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Playwright Nilo Cruz talks writing and winning prestigious Greenfield Prize

George Bernard Shaw wrote in a rotating garden shed he built himself, designed to always be in the sun. Dylan Thomas preferred a boathouse, Mark Twain at times a cabin. J.K. Rowling started Harry Potter in the back room of a cafe overlooking Edinburgh Castle.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, too, has his preferences. He writes at a desk in his bedroom in Miami. He keeps all the curtains closed.

"I prefer my writing space to have a womb quality," Cruz said.

He likes to wear hats when he's writing, maybe straw, maybe a newsboy. He puts on music, and he makes a drawing or a collage of the world he's writing about to look at over and over again.

But it does nothing to fill that first blank page.

"The hardest thing is to face the empty page," he said. "Once you have one sentence, you can build from that sentence. Once you find a voice, you can build. It's almost like writers have to, just like sculptors need to have a stone in order to sculpt, we need to have some writing in order to start defining that world."

Cruz, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for his play Anna in the Tropics, has a chance to write in a new setting outside his bedroom, plus time and money devoted to creating a new work.

Cruz is the winner of the prestigious 2014 Greenfield Prize from the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Englewood, in conjunction with Philadelphia's Greenfield Foundation. Cruz will receive his award at the Greenfield Prize Weekend starting Wednesday in Sarasota, with a slate of public events capped off by an appearance from keynote speaker Olympia Dukakis on Saturday.

The prize rotates every year between drama, music and a wild-card field. Last year's winner was visual artist Trenton Doyle Hancock. The year before, it was pianist and composer Vijay Iyer.

Cruz gets a $30,000 commission, plus promotional help and use of the Hermitage retreat, made up of five sprawling Old Florida buildings along the water south of Venice. He's looking forward to the change and the peaceful setting.

"I definitely have to isolate myself from the world," Cruz said. "I sometimes disconnect the phone. You just have to disconnect in order to step into another reality, another dimension, and enter the artistic process. That's what's great about this facility, is it has that kind of environment. You're close to the water. You're away from the place you live."

When Cruz found out he was nominated, he said, he had to submit a summary of the work he might create. He had been thinking about something set in Mexico, something about the religious persecution of the Cristero War in the 1920s. As for the story, that remains to be seen.

Plotting in advance is not how Cruz likes to work. A play is nothing without characters.

"I will forget about what I wrote about the synopsis and theme of the play, and I will start with characters," he said. "Always with characters. With no characters, there is no theater. They are the ones that guide me through the world. Characters come with needs. They come with conflicts. I never know what the story is going to be. I never understood outlines. When I would be asked to write an outline at school, to write an essay, I always rejected it."

Cruz, 53, was born in Cuba. His family fled the country for Miami when Cruz was 9. There, he took drama classes, but not with any great sense of direction.

It was not until he was 22 and working at a hospital doing physical therapy that he got an urge to see a play at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. The play was called The Dresser, and when it was over he had an epiphany to commit his life fully to theater. He started drama classes again, unsure whether he would end up an actor, director, writer or some combination.

"I just felt this conviction that this is what I wanted to do," he said. "Nothing was stopping me."

Teachers helped him realize he was a writer. He completed many plays before approaching the small New Theatre in Coral Gables in 2002 with the idea for Anna in the Tropics. What followed was his tale of Ybor City cigar factory workers in 1929, being told the story of Anna Karenina. It was the first work by a Latin American playwright to win the Pulitzer for drama.

Cruz has written a screenplay for Anna in the Tropics, and co-wrote one called Castro's Daughter with Oscar winner Bobby Moresco, who co-wrote Crash. He has written and translated more than a dozen other works, including his new play, Sotto Voce, which recently premiered off-Broadway. And he's finished writing the libretto of Bel Canto, based on the novel by Ann Patchett, for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

"I have to be aware of the musicality of the language," he said of opera. "For me, it's more like writing poetry in a way."

The hardest thing for Cruz, and what this prize affords him, is time to focus. In a perfect world, all projects would move to the back burner and he would focus on one thing, something he'll have time to do at the Hermitage Retreat.

"That's the problem about writing and starting a new play," he said. "You know that when you start writing, you're not going to be living fully your own life. You're going to be living the life of other people, of other characters, because you just have to be immersed in this other world."

And the sunshine coming in the old houses at Hermitage doesn't bother him. At home in Miami, he has been known to leave the dark womb of his bedroom and walk along the beach.

"It's not the time that you spend in front of the screen, but the time you spend away from it, thinking about the world and trying to gather inspiration from the world around you."

The plays really start to live in the sun.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @StephHayes on Twitter.

>>if you go

Greenfield Prize

The Greenfield Prize event runs Wednesday through Saturday in locations around Sarasota, with some open to the public, including talks with composer Vijay Iyer, playwright Nilo Cruz and actor Olympia Dukakis. For a schedule and ticket and sponsorship information, visit greenfieldprize.org.

Playwright Nilo Cruz talks writing and winning prestigious Greenfield Prize 04/02/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 4:30pm]
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