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Stage, Screen Writers Get Their Shot With New Degree Program

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October 25, 2005 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University’s School of Communication will offer a one-of-a-kind, two-year Master of Fine Arts Program in Writing for the Screen and Stage in the upcoming (2006-07) academic year. The new program will build on Northwestern’s national reputation for shaping and producing professionals in theatre and entertainment.

Founded on the principles of art, craft, business, vision and community and guided by writing faculty with careers embodying those principles, the MFA program has been designed for individuals seeking to tell the best story possible in the most appropriate form.

“In a world in which screenplays are written by playwrights, TV shows are developed by screenwriters and theatre is created by television writers, today’s writers are asked to demonstrate versatility in a variety of media,” says Dave Tolchinsky, a produced screenwriter, director of the new MFA program. Tolchinsky also is an associate professor in the department of radio/television/film where the program is housed.

Northwestern alumus Greg Berlanti is the creator and executive producer of TV dramas “Everwood” and “Jack and Bobby” and currently has film projects in production. He has said the playwriting class he took at Northwestern was “pivotal” in writing for television and film and that the “Northwestern experience shaped and profoundly affected the arc of my life.” 

“With its opportunities to write for screen, stage, television and experimental media, Northwestern’s MFA in Screen and Stage Writing aims to make that kind of difference,” Tolchinsky says. “Our Chicago location gives us the distance to produce individuals who see themselves not only as playwrights or as screenwriters but as artists equipped to pursue writing opportunities in more than one medium.”

The 12 students selected for the new MFA program will build a portfolio that (at minimum) will include a short screenplay, a play, a television episode and a thesis project. They will have opportunities to bring their work to life on screen and stage, use Northwestern’s state-of-the-art studio facilities and take part in internships in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. They will learn not just the art and craft of media writing but also the business of media writing – how to pitch stories, write query letters and understand contracts.

The program will encourage collaboration between departments and across disciplines and sponsor workshops involving writers, performers, producers and musicians. Past collaborations at the University brought together students and two Tony Award-winning Northwestern professors leading to remarkable new productions that that were professionally produced.

MFA students will study and work with outstanding Northwestern professors and artists and award-winning Northwestern alumni and visiting faculty.

Alumni include “The Aviator” and “Gladiator” screenwriter John Logan; “Garden State” screenwriter/actor Zach Braff; “George of the Jungle” screenwriter Dana Olsen; Chicago Shakespeare Theatre founder Barbara Gaines; “That ‘70s Show” and “Rosanne” TV writer Eric Gilliland; and Northwestern Professor Mary Zimmerman, to name a few. Zimmerman is winner of a 2002 Tony Award for “Metamorphoses,” her modern interpretation of the ancient poetry and myths of Ovid, and a 1998 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship winner for earlier stage work.

Northwestern alumnus Eric Bernt, screenwriter of “Romeo Must Die,” “Virtuosity” and “Core,” and J.T. Rogers, whose play “Madagascar” won the 2005 Pinter Review Prize for Drama and American Theatre Critics Association’s 2004 Osborne Award, will be among the visiting faculty working with students in the program’s first year.

“In my opinion, there is no better place to study writing for film and television than Northwestern. The environment is creative, supportive and ideally removed from the insular worlds of Los Angeles and New York,” says Bernt.

Among core program faculty are a screenwriter with more than a dozen produced network television movies, features, mini-series and pilots to his credit; the author of seven acclaimed suspense novels with three original screenplays currently in development in Hollywood; an award-winning media artist whose work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art; and artistic associate with Chicago’s Remy Bumppo Theatre Company.

Graduates of the MFA program will be eligible to join and enjoy the benefits of the Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance. The Alliance is a moving force in the film, stage and television industries that is devoted to promoting the careers of Northwestern graduates.

Known sometimes as “the Northwestern Mafia,” Northwestern arts and entertainment alumni are known for their warmth, generosity, and willingness to give back, sometimes helping fellow alumni get jobs, grants and even apartments in Los Angeles and New York.

“Attending Northwestern is not simply about going to a great school, it’s like joining a family,” says Damona Resnick, a producer at Universal Pictures. She says her career was “ shaped not only by relationships I made at school but also…simply from having Northwestern on my resume.”

For further information about the MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage, visit <www.write.northwestern.edu>, e-mail <write@northwestern.edu> or call (847) 467-1157.

Topics: University