different with every play. With “Water By The Spoonful,” from research to production was three years.
What sort of research did you do for that project?
All sorts. My interest in the topic stems out of family struggles with addiction and recovery. As a child it was painful to see some family members go through what was the crack epidemic in Philly. Some of them survived triumphantly and some of them didn’t. So I started with my family and I did a lot of interviews. I also did research at the Institute of Living [Hartford Hospital's mental health facility], where I interviewed counselors, many of whom were in that profession because they had personal experiences with addiction. I interviewed a man named Alan Leshner, who runs the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and who's a very heavy hitter in terms of policy. He created a lot of policy under [President] Clinton that affected how we talked about crack cocaine.
In general, online entities like Facebook and Twitter aren't referenced nearly as much in theater as they are on TV and in movies, but you decided to position half your play online. How long do you think we have before the Internet is a part of all the plays we watch?
Not very long. Our language, our spontaneous conversation, is influenced by being online, as are our relationships and the way we interact. And that's what we playwrights work in -- language, interaction. One of the things that was exciting for me about including an online world was that I felt that I had seen plays that were really important and valid critiques of the Internet as a place where people can damage each other and hurt each other. But as I was researching addiction communities, what I found was that people from different parts of the world who would never have a chance to meet were literally keeping each other alive. I started reading and I'd sometimes be moved to tears. You could read relationships that stretched back for 10 years. Someone might be on their feet now, but you could go back and read their first post saying, “Help, help, help me.” They were like letters, they were static documentation of conversations. And -- and this is the case in many AA meetings -- the sense of humor is just totally kickass and fierce. These are people that have no illusions about themselves. They know they aren't perfect, and there’s a lot of self-deprecating humor.
Did you find that people's way of speaking in these chat rooms changed over the years, seeing as the Internet is a more regulated place in so many ways now?
It's funny, because chat rooms are now a little archaic, but there’s still a lot of people writing in them. For someone who’s 10 years sober or one day sober there’s still a lot of urgency and a challenge to continue with that. A lot of people who were on there either didn’t have access to AA meetings or because of modesty didn't feel comfortable, so the rooms provide a lot more anonymity. I think the urgency trumped any secrecy.
When did you know you wanted to be a playwright? What were your first attempts like?
I wrote a musical when I was 5 years old about running away from home. At some point after, I wrote a brilliant title, “My Best Friend Died,” which was clearly a drama. When I was 13 or so I wrote “My Dreams About Girls,” which won first place in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival, which I now sit on the board of.
So I’ve been writing forever, but I didn’t know I was a playwright until long after college. I studied music as an undergrad, and I was working professionally as a musician out of college. I was feeling like something wasn’t clicking into place. My mom was like, “Why haven’t you taken writing seriously? It’s something you've done all your life." And it was true -- I was publishing in zines, I was writing all the time, but it was a hobby. I never took it seriously as work because it was so fun. But when my mom kind of opened up my eyes to what was staring at me, I went back to school, because I hadn’t given it the proper attention that it deserved.
What are you working on now?
My next play will be at the Goodman Theater [in Chicago], and that’s the next installment of this series. Half of it remains in Philly with this Latino family, and half is set in Jordan, when just a border away, a country away, the Egyptian Revolution is happening. It’s about a family member who goes to do some work in Jordan and is renewed and invigorated.
I’m also hoping this prize will bring “Water By The Spoonful” to New York.
You've been a Pulitzer finalist before. Is it nicer to miss the prize and keep that high watermark to aspire to, or is it better to win?
It’s better to win! Somebody recently asked me if I feel a lot of pressure now, but my feeling is that it’s the exact opposite. I feel like: Oh, now I’m free! Someone said to me, "This is a good idea that you wrote a play," which is what I’ve always wanted to hear, so I feel like now I’m free to have this ridiculous life of being a playwright that’s what I’ve always loved.