Entertainment professionals gather on campus for Festival of Writing

May 20, 2010

Expert alumni and guests from the entertainment industry shared their time and talents on April 23 with School of Communication students in radio/television/film department programs, including the Creative Writing for the Media Program, PhD program in Screen Cultures, and the MFA-writing for the stage and screen program.

 Annual Festival of Writing panel for School of Communication

The annual Festival of Writing is sponsored by the School of Communication, the school's EPICS (External Programs, Internships and Career Services) Program and the MFA program. Moderated by MFA program director Dave Tolchinsky, the panel included:

Peter Gallagher, star of Broadway shows The Country Girl, Noises Off, Guys and Dolls, and Long Day's Journey Into Night, as well as films American Beauty, sex, lies and videotape, The Player, and Short Cuts, for which he won a Golden Globe Award, and TV shows including Californication, The OC, and the upcoming Covert Affairs.

Lauren Gussis (C00), supervising producer for Showtime's Dexter, where she has worked all four seasons of the hit show. Previously, she was a staff writer for the NBC Pentagon drama E-Ring and a writer's assistant and script coordinator for the first season of The OC.

Jeff Jacobs (C85, GJ87), an agent with Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which represents some of the most well-known and successful artists working in music, film, television, theatre, sports and video games.

Ira Ungerleider (C90), executive producer for the CBS sitcom Gary Unmarried. He was previously a producer/writer for Friends, for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award, The Loop, and CBS's How I Met Your Mother.

Stephen Willems, literary manager and resident dramaturg for the MCC Theater in New York. He also teaches script analysis at New York's New School for Drama and Acting.

Students met with the panelists for lunch and small group Q&A sessions, after which they enjoyed an afternoon panel where panelists shared clips of their work and stories about their careers. That evening, panelists attended staged readings by students at the Greenhouse Theater in Chicago and provided feedback on the scripts. Gallagher acted in one of the readings.

An overriding theme that came across during the panel was for students to sustain the "fire inside" as Gallagher called it, by "staying hungry and showing up every day."

"The biggest thrill is getting to create something with like-minded individuals out of nothing," Gallagher said, stressing the extreme importance of collaboration.

Gussis agreed, noting that she's learned to "check her ego" and simply "be somebody people want to be around" as a key component to succeeding in the collaborative entertainment industry.

"Find out the reason you are awesome, and be that person," she said.

Junior Simon Han said Gussis, a writer for Dexter, made the biggest impression on him.

"It was really cool to hear how the writing room works on one of my favorite shows," Han said. "Previously I'd only ever talked to comedy TV writers, so it was really interesting to see what goes down in writing one-hour dramas."

The panelists shared their stories of how they started out in the industry, and how they got to be where they are today, not leaving out the moments where they doubted themselves and experienced failure along the way.

Ungerleider showed a clip of one of the first solo scripts he'd written for Friends where actor (and alumnus - C88) David Schwimmer (Ross) is featured in two roles on a split screen. "The episode is often on the list of worst Friends episodes," Ungerleider said, explaining how he felt "insecure and naïve" about the script at the time, but he's learned a great deal from the experience and moved on. The audience was treated to a second clip written by Ungerleider, from what has been called one of the all-time best Friends episodes.

Senior Jingyang Cheng said he appreciated how down to earth the panelists were.

"I think there needs to be more events like this that can bridge the gap that often exists between college and the real world," Cheng said. "This event made me realize, in a funny way, that the professional people out in the entertainment industry are not as scary or mysterious as one might think but are often willing to share their stories and lend out a hand."

Jacobs encouraged students to continually rewrite their own material and "be the most curious person you know."

Ungerleider echoed that students should read more than anyone they know. "Read, write, see as many TV shows, basics, classics...all the tools are there inside them," he said.

Willems urged students to be true to their visions, being open to feedback and criticisms but at the same time maintaining what they really believe in. "Don't sell your vision," he said. "It flattens your work."

Gallagher reminded students how lucky they are to be in this profession.

"Storytelling brings us together," he said. "It establishes a community and reassures us we are not alone. It's a noble, important thing."

Senior Brittany Jewel McPherson said the festival enabled her to understand the art of storytelling in a new way.

"The panelists eloquently and almost effortlessly illustrated how their choices in their specific career paths enabled them to reach success in an arguably tough industry," she said. "It gave me hope for the future, and it gave my courage in my writing."

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