Samuel D. Hunter and Alison Bechdel Among the 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Grant Recipients

by Jacob Coakley

Samuel D. Hunter and Alison Bechdel received 2014 MacArthur “Genius” GrantsThe MacArthur Foundation today announced 21 MacArthur Fellows for 2014, and included in the list were playwright Samuel D. Hunter and graphic artist/novelist Alison Bechdel, whose graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) was the basis for the musical Fun Home, which after a lauded Off-Broadway run last fall is headed to Broadway. Hunter is the author of several plays, including The Whale which tells the story of Charlie, an expository writing instructor who has been driven by grief to a state of morbid obesity. Each will receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 with no stipulations or reporting requirements, allowing recipients maximum freedom to follow their own creative visions.

21 Extraordinarily Creative People Who Inspire Us All: Meet the 2014 MacArthur Fellows

Recognizing 21 exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future, the Foundation today named its 2014 MacArthur Fellows. Fellows will each receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 with no stipulations or reporting requirements, allowing recipients maximum freedom to follow their own creative visions.

“Those who think creativity is dying should examine the life’s work of these extraordinary innovators who work in diverse fields and in different ways to improve our lives and better our world,” said Cecilia Conrad, Vice President, MacArthur Fellows Program. “Together, they expand our view of what is possible, and they inspire us to apply our own talents and imagination.”

Samuel D. Hunter is a playwright who crafts moving portraits of unlikely protagonists and explores the human capacity for empathy through the prism of his characters’ struggles. Born and raised in a small Idaho town, he sets much of his work in his native region, within the nondescript confines of staff break rooms, cramped apartments, and retirement homes inhabited by ordinary people in search of more meaningful human connections. Despite the stark realism of his settings, Hunter leavens his plays with humor and compassion for the lives he depicts, while juxtaposing the banal circumstances of his characters with literary allusions and larger themes of faith and doubt.

A Bright New Boise (2010) examines the various ways that regret, disappointment, and the longing for some kind of transcendence shape peoples’ actions and concludes with the central character, an evangelical Christian, calling upon the Rapture from a chain store parking lot. In The Whale (2012), one of his most widely produced works to date, Hunter tells the story of Charlie, an expository writing instructor who has been driven by grief to a state of morbid obesity. A writing assignment on Melville’s Moby Dick becomes a leitmotif that resonates throughout the play, as its lonely and adrift characters move toward a deeper understanding of the hopes and motivations that propel one another.

Hunter premiered three new plays during the 2013–2014 season—The Few (2013), Rest (2014), and A Great Wilderness (2014)that continue his interest in the poetry of everyday speech and the aspirations of those seldom celebrated on the stage, from a staff of outcasts who run a newspaper for lonely, long-haul truckers to the octogenarian residents of a rest home days away from shutting down. Eschewing irony and judgment of his characters’ decisions, Hunter’s quietly captivating dramas confront the polarizing and socially isolating aspects of contemporary life across the American landscape.

Samuel D. Hunter received a B.F.A. (2004) from New York University, an M.F.A. (2007) from the University of Iowa, and an Artist Diploma (2009) from Juilliard’s Playwrights Program. He is a resident playwright at New Dramatists, an ensemble playwright at Victory Gardens, and a member of Partial Comfort Productions. His plays have been produced at such venues as Playwrights Horizons, South Coast Repertory, Victory Gardens, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Seattle Repertory Theatre, The Old Globe, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

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Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist and graphic memoirist exploring the complexities of familial relationships in multilayered works that use the interplay of word and image to weave sophisticated narratives. Bechdel’s command of sequential narrative and her aesthetic as a visual artist was established in her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (1983–2008), which realistically captured the lives of women in the lesbian community as they influenced and were influenced by the important cultural and political events of the day.

Garnering a devoted and diverse following, this pioneering work was a precursor to her book-length graphic memoirs. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) is a nuanced depiction of a childhood spent in an artistic family in a small Pennsylvania town and of her relationship with her father, a high school English teacher and funeral home director. An impeccable observer and record keeper, Bechdel incorporates drawings of archival materials, such as diaries, letters, photographs, and news clippings, as well as a variety of literary references in deep reflections into her own past.

Bechdel composes an intricate, recursive narrative structure that is compelling on both the visual and verbal planes in Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (2012), a meditation on her relationship with her emotionally distant mother seen through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. As in Fun Home, the images in Are You My Mother? do not always correspond to or illustrate the words; rather, they mutually interpret or often tug against each other, creating a space between them that invites a multiplicity of interpretations. With storytelling that is striking for its conceptual depth and complexity in structure as well as for the deft use of allusion and reference, Bechdel is changing our notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form.

Alison Bechdel received a B.A. (1981) from Oberlin College. She is the editor of Best American Comics (2011), and her comic strip work has been collected in numerous volumes, most recently The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (2008). Her work has also appeared in such publications as Slate, the New York Times Book Review, McSweeney’s, Granta, and The New Yorker.

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“There was never any doubt in our minds that Alison Bechdel is a genius, but we’re delighted that the folks at the MacArthur Foundation agree! Our heartfelt congratulations to Alison on this well-deserved honor.”

-    Producers Kristin Caskey, Mike Isaacson and Barbara Whitman