For high school students in South Los Angeles, Hollywood may be fewer than 10 miles away, but a career in the entertainment industry can seem difficult to fathom. In an attempt to close the distance between promising young storytellers and a showbiz career, the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television has partnered with the Horace Mann UCLA Community School in South L.A. on the “Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Story” summer workshop.
Twenty Horace Mann students are selected for the 10-day program, taught by UCLA faculty and graduate students, which focuses on finding creative ways to craft each student’s personal story. “It’s almost like a mini-bootcamp for theater, film and television students,” says Christine Shen, director of UCLA’s Community Schools Initiative. “How do you write a compelling story? How does that look in a movie or a TV show or a podcast?”
Along with screenwriting, the students take workshops on lighting, cinematography and other crafts. They receive individualized attention, with a teacher-student ratio of two adults per student. For their culminating project, the students adapt their personal story into a fictional genre, creatively translating their experience into horror, or romantic comedy, or action thriller.
Horace Mann UCLA Community School has a majority-black student body, and sits in a neighborhood in which only 6% of residents have graduated from college. (The college acceptance rate has more than tripled at the original UCLA Community School in Koreatown since its opening in 2009.) The rising 10th-graders are just beginning to think about their post-high school prospects, and the summer program is designed to open up avenues for an entertainment industry career.
“I saw students at the end of 10 days feeling confident that they had the ability to try things that they’re not familiar with,” Shen says. “They felt seen. They felt heard. They felt valued. They saw that their story was important enough to be shared, in a way that might lead to a career in the future.”
Some of the students echoed these sentiments. “After participating in TFT, I have gained confidence in being able to write, to share my story,” says Akili Woods.
Another participant, Xavier Alejo, says: “TFT heightened my interest and gave me a pathway to pursue my dream job in movie production.”
Alums from last year’s session are already making inroads in their prospective careers. One student, who plans to pursue his dream of becoming a screenwriter, volunteered to develop a screenplay for middle-school students. Yet another student started a creative writing club on Horace Mann’s campus.
“The kids really saw themselves as college students when they were going through the program,” Shen adds. “We got to use the facilities at TFT. We got to be on campus. On the ride home, kids were saying, ‘I really believe I can do this. I really believe that this is a place for me.’ They just changed their whole conception of why it’s important to do well in high school and get the right grades. There is an end goal.”
For Andres Cuervo, a director of operations and strategic partnerships at UCLA, this philanthropic program is about creating a more inclusive future. “Hollywood struggles with diversity,” he says. “It’s no secret. And Horace Mann is in a marginalized community that’s been neglected by so many here in L.A., including the movie industry. By connecting UCLA with this community, through this workshop, we’ve inspired and reframed what it means for these students to be able to see themselves in Hollywood.”