Suzanne O’Malley knows how to keep an audience tuned in. So when over 50 students attended the first meeting of her Calhoun College seminar, “Writing Hour-Long Television Drama,” she made an offer that she was sure would hold everyone’s attention.
“She told us she was thinking about creating a new television series, and that all got us very excited,” Alexander Dominitz ’09 said. “She said we would not be so much students but that we’d be calling each other colleagues, and that she’d not be so much a professor as a show-runner … The mood was definitely, ‘Wow, we’ve never heard of something like this before, especially at Yale.’”
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Now, each of the 16 ‘colleagues’ is working to create his own 60-page script about the experiences of future world leaders at a (fictional) elite university. If all goes well, one or more of these scripts could make it into the hands of O’Malley’s agent to be developed into a real show.
The seminar began several years ago at Rice University, and word of its success spread to Calhoun Dean Stephen Lassonde and Master Jonathan Holloway. At Rice, O’Malley used “Law and Order,” a show for which she has written, as a teaching tool for her students. To add an element of difficulty this time around, she said, she introduced a fictional venue and new characters for Yale students to mold into television reality.
O’Malley unveiled the basic characters and a very rough framework for the show in February. For the past two months, the students have shaped the setting, characters and story lines without writing a word of dialogue. But nothing is set in stone.
“Anything I tell you now will be on the cutting room floor by the end of the semester,” O’Malley said. “The major themes are going to be a social life story line, one [story line] dealing with war — thinking and feeling and potential future leadership for our country — and then we’re going to have an arbitrary third which is kind of a surprise, so I’ll have to withhold that.”
At the class’ start, O’Malley told the students they were capable of creating nearly professional work if they put in enough dedication and paid enough attention to detail. But until they become acquainted with the intricacies of compelling plots and believable dialogue, the learning curve will be sharp, Andrew Denenberg ’08 said.
As the scripts take shape, they will reflect familiar aspects of Yale and college life in general, O’Malley said. Because the campus here is what the writers understand best, anecdotes from Yale will add depth to the characters that exist only on paper, she said, adding that any resemblance to true people, places and things will be purely coincidental.
“You have to write what you know about,” Denenberg said. “Since basically all we know about what can be dramatic or not is from high school or college, and since it’s focused on students at a place like Yale, I think it will be a direct reflection of our surroundings.”
In addition to formulating plots and writing scripts, the students have gained a new perspective on television from people inside the business. A class trip to the Writers’ Guild of America Awards in February allowed them to rub elbows with some of the best writers in television. Host Tina Fey gave them advice on how to improve their screenwriting — by way of a relatively unoriginal but nonetheless accurate quip about writing as much as possible and seeking advice from everyone, Kristen Schwarz ’08 said — as Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert Duval and Andy Bergman, the writer of Blazing Saddles, stood nearby.
With experiences like these, the amateur screenwriters may get a foot in the door of the professional ranks. But Schwarz, who said she might enter the television business after graduation, said many of the students in the class are more interested in exploring a new medium than in establishing an edge for future employment.
“The idea of the class for me was that I would complete a one-hour dramatic television episode,” she said. “When you’re searching for jobs when you want to be a writer, they often ask you for an episode you have written. But for some people I think it is just a really good exercise.”
The class has a unique place in a university that holds liberal arts in such high esteem. The English and Film Studies Departments also offer classes in screenwriting, but O’Malley’s seminar is the only class that gives students direct access to an agent. Students learn a very specific skill, but the breadth of knowledge that goes into the construction of a 47-minute script forces the writer to utilize every ounce of a liberal arts background, O’Malley said.
“We’re drawing from The New York Times, from Shakespeare, from Sun Tzu, from [John Lewis] Gaddis, one of the professors here, looking at all different kinds of serious work and blending that into our plot and story line,” she said.
Pulling those disparate sources together into a coherent dialogue seems to be a monumental task. And so it was when the class began, students said, but they are quickly learning what does work and what does not under the occasionally pointed criticism of O’Malley. The diverse interests of the students themselves — ranging from theater to psychology — have fueled unusual discussion and will produce 16 very unique and personal scripts, Denenberg said.
Once students hand in their work, a select few will likely be sent along to an agent. But the hopes of hitting it big are slim at best: O’Malley said it would be like “winning the lottery.” Two Rice students produced scripts that could have been seriously pursued beyond the classroom, but O’Malley said both chose other professions. Another two helped her produce a documentary about abortion in the United States.
The screenwriting profession might find a handful of new converts in O’Malley’s class. At the very least, the class’ initial apprehension about the skills needed to produce a script has ebbed in favor of a new understanding about how the project uses techniques acquired in other classes. A 60-page script has become more than a writing exercise.
“I think that this is an exercise in critical thinking,” Dominitz said. “We have to look at the world. We have to conduct research. We have to figure out where the heart of the character lies. These are all exercises in understanding human nature.”