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Feature Stories

Playwright Erica Jones is first Beverly Robinson Fellow

Jones’ &#34Gross Sales&#34 will be featured in Fall '09 New Play Festival

TFT

Currently in her first year, an MFA playwriting student at TFT has been named the first recipient of the Beverly J. Robinson Memorial Fellowship for Playwrights. World Arts and Culture graduate Erica Jones ’09 will also see her play “Gross Sales” staged this fall as part of the Theater Department’s annual New Play Festival.

The Robinson Fellowship was established to honor UCLA Professor Beverly J. Robinson, scholar, folklorist, author, producer, writer and director. From 1978 until her death in 2002, Robinson taught a legendary survey course in African-American theater which scores of graduate and undergraduate students attended each Friday afternoon. She also served as a consultant on such films as “The Color Purple,” “Coming to America” and “Miss Evers’ Boys.”

As a playwright, Erica Jones is walking a very different path than the one that seemed to be marked out for her in her early years. At age 7, during a performance of the musical “42nd Street” she attended with her mother, she fell in love with the idea of dancing in front of an audience. “I knew immediately that I wanted to be up there, doing that,” she says.

Jones was already appearing professionally with the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater when she joined the World Arts and Cultures (WAC) program on a dance scholarship. “I soon decided that I wanted to be challenged more academically,” Jones says of her decision to pursue scholarship and folklore studies. “I wanted to be able to write and do research and focus less on dance performance, because I had been doing that for so long.”

When Jones began working with words and ideas at WAC, an earlier ambition resurfaced. “When I was a kid,” she recalls, “I always wanted to be a writer, but I never had time, because I was always taking dance classes and going back and forth to rehearsals. So I was in this world where I had to express myself without using words, and I was frustrated. I wanted to go to school for writing for my undergrad, but a dance program was what gave me the best financial aid package.

“And then in my second quarter at UCLA, I took Gary Gardner’s playwriting class. I sat down to write, and I don’t know how it occurred, but it just flew out of me, like years and years of pent-up energy rushing out.”

Jones says playwriting is her most natural form of expression, because her impulse to write is so strongly centered on dialog, on the way her characters talk to each other.

“I am definitely inspired by the people I know,” she says. “My first play ‘The Lesser of Two Weevils,’ was based on a sisterly relationship with my best friend, the way we are with one another and how we talk to one another. And ‘Gross Sales,’ which will be in the New Play Festival, is a story about four women who work at a high-end makeup counter in the Glendale Galleria. Basically it is a fight to the death to see which of these four will be the best salesperson in the company and win a prize, which is a trip to Monaco. Mainly it is a spree of back-biting.”

“I could say,” Jones continues, “that the play is a comment on corporate America in retail. But really it was inspired by my own life. I worked in retail and I had friends there, and there was some friction. I had another friend who told me about working in a boutique in Beverly Hills. And I spent some time working as an assistant wardrobe stylist in Hollywood. I would have to go to Barneys and Neiman Marcus to pick up clothes, and I had to interact with a lot of ladies who were uptight and miserable and very, very fashionable. So ‘Gross Sales’ is my send off to the girls in retail.”

The experience of participating in the first production of a play she has written has only confirmed Jones’s belief that she is on the right track in her writing career: “Writing a book would not be the same as doing a show and forming a community of artists and actors. I love theater people. I was attracted to that from the beginning. There was a reading of ‘Gross Sales’ in which this fantastic actress, Nikki Macauley, played one of the major roles, and when I heard her voice it totally changed my thinking about the play. I started trying to turn the ship around mid-voyage to capture that. I just love that collaborative experience. That’s what I want to be a part of.”

Feature Stories

Museum Simulates Terrorist Attack – VIDEO UPDATE

Todd Brunelle '86 calls upon &#34all his skills&#34 when designing Denver terror exhibits

A veteran video director and title sequence creator, alumnus Todd Brunelle ’86, won an Emmy in 1993 for his graphic designs for the FOX TV series “Front Page.” His most recent project, an innovative, video-driven museum installation on global terrorism, applies the skills he acquired at UCLA in unusual and socially enlightening ways.

This new phase of his career began when Brunelle created the animation and graphics for five award-winning feature films produced by The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. On the strength of those efforts he was hired, in February 2008, to create a video for the Museum’s sister institution in Denver, The CELL, an acronym for the Center for Empowered Living and Learning.

“Ultimately,” Brunelle says, “the museum directors liked my video enough to hire me to create the look and feel of all media throughout the museum. Shortly thereafter I was given the task of designing the display spaces — ten separate areas including a surround movie arena and seven exterior window displays. I had to pull out all my skills to accomplish this, filmmaking, editing, animation, set design, lighting and sound design.”

This “Museum of Terrorism” is centered around exhibition spaces which identify the roots, history, causes, and prevention of terrorist attacks. Brunelle’s design includes high-definition videos projected throughout the Museum. The CELL’s most innovative feature is a simulated terrorist attack, projected on 30 surround screens designed specifically for this purpose by Brunelle.

Brunelle has had the good fortune to work with many UCLA classmates in recent years, including Kurt Kaya MFA ’92, Michele Wagner MFA ’92, Cameron Spencer ’86, Diane Frederick MFA ’93, Judi Jensen ’85, Liz Cane MFA ’92 and Robert Manganelli. On The CELL, Kimo Oades ’87 added his expertise in graphic design.

Currently Brunelle is advising Diane Heller MFA ’90, on her documentary film, “Edward M. Bannister: An American Artist.”

“And now that I have somehow become an expert on terrorism,” he adds, “I am directing a video for Homeland Security.”
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Feature Stories

Todd Holland Sets the Record Straight

In our exclusive interview, the "30 Rock&#34 Emmy nominee discusses work, success and the lingering limitations of being &#34out&#34 in Hollywood

TFT

Posted on Jul 1st, 2009 in Social Responsibility

Watch Todd Holland’s Emmy-nominated episode of “30 Rock” on Hulu

“Coming out was the single most important event in my life,” writes alumnus Todd Holland ’83, in a stirring essay published on the movie industry website, “The Wrap.”

The essay, titled “The Gatekeepers at Hollywood’s Closet Door,” is a personal reflection on the progress gay artists have made in Hollywood — and the progress that remains to be made.

One of the defining directors of such landmark TV shows as “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” and a multiple Emmy, CableAce, DGA and WGA award winner, Holland has been nominated for an Emmy again this year for directing the fan favorite “Generalissimo” episode of “30 Rock.”

In fact, the array of accolades Holland has accumulated is a testament to his range as a storyteller: Though his work is often typed as edgy and irreverent, his feature film “Firehouse Dog” won a family-friendly Kid’s First award in 2007.

In his own words

The story that the self-described “out gay director and producer” tells in his Wrap essay is his own, although it has wider implications.

A week before that piece was posted, Holland had appeared as “the least political person” on a discussion panel at Outfest 2009, LA’s gay and lesbian film festival, now in its 28th year. His comments on that occasion were, he felt, taken out of context by some bloggers, and he was determined to set the record straight.

The essay talks about coming out and “living authentically” in moving terms — but it also acknowledges that doing so may pose some unique challenges for a very select few. In Hollywood today, Holland writes, “no one cares” whether any given writer, director, craftsperson or even performer is gay.
“… unless you’re in that fractional .002 percent of the young male actor population, and you really have the goods to become a true leading man. Then there may be obstacles to both living authentically and achieving that Holy Grail of dreams: real, tent-pole-sized Hollywood Stardom.

… Yes, it is neither activist nor idealistic — but it is the real world I work in every day.”

UCLA Peer Power

How Holland got his start is the stuff that dreams are made of.

Early on, while studying film directing at UCLA, Holland determined his goal: “I’ll leave with 10 minutes of film that I can put on anybody’s desk and truly say: Take it or leave it. This is the best I can do.”

“One of the most important things I learned was the power of your peer network,” he says. The peer who deserves the credit in this case is classmate Danelle Black. She had worked with him on his spookily funny, multi-award-winning student film, “Chicken Thing.” When she landed a job at Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, Holland recalls, “My film was barely finished. Danelle took the only print of ‘Chicken Thing’ that existed and put it on top of the Amblin ‘to watch’ pile. Well, Steven suddenly walked into the office with nothing to do and sat down in the screening room next to his director of development who was supposed to be prescreening for him. He stayed. He saw it, loved it, and wanted to meet me. When his office called to set it up, I didn’t believe it.”

Holland remembers the meeting with Spielberg as if it were yesterday: “I had to buy new clothes. New sweater, new shirt, just like a date. We had a lovely chat. Steven said, ‘Do you write?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do,’ and handed him a half-hour script I’d written, a Halloween episode for ‘Amazing Stories.’ Unfortunately, they already had their Halloween show, so he asked if I had anything else. I said yes – I lied. But I raced home and in two days I wrote another episode, ‘Welcome to My Nightmare.’ Steven read it and liked it, and that became my first episode of network TV – my first professional gig ever.

“Seeing the sets being built at Universal for that first script, having an army of crew people making the film and having Bruce Broughton (“Silverado”) conducting the score for it with a full orchestra — it was magical. I was 26. I was still in school. I didn’t even have an agent. And suddenly everyone in town wanted to meet with me.”

Holland has gone from strength to strength as a TV auteur. In fall of 2009 a new series he is directing and executive-producing will debut on Fox: “Sons of Tucson” stars “Reaper’s” Tyler Labine as a down-and-outer hired by three brothers to stand in for their dad, a banker who’s gone to jail for fraud.

Giving Back to UCLA

As an alumnus, Holland is happy to give back to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, with both his financial resources and his time. He co-founded a scholarship in memory of Gerald Hughes, a film school friend who died. “I give back because Steven Spielberg gave to me,” he says. “I try to help young filmmakers who are talented. I’m not Spielberg, but I lend support where I can.”

Holland actually came out to Steven years later. “It was 2001 and my life was just really good, you know? So I wrote him a letter to thank him for all the support he’d given me when I was launching my career. I just felt a need to express my gratitude. And I told him that I’d married this wonderful man and that I was truly happy. He wrote me back — and he was just so kind. He said the most important thing is to find happiness outside a career. And that it had taken him 38 years to find that as well – but that it’s never too late.”

Holland advises film students to “listen to your inner voice. Screw everybody and all their pressures to be this or that. There are a lot of ways to derail yourself. Stop listening to outside voices. Trust the great creator within you. That’s really all any of us have that makes us unique – that makes us artists.”

But Holland is quick to point out that doesn’t mean being a ranting diva. “Lots of Hollywood types seem to work at being the loudest person in the room. That’s just not my style. I listen. And it really took me a while to see that as a strength in a business crowded with really strong personalities. But I know now, it’s important to have the courage to listen to other opinions and ideas – and then still be able to find that inner voice of your own that tells you which way to go.”

He also recommends that novices prepare well and, “come in the door as the thing you want to be – writer, director, producer. Decide. Do it. Make no excuses. Nobody wants to hear about your personal problems. Your work has to stand up without disclaimers or excuses. Also, don’t direct a documentary in school and then tell Hollywood you want to direct drama – they don’t have that kind of courage or vision. You have to do the heavy lifting for them – with your student film, show them how to sell you in the marketplace. That’s how you’ll get your first job.”

Color My World

The biggest lesson Holland has learned as a director, he says, “is to ask actors, ‘How can I help you?’ Each actor has a very personal point of view, so you need to understand how to speak in his or her language.”

He illustrated the point with a vivid example: “An actress told me she related showing emotion in terms of color. So, I learned to say, ‘I need three more points of blue, and take away some red.’ It was a mind-bender, but it worked! And it meant the world to her that I cared enough to make the effort. She’d had a very long feature career – and yet I was the first director to ever ask her how I might communicate more effectively with her.”

One last word of advice? Be grateful. “I sent handwritten notes to every member of the crew on that first ‘Amazing Stories’. And I had this big burly construction foreman actually get all teary-eyed over it – no one had ever told him thank you. CUT TO: 22 years later. I sent thank you emails to my department heads after I wrapped my episode of ’30 Rock’. Turns out not one director had ever said thank you. In three seasons! These are great jobs we have as directors. Be grateful. It lets the universe know that you’re ready for more good things to happen.”

Tell Me a Story

“It’s also important to love and understand stories,” Holland says. “To know how everything contributes to the story. It’s all about story. My passion for story is the only way I win over the writers with whom I collaborate. Sooner or later, they figure out it’s not about ego or being right – I’m all about the story.”

There is a popular license plate holder seen around town: “I’d rather be directing.” When we asked what Holland might like his to read, he said: “I’d rather be storytelling.”