Springfield, Ohio — At the end of a unique four-week Summer Screenwriters Institute course, Wittenberg Associate Professor of English Michael McClelland was overwhelmed by the responses he received on the student evaluations.
Phrases like "life-changing," "best course I have or will ever take" and "amazing experience" aren't thrown around lightly by college students. They were plentiful in this case, however.
"This class was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Maureen Esty, class of 2011 from Brookville, Md. "Where else can you get a chance to be taught by people who really do television writing for a living and who are successful doing so?
"Even with the odd hours of the class, I learned things, but it was the invaluable experience of the course that was really important."
Whether Esty follows in the footsteps of the long distance course instructors, Lauren Schmidt, class of 2001, and her fiancé Michael Hissrich, remains to be seen. But after completing the four-credit class she has attained some of the skills necessary to become a professional television writer and a definite direction to her academic career.
Schmidt, currently a writer/producer of Parenthood, a family drama that will debut on NBC in the fall, and Hissrich, currently a producer of Day One, a drama scheduled to begin airing on NBC in spring 2010, worked with McClelland, Professor of English Cynthia Richards and Professor of English Robin Inboden to offer the course, which may be the first of its kind nationally. They also worked closely with Dan Stroeh, class of 2001 and a successful playwright based in New York City. Despite health problems, Stroeh was able to visit campus and participate in five days of the class.
Hissrich spent two weeks at Wittenberg, while Schmidt flew back and forth from Los Angeles during the course. Working around their busy schedules led to some unusual and sometimes extensive class times, including a six-hour Sunday session, but students, professors and visiting instructors alike said they didn't mind.
McClelland estimated that 80 hours were spent in the classroom, and the students frequently met for additional writing and editing sessions outside of the schedule class times. The project was to create a complete pilot script for a mythical television series set at a college much like Wittenberg, and the result was what "a typical Hollywood writing team would take three or four months to do," he said.
"The students blew me away at every turn," said Schmidt, who previously worked as a writer for West Wing and Private Practice. "They truly worked together on the project, and gave each other the nurturing, the constructive criticism and the guidance needed to keep moving forward.
"I honestly wasn't sure how it all would come together in the end. But we read the finished piece, and I was amazed. Even beyond that final product, I felt like the students really grasped and digested the process of television writing – lessons they can take with them in the future, when they start to write their own projects."
Some of the class sessions took place via i-chat, with Schmidt and Hissrich rising at an early hour in California to lead discussions about the script. They also enlisted the help of some of their colleagues, including actor Paul Adelstein (Private Practice), producer Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, A Few Good Men, The American President) and producer Jesse Alexander (Heroes, Lost). Also appearing in the Wittenberg classroom via i-chat, these award-winning individuals offered the students a "rare and candid look at Hollywood behind the scenes, especially as it relates to screenwriting," McClelland said.
"I gained so much from this class," said Haily Hall, class of 2012 from South Point, Ohio, who is an English and communication double major. "Everything from learning to write for a medium that I'd never written for before to learning a brand new writing format to just plain learning to write better, this class taught me so much.
"Several times we stayed for hours after dismissal, just because we wanted to. As much fun as this class has been, it has been a lot of work and has taken talent and commitment."
Schmidt and Hissrich have tentatively agreed to participate in the course at least two more times, with plans already in the works for 2011 and 2013. The students approached the course with "a maturity I hadn't expected," according to Hissrich, leading him to already look forward to the next go-around.
"Being in the room every day was just as educational and enriching for me as I hope it was for the students," Hissrich said. "Their enthusiasm and excitement powered me through two weeks of being away from Lauren – and alone in a state that I am not from, at a school I did not go to.
"Our goal in doing this was to say to students that not long ago, Lauren sat where they are right now and she applied her Wittenberg education to a career in television. In this way, I definitely think we achieved everything we had hoped."
Written by: Ryan Maurer