Over the last three months, the film and television writers’ strike has caused shorter seasons for shows, forced networks to program even more reality TV, and left thousands of writers seeking improved conditions. One of its more unexpected effects may be in the Harvard classroom.
This semester, award-winning television writer and producer Jeffrey D. Melvoin ’75 is bringing over 25 years of experience in the entertainment industry to Cambridge. Melvoin’s new course, Dramatic Arts 37, “The Craft of Storytelling on Stage, Television, and Screen,” will give students an understanding of the differences and similarities of the three media—stage, television, and film—through script-reading. By close study of a script in each medium, Melvoin hopes to help students explore what is universal to storytelling and what is specific to each creative medium.
“This course, by taking a look at these three different uses of scripts, hopefully will get to the underlying principles of what makes a dramatic story work,” Melvoin says.
To accommodate students with different interests, the class offers two tracks, one creative and the other critical. In the creative writing track, students will work toward creating the first twenty pages of a script. For students more interested in either the literary value of scripts or the production end of entertainment, the critical studies track will provide an opportunity to analyze scripts.
When Harvard originally approached him about teaching a course, Melvoin—who won an Emmy Award in 1992 for his work on the television show “Northern Exposure” and has produced and written for numerous others such as “Alias”—was intrigued. Now that he’s on campus, he’s even more pleased with his decision—a decision made even easier by the continuing strike.
Teaching this course poses a unique challenge for Melvoin because the art of script-writing is much less defined than most other subjects. “Rather than laying down rules and saying ‘observe these rules,’ you want to create a more fluent workshop atmosphere,” he says. “You want to create an environment in which students can pick out those things that are helpful to them, and the instructor can help students move in the direction that they want.”
Adding to Melvoin’s challenge is the changing nature of the industry. “To the degree that changes are coming, even though people don’t know exactly what form they’re going to take, the strike is going to make those changes come faster,” he says.
Still, when it comes to writing a script, there are fundamentals that students need to learn. “How you tell it, where you tell it, how it’s distributed—those things change,” Melvoin says. “But the essentials don’t.”