Stephen Adly Guirgis, B.A.’90

Path to the Pulitzer Prize

By Paul Grondahl, M.A.’84

Stephen Adly Guirgis accepts Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play Between Riverside and Crazy

From left, Mike Pride, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, and Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger present the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Drama May 28 to Stephen Adly Guirgis for his play Between Riverside and Crazy. (Photo: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)

After changing his major three times, Stephen Adly Guirgis finally discovered his passion, and an academic home, in the University at Albany’s theatre department. He credited theatre professors Langdon Brown and the late Jarka Burian and Al Asermely with inspiring him to pursue a career that culminated in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play Between Riverside and Crazy.

“Al was kind of like a shepherd of wayward souls, and he helped guide me through to graduation. Al’s playwriting class helped open my mind and made me think maybe I could write for the theater someday,” said Guirgis.

He recalled Burian as “a great teacher who taught me to love the theater,” and he took Brown’s classes in Comic Theory, Shakespeare and Modern Drama. Brown also cast Guirgis his senior year in his first lead in a University play, Richard Greenberg’s Eastern Standard.

The son of an Egyptian immigrant, Guirgis grew up in Manhattan and had only vague objectives when he arrived at UAlbany. He struggled academically and felt adrift as he tried various majors before he found his niche in the tight-knit theatre program. “Things really started to click, at that point,” he recalled. “We were kind of like a weird group, but we were always doing something, creating shows, and we stuck together.”

Glenn Fleshler, B.A.’90, Guirgis’ roommate in off-campus apartments and fellow theatre major, went on to star in the TV series “True Detective” and “Hannibal” and has been cast in many feature films. Another Guirgis collaborator who attended UAlbany is John Ortiz, a founder, with the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, of the off-Broadway LAByrinth Theater Company.

When Guirgis visited UAlbany in 2010 for a seminar, lecture and student production of his play Jesus Hopped The A Train, Brown introduced his former student, praising Guirgis for his “amazing ability to hear dialogue and reproduce the rhythm and dialect.” Added Brown: “He’s a very empathetic person with a high intelligence quotient. He has a take on diversity and colorful characters that is unique and fresh.”

Marc Guggenheim at Comic-Con siging Arrow poster


During an  April 12, 2010, visit to UAlbany, Guirgis is interviewed by New York State Writers Institute staff and performs  a presentation reading with theatre major Weston Johnson. (Photo: New York State Writers Institute)

“His writing is electrifying,” said Donald Faulkner, director of the New York State Writers Institute. “We’re very proud of Stephen, who’s still legendary around here.”

Guirgis enjoyed returning to his alma mater. “I have a lot of good memories of UAlbany,” he said. “I’m really happy that I’m still friends with several people from the theatre program. We’re all just a lucky bunch of kids from UAlbany who were trying to find ourselves, and now we’re making a living in theater in New York.”

Guirgis is an actor and playwright who endured lean years while getting established in the New York theater world. He worked as a violence-prevention specialist and HIV-prevention educator in prisons, shelters and schools. He was recently hired as a writer for an upcoming Netflix TV show. “Get Down,” focused on the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s, is set in the South Bronx and
directed by Baz Luhrmann.

The Pulitzer jury called Between Riverside and Crazy “a nuanced, beautifully written play about a retired police officer faced with eviction that uses dark comedy to confront questions of life and death.” Critics have hailed Guirgis as “a masterful poet of the downtrodden.”

Guirgis lives in the apartment where he grew up on the Upper West Side. His parents are deceased. “I wish my parents and my great friend Phil (Seymour Hoffman) could have lived to see me win the Pulitzer. I know they’d be incredibly proud,” he said.

The 2014 cast of Guirgis' Between Riverside and Crazy

Left to right, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Rosal Colon and Ray Anthony Thomas star in the world premiere of Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy. Opening night for the play, directed by Austin Pendleton, was July 31, 2014, at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in New York City. (Photo: Courtesy Atlantic Theater Company/Kevin Thomas Garcia)