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All-star panel offers tips on writing for the screen and stage

A five-star afternoon—that about sums up the School of Communication’s annual Festival of Writing Writers Panel last Friday, in Annie May Swift Hall’s Helmerich Auditorium, thanks to the talented quintet of artists invited to share their insights with School of Communication students interested in working in the entertainment business. The panelists were:

Pictured from left: Thomas Bradshaw, Jacquelyn Reingold, MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage director David Tolchinsky, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brad Hall, Kia Corthron, and Amanda Watkins
Pictured from left: Thomas Bradshaw, Jacquelyn Reingold, MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage director David Tolchinsky, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brad Hall, Kia Corthron, and Amanda Watkins

Kia Corthron, award-winning playwright and TV writer for The Wire and The Jury.

Brad Hall (C80), writer, actor, director, and producer, who performed on Saturday Night Live and was the show creator of The Single Guy and Watching Ellie.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (C83), actress and producer, whose credits include Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Veep.

Jacquelyn Reingold, award-winning playwright and TV writer for Smash and In Treatment.

Amanda Watkins, actress and producer, whose Broadway credits include Sweet Charity and Cabaret, and who is the Director of Development at The Araca Group, a New York-based theatre production company.

The topic of the panel, moderated by assistant professor of radio/television/film Thomas Bradshaw, was “Conflict and Collaboration,” so the screening that preceded the discussion was inspired. Picture Paris, a short film by Brad Hall, tells the story of a woman in conflict when her oldest son goes to college; the indie short was a collaborative project between husband-and-wife team Hall and Louis-Dreyfus (she starred; he wrote and directed; the two of them co-produced). Bradshaw kicked off the panel by asking them about working together.

“We collaborate on everything,” Louis-Dreyfus said. Every project either one of them is offered, she said, “we talk about at home in great depth.”

Making the black comedy, Hall said, was liberating, because they were calling the shots.

“You guys are really lucky to be getting out into the market now,” Hall told the audience. “It’s an exciting time to be looking to create material. There are so many delivery systems. You can do what you want to do. Somebody will see it.”

Watkins described the difference between reading a script as an actor versus as a producer, giving the playwrights in the audience a sense of the overall form they should strive for. “Actors can be myopic,” she said, often reading with an eye to individual characters. “As a producer, I look at the macro part of it. How long is it? How much work is entailed in getting it from step A to step B? Are there secondary characters we care about?”

Corthron encouraged students to stay true to their own voice. “A lot of people will be giving you lots of ideas,” she said. “Be clear on what you want to do. Graciously thank them, but ignore what doesn’t work.”

Reingold explained how writing for television often requires the opposite approach. “I know that I’m being paid to write someone else’s vision when I write for TV,” she said. “It takes practice to do that. You’re often not in charge of what you’re writing.” The upside? “You get to see your work on the screen in a very short amount of time,” she said.

Bradshaw asked Louis-Dreyfus how she chooses the projects she works on. “First, I look at the material,” she said. “Does it get me where I live? Then I ask, who’s the brains behind this? Do we get along? It’s like getting married to someone you don’t know. A great deal of good luck plays into it.”

All five panelists stressed the importance of continually practicing the craft. Reingold explained how when she first started writing she took any job in the theatre she could get. When a student asked the panel how to handle the dead zones creative artists inevitably encounter, Watkins said, “There should be no dead zones,” describing how she’d waitressed and eventually gone back to school to help keep her career in theatre moving forward. Corthron admitted to having experienced occasional dispiriting lulls, but, she said, “Don’t let the frustration paralyze you.” And Hall spoke of what he called “the illusion of knowledge.”

“Take a zipper,” he said. “You think you know how it works, right? It’s simple. But do you really? To think you know what you’re doing and to actually know what you’re doing are two different things.”

Louis-Dreyfus listened to her fellow panelists dispensing this advice, and said, “Where were you guys when I was coming up? I could’ve really used this.” Then she turned to her husband. “And you! With the zipper thing?” she said, drawing laughs. “I’ve never heard that before.”

Her advice to the students? “Have a good time. If you have a good time it will be translated into your work.”

The annual Festival of Writing is co-hosted by the School of Communication and the school’s MFA Program in Writing for Screen and Stage. The panelists stayed on to watch the program’s annual Showcase, featuring short staged productions of graduating MFA students’ plays and screenplays, and give the students personal feedback.