A few weeks ago, Stephens College announced the launch of a new graduate program, a Master of Fine Arts in Television and Screen Writing. In the program, which is available to both men and women but is geared mostly to women, students work one on one with a mentor in screenwriting in both television and film.
The goal of the program is to boost the number of women working in the film industry. The students will also spend 10 days a semester working in Los Angeles, where the program’s founding director, Ken LaZebnik, works full time. Ken LaZebnik is a well-respected scriptwriter, who has worked on several dramas, plays and movies throughout his career. He has been living and working in the Los Angeles area for more than 25 years.
How did you first get involved with Stephens College?
I have a lifelong involvement with Stephens College. My father taught here for almost forty years as a professor of English and creative writing, so I grew up seeing the theatre department produce his plays.
Where did the idea for the MFA in Television and Screenwriting come from?
A few years ago a friend of mine started teaching at a low residency MFA program. At that point I had no idea what a low residency program meant, but basically students come to a campus for 10 days of intensive workshops in the summer, then work the rest of the semester online and then reconvene for workshops in January, and return to strictly online work for the rest of the year. So it’s a way that people who have careers and families can get a MFA without completely disrupting their lives. And that’s when the light clicked and I said wow, this is something Stephens College could do, and that I could help them do.
What was the initial reaction to your idea?
I was having lunch with Dr. Dianne Lynch, Stephens’ president, when I first told her my idea. She was very enthusiastic, and she was the one who originally recommended having the workshops in L.A., not at Stephens. When she said that, everything came together for me, because all of the resources are in L.A.
It’s one of those cases where you have a mission that makes sense, and people in the industry, especially other female writers, really get that. There have been many studies done on the underrepresentation of women writers in the film industry, so people are really attracted to our goals and our mission. Prospective students are really attracted to the idea that they can come to Hollywood and work with active writers, who are all part of the Writers Guild, so they can graduate into a network of people.
How have the early stages of setting up the program gone?
I was able to secure the perfect place to conduct our workshops: The Jim Henson Studios, which Charlie Chaplain originally built in 1917 and are also home to The Muppets. The combination of being in this super cool, historic place and getting the opportunity to work one on one with a mentor throughout the entire semester has gotten really positive responses from prospective students. We have two very clear types of students so far, the aspiring screen writer who already sees how difficult it is to break in to the industry and the experienced writers who want to teach, which requires a MFA.
Where do you see this program going in the future?
I really see this as becoming a generational project. Right now there is no real network for women writers in the industry and I see this becoming a source of major empowerment, where graduates from the program will go on to become mentors themselves and hire the next generation of women writers.