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At UNLV, playwright Brighde Mullins found her voice. Not just the beginnings of her artistic voice — any voice at all.
“I basically was a very, very shy person,” recalled Mullins, ’84 BA English. “I actually don’t think I ever spoke in a class until I took a theater class with Dr. (Jerry) Crawford.”
The theatre professor made her speak.
Crawford, now an emeritus professor living in Michigan, put it more delicately: “She was in one of my first playwriting classes before we even had an MFA in playwriting. I remember working to draw her out.
“Her early talent was immediately apparent,” said Crawford, himself a playwright. It shone through in a production of one of her plays in UNLV’s Black Box Theatre, he said.
He pointed out that after graduating from UNLV she went on to earn an MFA in playwriting from Yale and an MFA in poetry from the renowned Iowa Writers Workshop. “You can’t do better than that,” Crawford observed.
Although she says her undergraduate years at UNLV turned out to be a great experience, “in the spirit of full disclosure: I did not want to stay in Las Vegas for college,” recalled the graduate of Bishop Gorman High School.
While she initially enrolled at UNLV for purely economic reasons, her perception of the university changed markedly once she began attending classes —particularly those taught by novelist John Irsfeld (now an emeritus professor) and Crawford.
“I had thought of myself as a poet,” said Mullins. But then she discovered theater. “Theater is a communal experience. It was life-changing because I was able to come out of that isolation.”
Another experience that helped propel her into a theater career was going to listen to singer Natalie Cole. Cole cried when singing Unforgettable while a slideshow of her late father, singer Nat King Cole, played behind her.
“It was so theatrical and so simple but so profound, all at once,” Mullins said. “It was a moment when this live audience was really witnessing her experience and going through it with her. It was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life as a young person.”
Mullins decision to pursue a theater career clearly was the right one as evidenced by the multiple awards that have come her way. She has been named a Guggenheim Fellow and a United States Artists Fellow and has received the Will Glickman Award for Playwriting, a Pinter Review gold medal, and a National Endowment for the Arts Award for playwriting, among others.
She has had residencies at places such as Lincoln Center, Mabou Mines, and at Harvard’s Institute for Art and Civic Dialogue, with Anna Deavere Smith. Her plays have been produced in several cities, including London, New York, and Dallas.
Among her many works are Monkey in the Middle; Those Who Can, Do; Fire Eater; and Topographical Eden. She prefers plays that rely on words rather than spectacle.
“In Las Vegas I became allergic to spectacle,” Mullins said. “My plays are based on language over image.” She said she connects spectacle with the incredible sexism she saw all around her as a teenager. “I found it really challenging as a young woman to grow up with overt images of women as having (just) one purpose.”
The first of her plays to be produced was The Last Ugly Man in America. It was about a man who, like Mullins’ father, was a Vietnam veteran. She wrote it her junior year and saw it produced her senior year. Her most recent play, The Bourgeois Pig, is about another Vietnam veteran, one who becomes a paparazzo.
Las Vegas does feature in some of her works. Rare Bird, which has been produced by Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre, is a play about Harriet Michalski, the oldest living showgirl. Another major character is an ornithologist who is drawn to Harriet by her plumage. “It’s a fairytale, and it’s also about extinction,” Mullins said. The play, which started at New York’s Mabou Mines, also looks at Las Vegas’ relationship with water and the environment.
She’s currently a professor of the practice of writing at the University of Southern California. She has taught for more than 20 years at many other schools, including Harvard University, where she was a Briggs Copeland Lecturer in Dramatic Writing; and Brown University, where she was an associate professor.
Her teaching career began at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she went into the public schools to teach poetry to inner-city students.
She says that’s where she learned to teach — along with what she learned from those she describes as great teachers, including Irsfeld and Crawford as well as major literary figures such as Harold Bloom and Jorie Graham.
She also talks fondly about her students. “I’ve had so many students go on to create wonderful art. They’ve been successful in their careers, but also they’ve been successful human beings — as good people in the world. That means more to me than any of the other outward accomplishments.”
She has been active in the arts communities where she has lived: in New York City she curated a poetry series that featured Gwendolyn Brooks, Seamus Heaney, and many other major poets. She later co-founded (with Jim Klenimann) a theater company in San Francisco, called Playground, now in its 20th year.
While at UNLV she met someone who would become a lifelong friend as well as a theater colleague, Giovanna Sardelli, ’87 BA Theatre. She and Sardelli, now a successful director, worked crew for a UNLV production of Terra Nova. Among their duties was standing backstage and shaking a tarp to replicate the aurora borealis.
She advises anyone interested in a theater career to “see as much theater as possible. Work in live theater — backstage, as an usher, anything you can do to work around theater people.
“I think it is the live event that is the difference,” she said. “In film and TV you are working with machines. The play always is in the present moment.”
Currently, she is working with a theater company in Denver to produce some of her early works. She also has a commission from the Pioneer Theatre Company to write a play about early American poet-slave Phillis Wheatley, who Mullins said is one of her heroes.
“I don’t like watching one of my plays with an audience, but I love rehearsal.”
Mullins said of the process of writing a play, hearing it read by actors, and then seeing it produced, “It’s a profound experience.
“By the time it is produced you have given it over to actors and the directors and designers. That is an interesting experience to have.
“In translating a play on the page onto the stage, unless you are overseeing every step, you have to trust people or you would go mad,” she said. “That is one reason it is transformative. Working with a group of people for a group of people.”
More Info: Brighde Mullins' website.