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Pulitzer winners discuss MFA Program at University

Stephen Karam '02, Gina Gionfriddo MFA'97 and Lynn Nottage '86 talk experiences at Brown, future success

For the past 10 years, Brown alums have consistently been nominated the Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. This April, Lynn Nottage ’86 P’20 won her second Pulitzer Prize in this category, continuing the decade long trend with her play “Sweat,” which explores economic stagnation and the lives of steel workers in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania. While some past-winners studied in Brown’s Master’s of Fine Arts program and others studied playwriting as undergraduates, all point toward Brown as the root of their success.

Nottage, the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, was initially inspired by Paula Vogel, who was the head of Brown’s graduate playwriting program when Nottage was a student.

“It’s been a struggle. Hopefully, young women will see what I’ve been able to accomplish, and … they might sit down at a desk and write a play,” Nottage said.

Gina Gionfriddo MFA’97 was nominated for a Pulitzer in Drama in 2013 for her play “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” a dark comedy exploring the consequences of internet pornography. Gionfriddo  credited her success to Brown’s MFA program, which she said provided her with the time and space to focus on writing.

“It was two years where I had my education funded and I could focus 100 percent on my writing,” she said. “You develop your skill set faster than when you are working a 40-hour a week job.”

Nottage, however, believes that the necessity of an MFA depends on the individual. While some writers need graduate programs to grant them the freedom to explore, other emerging writers prefer to dive deeply into the world of writing on their own time, she said.

“You can’t give people talent. But you can inspire them to go deeper and write expansively and to be more adventurous,” Nottage said. She now teaches as an Associate Professor for Columbia’s  MFA program.

Stephen Karam ’02, who was nominated twice for a Pulitzer in Drama in 2012 and 2016,  shared a similar sentiment. Karam recalled forcing himself to work day jobs that were uninteresting but financially stable to give himself the opportunity to write.

“It’s what I needed to do to free me up to pursue something that felt impossible,” Karam said. “Some people get a job to make them feel safe, others need to run at it 100 percent. There is no right or wrong — it’s just what you need to do to be able to pursue (writing),” Karam said

All three playwrights agreed that producing their work at Brown was crucial to their developing careers.

“I had three full productions of my plays while I was at Brown. I think there’s stuff you learn as a playwright that you have to learn through having your plays being produced, and I think that’s an incredible education,” Gionfriddo said.

Karam noted the importance of developing his adaptation of a Jane Austen novel with Brownbrokers, a student run theater group who produces a student-written musical every other year.

“I had a lot of productions at Brown,” Nottage said. “If I hadn’t had that time to play in the sandbox, I might not have had the confidence to move forward in this career.”

The playwrights also credited their success to the faculty who taught and inspired them. “I was fortunate enough to study with several really incredible playwriting professors,” Nottage said. “They were really key in me beginning to find my voice.”

“Studying with Paula Vogel was the reason I went to Brown. I was drawn to her dark, irreverent sense of humor,” Gionfriddo said.

Gionfriddo also spoke on the importance of fostering peer connections at Brown. Gionfriddo met Peter DuBois AM’97, the director of “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” at Brown when he was in the graduate theatre program and she was in the playwriting program. After directing her thesis “U.S. Drag,” DuBois went on to direct three of her plays.

The playwrights stressed the pertinence of continuing to write. “See as much theatre as you can and write as much as you can. Do what you can to create a life where you have space for writing,” Gionfriddo said.

“You have to keep continuing to explore the craft. It’s really about making a commitment to doing that,” Nottage said.

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