Stephens College believes in the power of women’s voices.
That’s why Stephens launched its Master of Fine Arts in Television and Screenwriting in 2015. It is the first M.F.A. program in the country specifically designed to amplify the voices and impact of women in television and film.
On May 5, 2017, the program's first cohort of students graduated during an emotional ceremony in Kimball Ballroom of Lela Raney Wood Hall on the Stephens campus. Seventeen women and three men accepted their diplomas, knowing they could potentially change the country’s entertainment narrative and become part of something bigger than themselves.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Sarah Whorton ’08 B.S., ’17 M.F.A., the student commencement speaker and member of the inaugural class. “You think you’re going to school, but you end up transforming yourself. I think that was something none of us anticipated, that we would come out different people.”
The M.F.A. is a low-residency program that brings students together twice a year for an intensive 10-day workshop at the Jim Henson Studios in Los Angeles. While there, students learn about the business of Hollywood and have access to prominent show-runners, writers from the film world, development executives, agents and managers.
The rest of the year students are paired with professional working writers, each of whom are members of the Writer’s Guild of America and work with the students to develop their vision, voice and career as a screenwriter. Over the course of two years, students are paired with a new mentor for each new project, which includes one screenplay a semester, a spec script (also known as a speculative screenplay), an original hour-long television project and a final thesis project of their choice.
Ken LaZebnik, a longtime screenwriter from Los Angles whose father taught creative writing at Stephens, directs the program. LaZebnik, whose credits include writing for “Prairie Home Companion” and the television series “Touched by an Angel,” has fond memories of wandering the Stephens campus when he was a boy.
So when he decided to start a low-residency M.F.A. program with a mission of getting more women writing for television and film, LaZebnik knew Stephens was the perfect home. Though the program accepts men, the emphasis is on increasing the number of women writers in Hollywood.
“Media delivers stories that tell America what our lives are like and forms how we view the world,” he said. “When half the population doesn’t get a chance to have their voices heard, it diminishes our culture.”
According to the Celluloid Ceiling Report, women comprised 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016.
LaZebnik said the writing community in L.A. has been very supportive of the program, which is evident in the impressive list of guest speakers. Among those who have visited the program are Nell Scovell, creator of “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and co-executive producer of “The Muppet Show”; Alexa Junge, Emmy Award-winning writer of “Friends,” “The West Wing” and “Grace and Frankie”; and Winnie Holzman, award-winning creator of “My So-Called Life” and author of the book for the Broadway musical “Wicked.”
Whorton, who is a senior media producer for Mizzou Online at the University of Missouri, said having the opportunity to interact with working writers in the industry was invaluable.
“Every time we had guest speakers, we would see their incredible resume, and I would expect them to tell us some secret to their success,” she said. “But there was no secret. Everyone said the secret was you have to work really hard.”
She also learned that no matter how long a writer has been in the business, she still struggles from time to time.
“For me, it was encouraging to see someone who has achieved so much and still struggles and to hear how she works through those moments,” Whorton said. “That solidified for me that I was doing the right thing and that just because I was struggling with a script didn’t mean I wasn’t a good writer.”
Toni Anita Hull ’04 B.F.A., ’17 M.F.A., who graduated from Stephens’ theatre program, said participating in the program built her confidence in ways she never imagined.
“I feel more myself than I have in a long time,” she said.
Hull, who lives in L.A. and works for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, hopes to one day write for a television comedy series. In the meantime, she plans to revive her stand-up comedy routine and continue writing.
“I plan to keep networking and reaching out to the contacts I have made through the program,” she said.
An administrative assistant in the Stephens College School of Performing Arts, Chelsea Andes ’17 had spent the better part of her 20s starting and stopping a novel. When a friend asked her to collaborate on a screenplay, a new form of writing opened up to her.
So when Andes heard Stephens would be offering an M.F.A. in TV and Screenwriting, she jumped at the chance to participate. Her favorite project was a screenplay she wrote about four witches living in an oppressive boarding school in the 1950s. The witches are being groomed to be Stepford wives, but they aren’t interested in that lifestyle and challenge the status quo.
“I found that I wasn’t interested in telling anything with romance in it,” she said. “I was very interested in highlighting female friendships and the importance of those and how they can be the most important relationship in your life.”
Andes’ short-term goal is to become a writer’s assistant on a television show with the hopes of eventually securing a staff writer position. Her plan is to be in L.A. by the time she turns 30 in January 2018.
“My goal is, hell or high water, job or no, I am heading West young woman,” she said.