Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, currently collaborating on a Netflix series about the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s with Academy Award nominated director Baz Luhrmann, was honored with the 2014 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award at the 7th Annual Steinberg Playwright ‘Mimi’ Awards, presented by The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, on Monday, November 17, 2014.
The Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award is presented biennially to honor and encourage the artistic excellence and achievement of an American playwright whose body of work has made significant contributions to the American theater.
Guirgis received a cash award of $200,000 and “The Mimi,” a statuette designed by Tony Award-nominated scenic designer and architect David Rockwell.
Luhrmann, David Henry Hwang, Helen Carey, John Leguizamo, Andy Karl, Orfeh, Moises Kaufman, Lynne Meadow, John Patrick Shanley, Chay Yew, Tim Sanford, David Adjmi, Bruce Norris, Lynn Nottage, James Yaegashi, fellow LAByrinth Theater Company members and more, gathered in Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater lobby in New York to honor Guirgis.
After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the program began with Ellen Burstyn and Kevin Corrigan reading an excerpt from The Little Flower of East Orange at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater; followed by opening remarks by Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director, CENTERSTAGE.
Other scenes highlighting his work included Elizabeth Rodriguez killing it with Saint Monica’s monologue from The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Yul Vázquez and Felix Solis performed a scene from The Motherf***er with the Hat.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director, CENTERSTAGE
“Thanks to the Lincoln Center Theater for graciously affording us their beautiful home tonight, and Miss Sarah Ruhl for allowing us to play with reckless abandonment on the set of her new play, The Oldest Boy. I would be remiss actually, if I didn’t take a moment to thank The Steinberg Trust for this magnificent gesture of support for the art and struggle of playwriting. 200 G’s, baby! But money, apart, I need not tell you how important awards like this are for the soul of the playwright. For the soul of this thing we do called theater.
This is my third Mimi Awards ceremony. The first was hosted by Oskar Eustis, the second, by Todd London. Both of these men speak with such truth and elegance, that I’m calling this the short straw year. So, I’m not going to try and match their eloquence, but simply try to bear witness to the power of the one honored today.
It was a Saturday afternoon in May 2002, when I walked into an intimate theater in Central London to see Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. A theater I have to say, I was always very uncomfortable going in to for reasons of access and barriers that everybody in this room fights to tear down everyday. I’m not sure how I heard about the play, but heard I had, and there I was. As I look back now, I wished that I had been warned. Because, I was ill prepared for the visceral blow after blow I would receive from this magnificent playwright. Each jab deeply challenging my understanding of the human heart. Each character profoundly questioning my own capacity for empathy. Each turning point which made me question myself, made me ask myself, ‘Kwame, where do you really stand on forgiveness, on revenge, on justice.” Stunned, I turned to my brother, who sat next to me and said, “Who is this Motherf***er?! I knew I could use that right?’
But I walked away from that experience a changed man.
Never again would I let the notion or perception of exclusion stop me from entering any theater that dared to produce work like this.
Never would I let the side glances or the recognition of being the obligatory other person of color in the audience, stop me from being exposed to such life altering experiences that the space created and dedicated for such transformation, yes, the theater.
I truly believe I may not have been the man I am today, had I not experience that play, that day, in that way. It dawned on me as trite as it sounds, that the playwright and all the translators between their art and us the audience, have the capacity sewn into their DNA to change lives. I bear witness to that.
That is why this particular award, an award that The Steinberg Trust has dedicated solely to the playwright, one that asks nothing from them other than to recognize them- that they are loved and important and needed is so vital.
It’s why my fellow judges and I vigorously debated, argued and championed a wide field of worthy candidates, but ultimately and unanimously agreed that although all judgments are subjective, that this playwright, not above others, but on behalf of us all, deserved to be awarded The Mimi, deserved to be this year’s Steinberg Distinguished Playwright.
In our guidelines it says -nominations must be for a mid career playwright who has made significant and distinctive contributions to the American Theater, with his or her body of work. I bear witness that the affect of this man’s work is even wider than the American theater.
But that is enough witnessing from me. Let’s hear from the man himself, shall we, through the voice and talents of Elizabeth Rodriguez in an excerpt from The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Performing Saint Monica’s monologue, please welcome the wonderful Elizabeth Rodriguez, accompanied by Trevor Long.”
Actress Liza Colón-Zayas introduced Guirgis prior to the presentation of the award.
“Thank you to The Steinberg Trust for honoring my dear friend Stephen tonight. Stephen and I go back almost three decades. Back to Albany State University theater department. Stephen was kind of quiet and mysterious wearing one feather earring. I was dressed in black, working really hard to have Depeche Mode hair. And we did not look anything like the star pupils of the theater department. I don’t know how or when we figured out that we were from the same tribe, but just that one day we were hanging out, I found someone who accepted the me, the South Bronx me, in a place that was very much about neutralizing my regionalism. So we soldiered on through memorizing Shakespeare, Haikus and mask work. Even learning a minuet, for real. It was part of our movement class workshop. So whenever possible, we would go to the lounge to smoke a cigarette, talk shit and try to laugh off that ‘What the fuck feeling!’ From then on, Stephen was my brother. We got through it. I got my BA in theater with no idea who I was as an actor.
A few years went by and we were finally reunited through LAByrinth Theater Company, which at that time was Latino-actors based. And John Ortiz was one of the founders. He’d been to Albany also. He brought in Stephen as an actor. Since LAByrinth was a theater gym, the members were encouraged to explore writing, directing and acting beyond our type. So Stephen wrote short pieces like Waiting for the Bus, Francisco and Benny. And he had a way of writing for people we knew, in a way that would crack us up, while he pulled the rug out at the same time. He was already so gifted that we encouraged him to write more and more. When Philip Seymour Hoffman, Phil, became a member, he acted in one of Stephen’s early plays, Race, Religion and Politics. Then he directed five of Stephen’s plays, and his passion and genius and leadership took Stephen’s brilliant writing to a whole other level. They both encompassed the spirit of Labyrinth and the spirit of LAByrinth is Theater Con cojones. And the rest is history.
I am so grateful to have been on this ride with you, Stephen. All of us who have been in one of your plays (and I’ve been in eight), we just want to keep reliving them. Elizabeth Canavan and I would pick up a random scene from his anthology every night and read one scene in the dressing room this summer during Between Riverside and Crazy. And that’s what happens, you just want more. And theaters and schools around the country, and around the world, are tearing it up too.
And I wonder, what would it have been like if I had been empowered at that time when I was in school, with a writer like Stephen. How might I have been transformed, if I had witnessed life experiences similar to my own, at that stage, or on a stage?
In Ojai, I saw an ex-con, ex-gang member, tattooed from head to toe, have an emotional breakdown while reading a monologue from Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. And he told us how he found Stephen’s writing while he was locked up, and how it saved his life. That’s what he does.
Thank you Stephen. And only you get a title like The Motherf***er with the Hat on a marquee on Broadway. And get six Tony noms. It was recently produced in Madrid, and I think I loved the title just as much in Spanish- el hijo de puta madre con un sombrero. That’s right. So thank you again Stephen, for giving us Theater Con cojones. On that note, please welcome Yul Vázquez and Felix Solis to the stage to present a scene from The Motherf***er with the Hat.”
Michael Steinberg, Board Member, The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, introduced 2014 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award recipient, Stephen Adly Guirgis.
Excerpts of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ acceptance speech.
“Thank you. Thank you to everyone who showed up, who came tonight. I would like to just thank and address The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, the Steinberg board of directors- Carole A. Krumland, James D. Steinberg, Michael Steinberg, Seth Weingarten, and William Zabel; and the Steinberg advisory committee- Jeremy Cohen, Paige Evans, Kwame, who spoke earlier, Neil Pepe, Carole Rothman, Chay Yew and Bill Rauch. And lastly, The Steinberg Trust administrative director, Deborah Martin, who maybe had the hardest job, because she had to put this together and deal with me.
It’s a tremendous thing you do, this philanthropy, this supporting the arts. Obviously, we live in a country where that’s sorely needed. But just as it relates to me, I think this is less about me, it’s about the work. This means a lot to me. You handed me a check and obviously, it’s not a small check, but I take this as an affirmation, and a kind of contract. Affirmation that some serious people are saying, “Hey, keep doing what you are doing. Stay in New York and write plays.” I always need affirmation ‘cause I’m like that.
The contract they said, It’s just for nothing.” But it’s not nothing. I want to let you know that I’m going to write plays as long as I can, as well as I can. That’s because of, in the large part, because of you. I just want to say, thank you so much. I’m really grateful. And it was fun having dinner last night as well.
How Theater Changed His Life
I want to thank some people. My sister is here, her name is Marie Therese Guirgis. She’s just a talented as me, just as successful in her field as me except when I’m successful in my field, you read about it the newspaper, and you read about it, for her, less.
When I was in college, I was kind of lost, in the early days before I became a theater major. I loved theater, I always wanted to do theater, but it didn’t seem like something I could do.
I came home for Christmas, and my sister, who was in high school at the time, used her babysitting money and bought me a ticket to see a play. And she gave me the thing. And I opened it and saw a ticket. I was excited ‘cause I thought it was concert. It was a play. I was a little bummed out. I went to a Wednesday matinee by myself of Burn This by Lanford Wilson. I saw John Malkovich’s performance. It changed my direction. It changed my life. I went back to Albany and said, ‘I want to be a theater major. I want to do that. And if I can’t do that, and I’m writing and I want to write something like that.’
A LAByrinth Theater Company Member
I’m a member of LAByrinth. I don’t know if I would be here without LAByrinth and all my friends, most of my friends are from LAByrinth. I’d like to take a moment to thank the founders of Labyrinth- John Ortiz, Paul and Kathy Calderon, David Deblinger and Gary Perez. I don’t think that information gets out enough.
I became a playwright because of LAByrinth, but when I first joined as an actor, I was intimidated because everybody was so talented and so cool. The people who seemed to be the best actors had all studied with these two people called Bill and Maggie. I studies for years with Bill Esper and Maggie Flanagan, learning Meisner Technique. It was really the first time that I cared passionately to learn something. Really passionately. That came from them. Bill’s like a father, and Maggie’s like a mother. After my mother died, Maggie has been keeping a close watch on me ever since. I appreciate it very much and I love her very much.
Before I worked with Phil, there was a director named Charles Goforth. He directed my first. He took me through it and taught me so much.
Another guy at LAByrinth doesn’t get cited as much as he should, John Gould Rubin. Often times, I’d be living in his house while writing the plays, eating his food, smoking his cigarettes. He was just generous and enthusiastic to a fault. With Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, we ended up seeing the world with that play. That’s because John Rubin is and was a passionate hustler. He made it happen. I’m indebted to him for life.
Ruth Hendel has been on the board of LAByrinth since the beginning, she supported me from the beginning. She was one of the first people at events to say hello and make me feel comfortable. I appreciate her so much.
Everything that has happened to me has been a lot of good fortune. A lot of community. I’ve had one agent for my whole career. I don’t know why he stayed with me, but I stayed with him because back in the beginning, when I first had the good fortune to choose an agent, I didn’t know anything about what it was and I didn’t really care to learn what it was, and I just figured, whoever’s office looked decent and didn’t seem like an idiot, that I believed that they thought that I was great. I didn’t believe it about myself, but that’s what John projected. I’m very grateful to John Mazzetti and always will be.
Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf was one of the first to produce my plays, she did it a lot and I owe her a lot.
Another artistic director is Neil Pepe. He came into my life at a time where I felt homeless at the time. He gave me a home. Not just that, but he allowed me to bring all my friends into his home. He’s amazing, so I want to thank him.
How playwrights Lynn Nottage, Kenny Lonergan, John Guare and John Patrick Shanley influenced his life and work
There are some playwrights who specifically have been very good to me since the beginning. Lynn Nottage is the first playwright to give me a lot of love and respect, and I never forget her. She was amazing to me.
Kenny Lonergan- I idolize Kenny… Melanie Evans gave me a comp to This is Our Youth… That play changed my life. I went and saw the play eight or nine times, just to take in the words. Years later… Kenny gave me the keys to his house in East Hampton. There was no one else there, and he said, “Stay as long as you want.” That’s something that a friend does, especially that we weren’t that close friends.
When we did Last Days of Judas Iscariot, it was an impossible thing to do. I remember, once we opened, I felt horrible, I felt like I failed on every level. I felt like I failed God, I failed my friends. I shacked up at my house and the phone rang after midnight one night. I picked up the phone and someone said, “Is this Stephen Guirgis?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “This is John Guare. I looked you up in the phone book, and I wanted to call you to tell you that I saw your play and ……. ” I mean, you can imagine.
The playwright that I have the closest friendship with and have known the longest, idolized the most, and looked to the most throughout my career has been John Patrick Shanley. I don’t think it is ever going to happen that I’m not going to want to take in the next John Patrick Shanley play, because it always feeds me.
And then I was fortunate enough in our company to meet and spend a lot of time with other playwrights like Brett C. Leonard and Robert Vadim.
Paying Tribute to the Late Philip Seymour Hoffmann
Lastly, it’s very difficult to talk about Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s just very difficult. I asked him to direct a play and he said, “Well I’d love to, but I’ve never directed a play.” I said, “Well, I haven’t written a play other than a year or two ago.” And we started working together. We did five plays in ten years.
Everybody knows that he was a great actor, and that he was a great artist. The truth is that he was a greater friend, and a greater person. I learned a lot from him, because he’s a great artist. That’s a whole story. But I learned equally as much by the kind of person he was. He’s not here. It shouldn’t be. It’s a tragedy for the kids, not for us. Life is for the living. I just love the guy so much and I miss him so much. He took such good care of me.
It may be impossible to ever work with a director who will meet his standard. And by that standard, it is somebody who cares about everything. That doesn’t disassociate from what’s going on, who takes responsibility from everything that happens from the moment the lights go down, to the moment the lights go up. A person, that you could write whatever you want, and he’s going to be able to understand it intellectually and emotionally and transmit that to the actors.
When Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train went Off-Broadway, it was my first time Off-Broadway. It was a big deal. Phil and I have such a relationship of unsaid because we spend so much time working. It’s opening night, I have to write a card. I have to express my feelings. I’m a writer. So I wrote this card, it was long. It’s opening night, we go outside, smoke a cigarette and I said, “I got you a card.” He said, “I got you a card.” I didn’t read the card, opening night, you go out and partied in those days. I get home, I read the card. I wrote a monologue/aria how I felt about my friend. I see his card, it just says,
I love you, I hope to grow old with you, I want to be there when you die.
I read this thing and I was blown away for about a minute and a half. Really. Then I was like, “I want to be there when you die.” He just assumes he’s going to outlive me. The truth is that I was always under that assumption too, which makes my life a different kind of adventure. But if I could say anything else, other than thank you, it’s just to say one more time, great artist, great man, better person, better friend. This is life.
But I’m very honored. I’m going to keep working. I’m so proud to be part of this community and the expanding community until I suck.”
At the close of the evening, the audience was treated to a special premiere reading from Untitled/Boxing Play, a new piece by Guirgis, performed by Stephen McKinley Henderson, Ron Cephas Jones and Neil Tyrone Pritchard.
“There is no one in contemporary American theatre like Stephen Adly Guirgis who brutally captures the largely forgotten and ignored segments of our country’s population and brings them to startling life,” Chay Yew, a member of the 2014 Advisory Committee and Artistic Director at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, said. “Play after play, Stephen’s body of work continues to be audacious, tackling, dissecting and celebrating society’s unsung underdogs. His imagination is dazzling; the command of his theatrical language is muscular and assured. Stephen is the poet and champion of our American underclasses.”
Guirgis is a member and former co-artistic director of LAByrinth Theater Company. His plays have been produced on five continents and throughout the United States. They include: Our Lady of 121st Street (Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle Best Play Nominations), Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award, Barrymore Award, Olivier Nomination for London’s Best New Play), In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings (2007 LA Drama Critics Best Play, Best Writing Award), The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (10 Best Time Magazine and Entertainment Weekly) and The Little Flower of East Orange, with Ellen Burstyn and Michael Shannon. All five plays were directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and were originally produced by LAByrinth.
His most recent play, Between Riverside and Crazy, recently completed a sold out run at The Atlantic Theater Company, and will transfer to Second Stage Theatre in 2015. His 2011 play, The Motherf***er with the Hat was directed by Anna D. Shapiro and marked his third consecutive world premiere co-production with The Public Theater and LAByrinth. In London, his plays have premiered at The Donmar Warehouse, The Almeida, The Hampstead and at The Arts Theater in the West End. Other plays include Den of Thieves and Dominica The Fat Ugly Ho for the 2006 E.S.T. Marathon. He has received the Yale Wyndham-Campbell Prize, a PEN/Laura Pels Award, a Whiting Award and a TCG fellowship. He is also a New Dramatists Alumnae and a member of MCC’s Playwright’s Coalition, The Ojai Playwrights Festival, New River Dramatists and LAByrinth Theater Company.
The Steinberg Playwright Awards and the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award are presented in alternate years. Past recipients include:
· Annie Baker and Rajiv Joseph, Steinberg Playwright Awards, 2013
· David Henry Hwang, Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, 2012
· Lisa D’Amour and Melissa James Gibson, Steinberg Playwright Awards, 2011
· Lynn Nottage, Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, 2010
· David Adjmi, Tarell Alvin McCraney and Bruce Norris, Steinberg Playwright Awards, 2009
· Tony Kushner, Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, 2008
These playwrights were each presented with a monetary award along with “The Mimi,” a statuette designed by Tony Award-nominated scenic designer and architect David Rockwell.
In 2008, the Board of Directors of the Steinberg Trust created an Advisory Committee of prominent theater professionals to establish the awards criteria, nominate individual candidates and select each recipient. The 2014 Advisory Committee is comprised of Jeremy Cohen, Producing Artistic Director, The Playwrights’ Center; Paige Evans, Artistic Director, LCT3; Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director, CENTERSTAGE; Neil Pepe, Artistic Director, Atlantic Theater Company; Bill Rauch, Artistic Director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Carole Rothman, Artistic Director, Second Stage Theatre; and Chay Yew, Artistic Director, Victory Gardens Theater.
The members of the Board of Directors of The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust are Carole A. Krumland, James D. Steinberg, Michael A. Steinberg, Seth M. Weingarten and William D. Zabel.
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Crafting a Career
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Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia starred as Carole Barbara in Lorey Hayes’ Power Play at the 2013 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Pauletta Pearson Washington, Roscoe Orman, and made her jazz vocalist debut in Rome Neal’s Banana Puddin’ Jazz “LADY” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. She is profiled in Jade Magazine.
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