On Monday, in the middle of her Advanced Playwriting class, Visiting Writer in Theater Quiara Alegria Hudes opened her email and her face went white. She excused herself from the room, and her students—myself included—sat silently, worrying and hoping that everything was all right.
Hudes returned a moment later.
“Sorry about that, guys,” she said. “Uhm, I just won the Pulitzer Prize.”
We applauded and then continued workshopping student plays.
But such a milestone moment cannot go unheralded. I conducted a phone interview with the new Pulitzer Prize winning playwright—already a Tony winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist from 2007—to find out about her projects, process, and plans for the future.
The Argus: You won the Pulitzer for your play, “Water by the Spoonful.” Tell us about it.
Quiara Alegria Hudes: It basically takes place in two worlds: one is in this family in North Philadelphia. And one of these family members runs an online chat room for recovering drug addicts. So it’s kind of about her online family vs. her physical family, and her online family is all over the world. So it follows a few weeks in the evolution of this chatroom.
A: What project are you currently working on?
QAH:I’m currently working on “The Happiest Song Plays Last.” It is the third play of the trilogy—the first two being
“Eliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” and “Water by the Spoonful.” And it’s going up at the Goodman Theater.
A: Do you work on different plays simultaneously?
QAH: Always, because you might be in the first draft with one play while going to rehearsals with another, so you’ll be in a third draft with that play. And your mind is in both, so you have to work on both. And also, things take a long time in theater. Like right now I am working on “Like Water for Chocolate” because I am writing the book for that, but then I also will have other plays going into workshop. So you are always juggling a few projects at once, just because of the sporadic nature of this profession.
A: How does workshopping student plays relate to working on your own material?
QAH: It really complements it. It makes me excited about what’s possible. I remember also writing my first plays—there is a very freeing level and use of imagination and a really exciting naïveté about the writing, which is really different from when you’ve written four full-length plays and you really start to learn the rules. Because [the rules] can become a great platform, but also a little bit of a handicap to the wildest ideas. But you know, it’s really fun—I was sitting down yesterday reading [a student’s] play and he has a bunch of wild and imaginative ideas in it, and it’s such a great reminder of how free you really have to be every time you sit down to work.
A: A lot of people on campus know you as “the one who wrote the book for ‘In The Heights,’” but a majority of your work at this point consists of straight plays. How does working on a musical differ from working on a straight play?
QAH: It’s completely different. It couldn’t be more different. With playwriting, what’s on the page—and to some extent what ends up on the stage—is 100% my vision: it’s my creation, it’s my idea, it’s my execution. I am 100% responsible for the world so things that are successful, things that aren’t successful—that rests on my shoulders, and if there’s something that’s not working with the piece, it’s on me to fix it.
With musicals, the boundary between whose material is whose is very liquid. So at times it can be frustrating because the book writer can’t always fix all the problems, and the composer can’t always fix all the problems, nor can one person take all the responsibility for the project being great. And the processes are very different. When I’m writing a play, I isolate myself, block out the world, because I’m listening to what’s going on in my head and trying to figure out what my story to tell is. With musicals, you still have to do that, but then later on that very day you have to go expose that in an early stage to your collaborator, and have their world and their vision totally interact with your world and your vision.
A: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? How did you go about making it your profession?
QAH: It’s funny looking back on it, because my entire life, I was always writing. And it was not a self-conscious act. Writing does not require any sort of planning. Your parents don’t have to drive you to your writing exercise, you just do it at home. I published poems and wrote articles for the school newspaper and was part of a young playwright’s festival in Philadelphia. I just always loved writing, and I knew I was good at it, but I never thought of it in terms of a career until a few years out of undergrad when my mom basically asked me why I never took writing seriously. And I had honestly never had that thought, but once she mentioned it, I knew. So I applied to grad school and ended up going to Brown where I was fortunate enough to study under Paula Vogel while she still taught there.
A: How would you define your writing process?
QAH: Very straightforward. I keep banker’s hours (when I’m not teaching). Monday through Friday. Nine to five. Sometimes that’s research, and sometimes it’s writing and sometimes it’s rewriting. I also go through a few periods a year where I’ll be very intensely writing and it will take over more than just my nine-to-five hours.
A: Once a play is in production and you see it on its feet, do you rewrite/rework scenes frequently, or do you stay away from the rehearsal process?
QAH: I do a lot of work in the room, especially because I feel like I get a sense of where energy dips, and so a lot of times my rewrites are around where something feels long, not as urgent, overwritten. And there are always times in the rehearsal room where I think it is healthy for a writer to step away because the actors should have their own process and I can start second-guessing my writing just because they are still in a process with their own work.
A: How much of your writing comes from life experience and how much from imagination?
QAH: 100% imagination. 100% life experience. Not my personal life, but I’m very interested in the stories of those around me, so the stories of my plays come from family members and community stories that I have witnessed. And so it feels very personal to me because they’re people I care about and people I love, but it’s not my own life or my own personal stories. I tried that a few times, and it just wasn’t nearly as interesting to me. But in the end, I always turn it into fiction because, to me, whatever makes a great hero and what makes a good story does not stay true to life.
A: How much of your writing skill do you believe is innate and how much do you attribute to what you learned and honed in classroom situations?
QAH: I think that most of it is innate. Vogel’s teaching was not very formalistic. She wasn’t so much about teaching rules of writing or classic plays as she was giving us reading lists and making into our own voices as writers very self-directed. I mean, she’s a real master teacher, so in that way I think she was teaching us to teach ourselves our own writing processes. So a lot of it feels innate. But that being said, what is innate within me was influenced and shaped by her teaching.
A: What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights? For example, do you feel it is imperative to get an MFA?
QAH: Be wary of going straight through from undergrad to grad school. I think with writing, you don’t really know you want to be a writer until you do it and spend lots of time doing it for many years. And so I think that has to be done on one’s own time. For me, grad school was a very helpful thing because I learned about the theater world, the producing world, which I had no access to before then. But I would say be wary about going into debt for pursuit of a playwriting career through attending an MFA [program], because that’s really hard.
A: I know it has not been long since the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced, but how has this honor affected your career?
QAH: It’s just really exciting. It will have an effect on my career, no doubt. I don’t totally know the answer to that question yet, though, so we’ll have to see.
A: Finally, and we’re all hoping the answer is yes, will you continue to teach?
QAH: Definitely. I feel committed to teaching. I’ve been very fortunate in my life to interact with master teachers, and I feel like it would be a shame to not turn the tables a little bit and not take teaching seriously.