As of July 1, James “Jim” Risser and his fellow Ashland New Plays Festival board members are accepting new plays for ANPF’s 2019 Fall Festival. Risser, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner in National Reporting, served as director of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists and Director of the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University, and on the Pulitzer Prize Board for 10 years in the 1990s. He also played a key role in the selection of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning play “Angels in America.”
EH: What newspaper articles brought you the Pulitzer Prize?
JR: You could call it investigative reporting: stories that exposed corruption in the U.S. grain exporting industry, where people were paying bribes to federal inspectors. As a result, Congress changed the grain inspection laws. Some people went to prison. Some companies paid fines.
The second prize was for a series of articles explaining the kinds of environmental damage that agriculture does: Things like soil erosion, overuse of chemicals, and depletion of water supplies. A lot of land that shouldn’t be plowed or farmed was being used because of the pressure to produce products. Modern agriculture is a great industry but it can sometimes have a huge impact on the environment.
EH: What happened as a result of those articles?
JR: There were Congressional hearings. They passed some new regulations about what lands could be farmed or not farmed.
EH: What is the process of selecting Pulitzer Prize winners?
JR: Generally the way it happens is that your employer enters you into the Pulitzer competition. In each category there’s a jury that reads all of the entries, narrows it down to the three best, then the Pulitzer Board meets and chooses the winners.
EH: How do they judge the submissions, for instance, in Drama?
JR: It has to go to a new American play that was performed for the first time in the previous year. Then you judge it on its brilliance, its impact: all the things by which you might judge a work of art.
You might be interested in one of the things everybody is celebrating right now, “Angels in America,” which won the Pulitzer in Drama in 1992. I played a big role in it winning, because once the jury picks the three best plays, board members are supposed to see them. The play’s opening in New York got delayed, so at the time it had become one of the three finalists, there was nowhere to see it. I saw the play at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it had its pre-Broadway tryouts. I was the only board member who had actually seen the play, so I had to make a presentation to the rest of the board about why it should win, which I did.
EH: What did you tell them?
JR: I explained what the play was about and why it was such a path-breaking drama about the AIDS crisis. Not only that, that it was brilliantly written — it was sad, it was funny — I think it’s one of the great American plays of the last century. It holds up, it’s being done now on Broadway in a revival.
EH: You told me how journalism affects politics; how does theater affect politics?
JR: There are plays like (Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning) “Sweat” that deals with deindustrialization of Pennsylvania specifically, but lots of places in the U.S., and the play “All The Way” about Lyndon Johnson. When plays like that get attention, I have to believe they have some impact on politicians. One hopes they can.