Classical roots yield Emmy

The Peter Rabbit books were the inspiration for an Emmy Award-winning series codeveloped by an alumna.

By Matthew Crowley

For Sarah Mullervy, Greek and Latin texts and children’s television had a common, useful tie. Being well-versed in centuries-old accounts, she said, helped her develop the storytelling chops that led to a Daytime Emmy Award.

Mullervy ’03 was senior producer on the team that won the prize in May 2016 for the animated Peter Rabbit series on the Nickelodeon cable channel. The show, which ran for 58 episodes starting in 2012 in the United States and around the world, also earned Mullervy a Daytime Emmy nomination in 2014.

Mullervy, 34, who majored in classics and music at Mount Holyoke, said she was involved in nearly every part of creating Peter Rabbit. Her duties included approving scripts and character designs and working with voice actors and animators. 

“I, like many of the producers, worked on the entire production, overseeing how every aspect was shaped,” Mullervy said during an interview from her home in New York. “TV development and production is a long process, and it’s our job to make sure nothing gets lost in translation along the way.” 

The show aimed to stay true to the spirit of the characters Beatrix Potter created in The Tale of Peter Rabbit books—first published in 1902—and other tales while inventing new stories, Mullervy said.

“We didn’t take the assignment lightly. We really respected the material and didn’t want to reinvent the world,” she said. “Instead, we strived to reenergize the brand for a new audience, many of whom may be meeting these characters for the first time.”

Winning the Emmy was a thrill and a blur, Mullervy said. She and her Peter Rabbit colleagues went to the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles on April 29 and sat in an audience packed with other nominees. When the win was announced, her team rose from its table, screamed with delight, and ran for the stage. She led the group, having been chosen to give the acceptance speech.

“I don’t remember much about what I said,” Mullervy recalled. “It was surreal. One minute, you’re holding your breath as they open the envelope, then you’re announced as the winner. You go onstage, are handed a statue, give your speech, and then are whisked to the press room to sign out your statue and answer a few questions. And then the night becomes a party.

“It was amazing,” she added. “If I never win anything else again, I’m happy I got to share this win with an amazing team that I’d worked with for years.”

When deciding on a college, Mullervy said she chose Mount Holyoke for its academic rigor. She knew the classes would be hard and wanted an intellectual push. During her time at MHC she learned about character archetypes from studying Greek and Latin texts and about lyrical power from studying music, and developed quick thinking from in-class challenges. 

“I never had large classes at MHC. When a professor would ask, ‘What do you think?’ you’d have to come up with an answer right there and then. That environment—small classes with dynamic professors and engaging classmates—really helped me develop my speaking skills and my ability to think on my feet,” she said.

Mount Holyoke Professor of Classics Paula Debnar had Mullervy for only one class, but said she left an enduring impression. Because Mullervy’s double major created a class schedule conflict, Debnar agreed to read the historian Livy’s works with Mullervy separately.

“It’s one thing to have a one-on-one tutorial with a professor you know, but quite another to do this with a professor you have never taken a class from—and to do so with an author that is not easy,” Debnar said. “Sarah, however, was intrepid. She never backed away from having sole responsibility for translations, grammar questions, and discussions of the work… Clearly, Sarah’s willingness to undertake new and challenging projects is reflected in her career successes.”

Mullervy returned to the College in February 2016 to meet with classics majors and then addressed a wider group of students studying classics, Italian, French, and Spanish. 

“She was a big hit, not only because of her infectious enthusiasm, but also because she was able to show how the skills she acquired taking Latin and ancient Greek were transferable to her career in television,” said Professor of Classics Geoffrey Sumi, who has highlighted Mullervy’s success to encourage other students. “This opened up another potential career path for students earning degrees in languages.”

Mullervy’s latest project is a new animated show soon to be released by Nickelodeon. She’s especially excited that the program’s protagonist is strong and female.

Such characters are rising to prominence all over media, Mullervy said, in movies such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the The Avengers and in television shows like Supergirl, which recently was renewed for a second season. 

“Everyone is realizing female characters are not only complementary characters, not just ‘pink’ characters, but are dynamic, interesting leads who can bring box-office success,” she said. “I’m so excited to be working on a show with a funny, intelligent, aspirational girl at its heart. It’s exactly the kind of show I would have loved to watch as a little girl.”

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