CSI’ star, others share advice at panel for MFA students

Christina Salter

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“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” star Marg Helgenberger took a break from finding evidence and solving crimes to offer advice to Northwestern’s aspiring writers, directors and actors on Friday.

Helgenberger, an Emmy award winner who also appeared in “Mr. Brooks” and “Erin Brockovich,” was one of six speakers at “Writing for the Screen and Stage: An Interdisciplinary Panel” Friday afternoon at the Block Museum of Art . About 130 people attended the event, which was sponsored by the Masters of Fine Artsin Writing for the Screen and Stage, the Radio-TV-Film department and the Office of the Dean for the School of Communication.

This is the fourth year the school has held a writing panel.

“This year we thought it would be interesting, rather than bring people who identify themselves primarily as writers, to bring people who work in gatekeeper roles for writers,” said panel moderator David Tolchinsky, director of the program in Writing for the Screen and Stage.

Speakers also discussed the differences between writing for TV, film, theater and other media. The panel’s discussion concentrated on the process that actors and writers go through in choosing scripts and then collaborating once a script has been chosen.

.Panel members discussed many of the difficulties of the writing process, including the challenge of identifying good scripts when the content doesn’t appeal to them personally.

“Sometimes I run across pieces that don’t speak to me, but people who come to see that piece are really struck by it,” said Aaron Carter, literary manager of Victory Gardens Theater and a panel participant.

Panel members also emphasized the need to be open to collaboration and constructive criticism.

It’s important to allow the script to develop throughout the production process and “leave your ego at the door,” said Richard J. Lewis, a director, writer and producer for “CSI.”

Lewis, Communication ’83, was adamant about the need to listen to others and to be willing to edit material that just doesn’t work.

However, too much flexibility can also be a problem, Tolchinsky said.

“Nobody wants to work with a writer that says, ‘Yeah, do whatever you want,'” he said.

The discussion was mixed with short film clips of the panel’s work, including several from “CSI.” After each clip the speakers discussed the collaboration that went into each scene.

The theme of collaboration led to talk of networking and community building in the industry, including situations future writers should avoid.

Laverne McKinnon, the president of TV production for 50 Cannon Entertainment and former CBS senior vice president of drama series development, shared a story of a beginning writer who made the mistake of criticizing his co-writers in a blog and had trouble finding work afterward.

“Be very, very careful of the things you say,” said McKinnon, Communication ’87. “You never know who knows who and how it could get back to them.”

The audience included many Masters of Fine Arts students, many of whom said they enjoyed the opportunity to hear from successful members of the industry.

“Writing for Hollywood is a very vague artistic endeavor, and it’s nice to hear about it from people who know,” said second-year master’s student Kristin Chirico.

The panel ended by answering audience questions and encouraging students to always be persistent.

“There are moments of despair,” Helgenberger said. “The important thing to always keep in mind is to always go back to the craft and go back to the process.”