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Pulitzer is wonderful, but teaching is Edson's life

Edson

Web posted on:
Monday, May 03, 1999 2:19:44 PM EST

By Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Don't misunderstand: Maggie Edson is completely flattered that she is the winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama for her play "Wit." She says winning the prize was "wonderful," the culmination of eight years of hard work, waiting, and more waiting.

But what Edson, 37, really likes to talk about is her real job. She's a kindergarten teacher in Atlanta, and when you mention anything associated with her class, her face lights up and she tells you a story about her students.

For example, what did her students think about the fact that their teacher won this prestigious award?

"One of my students' mothers told me, 'My son came home and said, "Miss Edson won a big prize for writing the song, 'I Know A Lady Who Swallowed A Fly!'"'" Edson laughs. "Because on the same day, I was teaching that song. It was obvious to him why I had won the prize.

"To me, that would be a great accomplishment if I had written that song. That's a very good song."

'Without the audience ...'

Clearly, teaching children is Edson's greatest pleasure. And this Pulitzer thing? It's great, too.

But you won't hear this school teacher bragging about her accomplishment. She is genuinely modest.

When asked how she feels about capturing the prize, she says things like, "Without the audience, it's not anything."

Edson's reaction to reaching this summit is commendable, considering the fact that she never set out to scale playwright heights. She majored in history and got her masters in literature.

"Wit," the story an unsentimental literature professor's battle with ovarian cancer and how the medical establishment treats her more like a guinea pig than a patient, is Edson's only completed play. She wrote it in 1991 -- after working at a hospital in the 1980s where they treated cancer and AIDS patients -- because she heard the voice of a story brewing inside her.

Describing her first attempt at writing a play, she makes it sound easy.

"You're just writing down the things people say. You're just writing down talk," claims Edson, who says she based the story on her experiences, but didn't base the characters on anyone in particular. "That seems very interesting and natural to me ... I'm very interested in talk and in the exact words people use. I'm fascinated by how people's spoken language expresses their own selves. So to write a play you just have to listen ... you're listening to a voice in your head."

'It's about grace'

The play's main character, Dr. Vivian Bearing, has spent her life making friends with no one, including her students. But this comes back to haunt her when one of her students has grown up to be one of the doctors who treats her. He is equally aloof.

The strength of the play lies in the idea that the main character is not someone likeable. There's no tearful goodbye scenes: it's one intellectual woman coming to grips with her own death.

"To me, it's about grace and I hope that people realize that they've been a part of somebody's redemption," Edson says. "There is a lot of spirit in the play and most of the time that's shown through its opposite, but people get it by the end."

After Edson's friends read the play and praised it, Edson sent it off to 60 theaters across the country in 1992. One, the South Coast Repertory in Orange County, California, decided to run it.

"They took a big risk with this play, so my admiration for them is complete," Edson says.

Pizza, ice cream and donuts

The risk has turned into major reward for everyone involved.

The play eventually made its way to New York, and caught fire in 1998, being named for several awards while garnering critical praise. It's currently playing at Union Square Theater.

With the success, "Wit" earned Edson several satisfying trips to her mailbox.

"I received great letters from people who said, 'Afterwards we went out and we really had a conversation.' And that, to me, is great because the play is a conversation, so to know that people are continuing the conversation is a great feeling."

Now the Pulitzer.

"There are a couple of people who read this play eight years ago and said, 'You're really onto something.' And they're just thrilled. I feel part of a group that did it ... it connects me very strongly to people in a way that feels great."

Edson was cleaning up her kindergarten class when she heard she had won. To celebrate, she and partner Linda Merrill went out for pizza, then took a stroll to an ice cream shop.

Ever crazier -- the next day she and her students dined on doughnuts, a treat from her PR people in New York.

"The students all had powdered sugar all over their faces -- it was very funny," Edson says.

'We sing'

Edson says she's enjoying this attention, but knows it will die down soon. She has been asked if she will write more plays, become a playwright.

Her response? She's a teacher first.

In fact, when she's asked what her next project will be -- meaning, what play will she write next -- Edson says, "We're doing a big project on insects."

No, seriously.

"I love teaching. And if there's something else I want to write about in a few years I might like to do it again. But I don't want to start writing now to build on my career."

For her, school is fun. And while theater types sing her praises, she simply passes it along to her students.

"We sing all the time," she says of her class. "We're singing all day long. Singing is really good for language awareness. When you're first learning to read, you need to first realize what language is and how it fits into your mouth," she says. "We sing all day."


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Last updated: 28 January 2011