Arts & Culture/Reading, Writing—And Winning

Issue Date: 
January 8, 2007

“I do owe a large debt to this University,” says Pitt grad student Stephanie Lord, recent recipient of an international Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting

As a child in Panama, Stephanie Lord would crawl between a wall and her parents’ bed, among what she calls the “dust bunnies,” to escape her five siblings. Down there on the floor, with her head resting on a stack of magazines, she would read the short stories in her mother’s McCall’s and Redbook magazines.

Lord, a Pitt graduate student who works for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), says it was this early reading that led to her current passion for writing.
In November, she was among six new screenwriters selected for the 21st Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for her script Palau Rain. She received the first installment of the $30,000 prize during a gala held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The Nicholl Fellowship program is an international competition open to screenwriters who have not earned more than $5,000 writing for film or television. Scripts must be the original work of a sole author or of a team of two collaborative authors. Up to five $30,000 fellowships are awarded each year.

Born and raised in Panama City, Lord was always reading ahead of her grade. “At nine, I was reading [Maya Angelou’s] I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” she recalls. “My older sister took it from me and said that a nine-year old shouldn’t be reading that book.” Three years later, Caged Bird would be the first book that Lord made a point of reading in junior high school.

Lord attended elementary school through junior college in the Canal Zone, writing for and editing several school papers. After studying at Panama Canal Community College, Lord attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but left school in 1989 to begin working full-time for the International Department at Special Olympics International; there, she served as program coordinator for the Asia-Pacific region and Europe.

Lord came to Pitt in 1998 to complete her undergraduate education, choosing the University for its four-year writing program after reading about it online. She also liked Pitt because of its affordable tuition, urban location, the fact that she could live near the University and walk to class, and because Pittsburgh is a four-hour drive from D.C., where her brother lives. Lord graduated magna cum laude from Pitt in April 2001 with the Bachelor of Arts degree in English writing and a certificate in film studies. Currently, she is a part-time student in Pitt’s M.F.A. program in fiction writing.

Palau Rain, Lord’s Nicholl Fellowship-winning script, is about an African family lacking access to medical care. Lord, who had been a finalist in an ABC Disney-sponsored competition in 2004 for another teleplay, submitted Palau Rain to ABC Disney in 2005. After the script was rejected, Lord looked at it more objectively, noting that she hadn’t introduced her main character until 15 pages into the script. She proceeded to cut extraneous sections, maintaining focus on her main character.

Lord had an altruistic reason for writing Palau Rain, she says. “I wanted to put a face to people—kids and parents—who have been, or who are, affected by HIV/AIDS. I wanted them to see someone on screen who is the same as they are,” explains Lord, who works at UPMC as an assistant on the Ryan White Grant that provides funds for uninsured HIV/AIDS patients.

According to Lord, many fledgling screenwriters dream of winning a Nicholl Fellowship.

“I always wanted to enter the competition,” she says. “My rewritten script was very similar to my original idea. I felt my script was strong, but I never really could foresee winning. I knew if just one person read it, though, it might do well.”

Lord’s script was selected from among 4,899 submitted in the 2006 competition. “All you can hope for is that you get a good first reader who takes the time to read the whole thing and get to the end of the story,” she observes.

According to Lord, one nice thing about the Nicholl Fellowship is that judges don’t know anything about the competing writers. Each script is assigned a number, and writers receive progress reports as their scripts proceed through the review process.

Another advantage of winning a Nicholl Fellowship is that recipients are introduced to people in the movie industry. Such contacts can be invaluable in getting a script optioned or sold.

“I was among great writers and producers, rubbing elbows with them,” Lord remembers. “For example, I met Robert Shapiro and told him how much I had liked The Goodbye Girl when I’d seen it, and how it had influenced me. He said he’d produced it.”

Lord partly credits Pitt writing program faculty members for her success. During the Nicholl Awards ceremony, she thanked English Professor Chuck Kinder and Pitt Visiting Professor of Film Studies Carl Kurlander. “I learned so much in Kurlander’s class,” she recalls, “most importantly how to research a story and get the confidence to write the story.

“Pitt gave me a really great background in writing, and everyday it helps me to become a better writer. I do owe a large debt to this University.”