Staging entertainment’s next act

Staging entertainment’s next act

A year ago, Lemuel H. Thornton III had never handled a video camera. This summer, he directed with three.

“There are a lot of things I have had to get my head around,” Thornton said, standing on a series television set minutes before filming in August. “I’ve had to learn how to operate a camera, how to speak to camera people, and work with my director in a shoot.”

Thornton, a trained theatre director, is one of 20 Cal State L.A. graduate students enrolled in the University’s year-old Master of Fine Arts Program in Television, Film and Theatre. The program is the only one of its kind on a college campus in the United States that brings the three creative arms of the entertainment industry—producers, writers and actors—together as cohorts. The program’s emphasis on collaboration gives graduates a competitive advantage in the industry, students and faculty said.

“There is a real creative community here,” said Broadcasting Professor Alan Bloom, acting director of the MFA, the highest degree for the field.

On the Cal State L.A. set in August, for instance, Thornton worked alongside a fellow MFA-producing student with a background in film; a writing student who is a 20-year industry veteran with shows currently airing on Cartoon Network; and a handful of other classmates with backgrounds and experiences that span the spectrum.

Part of the beauty of the program, Bloom said, is that the students learn from one another. They share their knowledge, life experiences, and techniques from the field, and end up shaping the program as much as the faculty. In its first year, the program enrolled producers and writers; actors were added this fall.

“We can come in and say, ‘guys this is where things are going and we need to shape it in this way,’” said MFA student Phil Lollar, a professional television, film and radio writer, and voice actor. “A lot of us have industry experience, have worked in new media, we know where things are headed and we are excited about it.”

Other MFA cohort programs in the country typically bring writers and producers together, or actors and producers together, which limits discussion and the types of productions, Bloom said. Blending all three disciplines and stages best prepares students for an industry that is evolving—merging audiences, production types and delivery methods.

Take Thornton and his fellow MFA students working on their summer television project: The 13-series production, staged in hotel set constructed by the students in the University’s broadcast studio, blended filming techniques from television and film. It was a multi-camera production, like most television series and sitcoms, but the producer (in this case, Thornton) was on set, where he could see each camera’s angle on a quad-split television. He called the shots and reshoots from the floor, rather than the producer’s box. Likewise, the series, written and directed by the students, was shot exclusively for the web—a first for the University. It is a webisode series.

The “hybrid” production style and new delivery format is yet another way of responding to the industry struggles caused, in part, by threats of strikes and incentives that have lured projects to other states, faculty said.

“Our students will standout because of their training, collaborative work experience, personal life experiences and comfort in working in multiple stages for a variety of media,” Broadcasting Professor and former MFA program director John Ramirez said.

“Hollywood will always be Hollywood,” Ramirez added. “I don’t see it picking up and moving anywhere else. But the industry is facing some challenges and there is a call for greater collaboration among the creative partners… Our students will have the skill sets to be more competitive in the field, to move across those boundaries—TV, film and theatre.”