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Northwestern students tackle writing ‘All My Children’ script

Jared Gilmour, Reporter

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As an added bonus for winning a prestigious playwriting award, three Northwestern students this week will start writing an episode of the soap opera “All My Children.”

“What’s most exciting for these students is that they’re going to air this episode,” said Communication lecturer Laura Schellhardt, the students’ playwriting teacher. “Three undergraduates are going to graduate with a credit on their resume for a produced soap opera episode.”

Communication senior Emily Acker, Communication sophomore Benjamin Sullivan-Knoff and Communication junior Hilary Flynn landed the script after winning the Agnes Nixon Playwriting Award. In addition to penning the episode, the trio is writing, workshopping and rehearsing original plays that will be performed during the Agnes Nixon Festival from May 18 to 19.

This marks the first year the winners of the award will write an episode for the TV show, which ended its 40-year run in 2011 and was relaunched online Monday. Schellhardt said representatives from “All My Children” thought it would be a fun opportunity for the students in the festival.

“It’s such an unexpected reward,” Acker said. “It’s invaluable at this stage in our careers to be doing this. It’s hopefully a little taste of success to come.”

The creator of “All My Children,” Agnes Nixon (Communication ’44),  sponsors the festival every year.

“Agnes Nixon is known as a soap opera maven,” said Schellhardt, who teaches a class in which students work on their plays for the festival. “She was a pioneer at a time when women were hardly allowed in the writing room.”

The students said researching for the writing role can be complicated given the number of characters on the show and decades of back-story.

“They’ve been sending us DVDs of past episodes,” Acker said. “We’re doing our best to understand the long and extensive background.”

Sullivan-Knoff is also new to “All My Children,” and he crammed to prepare for writing this week.

“I can see how it’s been on 40 years,” Sullivan-Knoff said. “It gets you sucked in pretty quickly.”

He said the show’s intricate plot lines are even more confusing for him because the three writers have to share DVDs of past episodes, which means they are watching the soap opera out of order.

The three young playwrights will get their hands on the outline for the episode early this week. They will have about a week to write their scenes.

Each student will write scenes for specific story lines and then combine the individual scenes to make one episode. For scenes in which story lines intersect, the three writers will collaborate.

“It’s funny because none of the students are versed in soap writing, which is its own beast,” Schellhardt said. “They have to learn to make characters broad and to make the drama happen quickly.”

Schellhardt said the episode her students are writing will likely air in June or July.

“I’m excited to see my name on it,” Sullivan-Knoff said. “That’s going to be so bizarre.”