Brighde Mullins, director of USC Dornsife’s Master of Professional Writing program, has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work as a playwright.
Mullins will use the fellowship to spend the Fall 2012 semester researching and writing about Phillis Wheatley — a slave who became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry in the United States. Mullins will research sites in Boston, Mass., where Wheatley wrote Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. She will also interview Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose lecture on Wheatley was Mullins’ inspiration.
“We are thrilled that Brighde’s extraordinary writing talents will be further supported and nurtured through this prestigious fellowship,” said Howard Gillman, dean of USC Dornsife. “She has been instrumental in leading USC Dornsife’s MPW program and guiding students toward new levels of excellence in their own work.”
Mullins believes playwriting is a strange and difficult form.
“It’s a thrilling time to be a playwright because people crave proximity to a live event,” she said. “William Butler Yeats talks about the fascination of what’s difficult and he said that’s what attracts writers to their art. For playwrights, it really is the fascination of what’s difficult because playwriting is a form that takes a lot of collaborators even as it starts on the page, with the word, with story, with character.
“The Guggenheim Fellowship gives me the energy to go back to the page; it’s a huge vote of confidence.”
Mullins’ Poetry: A Play has been commissioned by the Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Mullins believes that an artist cannot wait for ideas, and that making plays requires space and unstructured time to explore ideas, which is exactly what the fellowship will provide Mullins.
“This fellowship gives me a sense of permission married to a sense of momentum,” she said. “When I see the other recipients in drama — J.T. Rogers and Adam Bock — I am honored to be in their company.”
Mullins’ plays have been produced in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Dallas, New York and London. Her play, Fire Eater, received the Pinter Review Gold Medal and her 2003 book of poems, Water Stories (Slapering Hol Press) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her full-length plays include: Rare Bird; Those Who Can, Do; Monkey in the Middle; Teach; and Increase.
She was also named a 2010 United States Artists Fellow in literature and a Whiting Foundation fellow.
Mullins’ latest play is titled The Bourgeois Pig, a story about a photojournalist in the Vietnam War who becomes a paparazzo in Hollywood. The main character goes from capturing suffering to celebrities and eventually beautiful landscapes. The idea grew from Mullins’ personal experiences with celebrity photographers she happened to meet when she initially moved to Los Angeles. Living near the Hollywood Hills, she developed friendships with many of the paparazzi who camped out at the bottom of the hills awaiting celebrities to pass by.
“I got interested in that world,” she said. “I’ve always been very interested in the underdog and the history of photography. There were so many different connections and characters that started emerging from this world.”
Prior to arriving at USC Dornsife in 2008, Mullins taught at Brown University and served as director of the creative writing program at Harvard University. A full-time administrator and instructor, she has never stopped writing.
“My plays become like tapestries with intersecting stories.”
In addition to Mullins, Alan Wilner, Steven and Kathryn Sample Chair in Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has been named a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow.
The fellows, announced April 13, were among 181 scholars, artists and scientists selected from 3,000 applicants in the 88th annual competition. Winners were chosen based on their achievements and exceptional promise.
An awards ceremony will take place May 9 in New York City.