Rebecca Claire Gilman (1964- ) is an award-winning playwright from Trussville, Jefferson County, whose work is set in the Deep South and other regions of the United States. Her plays touch on controversial elements of contemporary American society and the issues and dilemmas people face in their daily lives. She also aims to create noteworthy drama that is both easily understood by the audience and of literary merit. Her work has earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Prince Prize for Commissioning New Work, and the 2008 Harper Lee Award for distinguished writing. Her plays have been performed in numerous cities in the United States and in several foreign countries.
Gilman was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, in 1964 to Steve and Marilyn Gilman and has a brother and two sisters. She attended Hewitt Elementary and the Altamont School and enjoyed writing creatively in her early years and continued to write fiction throughout high school. At the age of 18, Gilman wrote her first play for the Dramatists Guild of America’s Young Playwright Festival; it was chosen for production in New York. She attended Middlebury College in Vermont for two years, returned to Alabama, and graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in English. While there, she wrote the play The Land of Little Horses, which won a playwriting contest sponsored by the University of Mississippi. She then enrolled in graduate school at the University of Virginia, planning to earn a Ph.D. in English. When her play was honored, however, she decided to pursue playwriting as a career and switched to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, graduating with a master of fine arts (MFA) in playwriting in 1991.
Gilman moved to Chicago in 1994. She worked in educational testing and held a series of temporary jobs until the success of her play The Glory of Living (1999) won her international acclaim. She was a resident playwright at the Chicago Dramatists theatre and in 2006 became an assistant professor of playwriting and screenwriting in the MFA program at Northwestern University. In 2019, she was named Professor and Head of Playwriting in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. She is also an artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Gilman’s plays have been produced in many venues and have received many accolades. Spinning Into Butter, (2000) which explores themes of racism, premiered at the Goodman Theatre and later played in New York at the Lincoln Center Theatre and at regional theaters across the country, receiving a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Play and the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays. It was included in TIME magazine’s list of Best New Plays for 1999 and was produced as a film in 2007, under the direction of Mark Brokaw and starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Boy Gets Girl (2000), which explores sexual harassment and stalking, was included in The Best Plays of 2000-1, being named by TIME magazine as the number one play of the year in 2000. It has been widely produced throughout the United States. The Glory of Living mirrors the story of Judith Neelley and her husband Alvin who went on a heinous crime spree in 1982 that involved the murders of two young women, one of whom was killed in Fort Payne, DeKalb County. Whereas the newspaper accounts painted Judith as a monster with no human qualities, Gilman’s play delves into the character of a similar female protagonist and the dynamics of how she becomes a serial killer. Newspaper accounts of the actual crime also described the symptoms of the ills of contemporary society, but Gilman attempts to define the disease itself. Gilman has stated publicly that the United States doesn’t need optimism, so much of her work encourages the audience to look critically at the prejudices and misconceptions in American society. The Glory of Living has been produced in New York City, Vienna, Austria, and London, England, earned the George Devine Award and the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, the first American to do so for either award. The play was listed among the top ten best plays of 2001 by Time and earned Gilman a spot as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, which was won by David Auburn for Proof.
Gilman has successfully adapted the work of other playwrights as well. In 2005, she adapted Carson McCullers’s 1940 book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for the Acting Company of New York. After opening in Atlanta at the Alliance Theatre, the play had a three-city Alabama tour consisting of Talladega, Auburn, and Birmingham, and was produced in fall 2009 at the New York Theatre Workshop in New York City. Also in 2005, Gilman contributed the dialogue to the American Music Theatre Project’s musical version of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing entitled The Boys Are Coming Home. In 2010, she wrote an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Dollhouse. Her most recent work, Luna Gale, deals with teen pregnancy, child abuse, and drug addiction and was performed at the Goodman Theatre in 2014.
Selected Works by Gilman
The Glory of Living (1999)
Boy Gets Girl (2000)
Spinning Into Butter (2000)
The Boys Are Coming Home (2005)
Luna Gale (2014)
Phillips, Gin. “Stage Presence.” First Draft 14 (Spring 2008): 4-6.