Hollywood insider Ken LaZebnik ’76 leads a new screenwriting program designed to bring more women into the field.

Students are scattered around the sunny courtyard of Jim Henson Studios, a small and charming historic Hollywood studio created by Charlie Chaplin. In the center of the courtyard is their lanky, warm-voiced leader, Ken LaZebnik ’76, founder and director of a new low-residency MFA program in TV and screenwriting.

“Hey, back to the screening room everyone!” Ken shouts over the din of conferring writers. “Time for some scenes.” The 20 students—17 women and 3 men—file into the studio’s cozy screening room to watch several of their scripts be performed. Professional actors have been hired to act out scenes from three student screenplays. Over the course of the two-year MFA program, each student will have the chance to see how their script sounds when performed by real actors.

The first piece involves a warring couple; the second a pregnant widow, her mother-in-law, and a realtor; and the third two friends meeting at a college reunion. The feeling of being on a real set is accentuated by the presence of TV director Mark Taylor, on hand to give actors notes after their first readings. The second time through is invariably improved from his feedback.

When the performances are over, the writers are speechless, breathless with gratitude to have heard their words come alive for the first time.

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Gratitude and excitement seemed to be the most common sentiments among members of this first cohort of the Stephens College low-residency MFA screenwriting program. When the group met for the first time last summer, one student tweeted, “Still in the ‘pinch me’ phase that I get to be here every day for school.”

LaZebnik—whose father taught creative writing at Stephens, a small women’s college in Columbia, Mo.—originally assumed that the residential portion of his new MFA program would be held on the Stephens campus. To her credit, college president Dianne Lynch insisted otherwise. She encouraged LaZebnik to establish a satellite campus in Hollywood—a location that has made all the difference. “This studio just has the best vibe in the world,” he says happily. “Plus, locating it here has allowed us to attract fantastic faculty and guest speakers. Writers, producers, and directors are more than happy to speak here.”

Besides LaZebnik himself—who has written for several TV shows, including Touched by an Angel—Hollywood insiders teaching in the program include LaZebnik’s brothers (younger brother, Rob, writes for The Simpsons while older brother, Philip, has written animated features such as Prince of Egypt and Pocahantas); Alexa Junge, who has written for Friends, The West Wing, and Grace and Frankie; Winnie Holzman, who created My So-Called Life and wrote the script for the musical Wicked; and Carol Barbee of Judging Amy and A Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.

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LaZebnik and his first class of MFA students at Henson Studios in January 2016.

Hollywood pros, especially women writers and directors, readily respond to the program’s mission of increasing the ranks of women in their world (see story on facing page). Says student Sarah Phillips, “Ken saw that women’s voices weren’t being heard [in Hollywood], and he asked, ‘What can I do about this?’”

Job one is teaching his students about the women who came before them. The Stephens program includes a course on the history of screenwriting, taught by film historian and TV writer Rosanne Welch, in which students are steeped in the rich history of women in film. 

Class members study—and are inspired by—such past luminaries as Anita Loos, Frances Marion, and Alice Guy-Blaché. After learning about these lost ladies of Hollywood, one student wrote: “Frances Marion was one of the first screenwriters, and the first person to win two Academy Awards. Her work is insanely brilliant. Many film schools don’t teach about her or they minimize her story. Tell your friends about her!”

***

Back on that January evening, the work of more recent female filmmaker Nora Ephron took center stage. Barbara Nance, who teaches an entire course about Ephron in USC’s film school, lectured on the late writer/director and screened her underrated 1992 film This is My Life.

The next morning the group drove to Westchester to tour YouTube’s studio space. That visit provides a peek into an important new entrée to the entertainment industry, whose programs and channels are increasingly serving as fodder for TV programs. “You can now build a career doing content creation on YouTube,” says LaZebnik. “It’s new ground for someone like me, used to traditional TV shows.” The day before, the class had Skyped with former YouTube producer Jhanvi Shiram, a student of LaZebnik’s at the USC Stark Producing Program. “Ken was one of my favorite professors in the program,” Jhanvi says.

That compliment is a familiar refrain from LaZebnik’s students and fellow instructors. U.S. Army veteran class member Mikayla Daniels (Cheney, Wash.) told of having a painful neck injury flare up during the week. “Ken kept tabs on me and kept asking if I needed to go to the hospital,” she says. “He cares about us as individuals and not just as students.” Adds her classmate, Missourian Amy Banks, “Ken is so encouraging, and the thought he puts into every detail of the program is amazing. He’s like our father/agent/teacher.” 

Fellow teacher Welch echoes that sentiment. “Ken was always the most balanced person in the writing room on Touched By an Angel,” she says. “He’s truly the nicest guy in Hollywood.” The top-notch speakers he attracts, they agree, are evidence of his stellar reputation.

Speakers, of course, are only one part of the MFA program. The bulk of learning takes place through diligent year-round writing by students and regular coaching by mentors. Each student works with one mentor/instructor on TV scripts and another on film scripts, and is expected to produce both kinds of scripts each year. 

LaZebnik, Welch, and Liz Keyishian (Lonesome Dove, The Dead Zone) are the principal mentors, although other writers are pulled in to help, especially when a student has a particular interest. Los Angeles student Sarah Phillips, for example, who aspires to write musicals, is working with Prince of Egypt screenwriter Philip LaZebnik. Says Ken, “I love that we can get great people with specific skills that match up with student interests.”

This summer Stephens’s second cohort of students will start their journey at Henson Studios. Although it won’t happen overnight, LaZebnik’s fondest desire is that his screenwriting program will launch a talented new group of women into TV and film writing. “It’s important to build this network of women writers and filmmakers across the country,” he says.  “I hope we can be part of pushing things toward equality for women in film. If we can do that, I’ll feel very satisfied.”

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By Lynette Lamb
Photos by Rick Dublin

August 3 2016

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