Playing a Role in the Entertainment Field
by Cecilia Green, IWPA Treasurer
If you've ever dreamed of a communications job in the entertainment industry, take a lesson from these Chicago communicators who, with vision and talent, made their dreams a reality right in their own hometown. This topic was explored at a Sept. 29, 2001 luncheon hosted by the Illinois Woman's Press Association.
The speakers were:
Following are highlights of their remarks.
Julianne Hill, a print journalist who dreamed of being a film maker, decided to take a chance and write a "humble letter" to Bill Kurtis, nationally known newsman, documentary writer and producer. She thought a friend was playing a joke on her when Kurtis actually called her, which led to a job as a producer at Kurtis Productions, despite a 60 percent pay cut from her previous job. After volunteering several times to write a script, she finally got the chance to write a first draft and to go to the "Bill Kurtis film school" when he came in on Saturdays to coach her.
"I learned to tell a story, to make it personal, to get to know the people involved and to make the viewer care," Hill said. Her real writing comes in as quick transitions between the film bites. "It has to be short, punchy and conversational," she said. Kurtis once told her to "write like a normal person talks." Hill said, "This is how I talk!" "Whoever said you were normal?" Kurtis replied. It's a hard balance between "dumbing down" the copy and keeping it on a documentary level. "We aim for 'popcorn' ability; so you can sit down and eat popcorn while you're watching," Hill said.
She also said listening to NPR and reading plays helped her with the transition between print and TV. "It helps you pick up the cadence and write in someone's voice," she said. "It also helps to think of your subjects as characters in plays." She also took lessons in improv at Second City, where you have to "come up with a beginning, middle and end and write on your feet."
At Kurtis Productions, Hill worked on the Peabody Award-winning series, "The New Explorers," and is currently focusing on "Investigative Reports" on A & E. Her documentary subject matter is diverse, from a showcase of a national park to a look at troubled hydraulic systems on the Boeing 737. She maintains her ties to print journalism and is a contributing editor and columnist for Writer's Digest.
For Cheryl Lewin, the current slowdown in restaurants and theatergoing is discouraging, although she reminded the audience that it took six months after the Gulf War for the theaters to fully recover. "We bring the arts and the happiness to people. We have a very important function today."
She started her career as the first Loyola student to land an internship in TV. Although her first dream was "to change the world by being in TV news," she soon learned that restrictions put on TV news stories make that dream unlikely. After college, her first job was in the broadcast department of the Church Federation of Chicago and she worked at a PR agency part time for three years. She started picking up freelance jobs writing about theaters and entertainers, being "in the right place at the right time."
In 1987, she the time was right to form her own company, Cheryl J. Lewin Associates. Today, Lewin is in the middle of the entertainment scene -- whether it's a theatre production in the heart of Chicago's commercial theatre, a concert at the United Center, or a television syndicated program. Lewin's client list includes an impressive lineup of performers, including Lou Rawls, Placido Domingo, Lisa Minelli, Eartha Kitt , TV's Judge Greg Mathis, and the late Frank Sinatra. Lewin's company is now an affiliate of John Iltis Associates.
Building a theater company that has lasted for 25 years was not Jackie Taylor's dream. "I wanted to be the first African American woman to win an Academy Award for best actress," she said. Now she believes her dream will come true through one of the talented actors she works with who will credit her in their Academy Award acceptance speeches.
Taylor said she was lucky when she got out of college that some theaters like the Goodman were casting black actors, and she had professional experience when her first big break came. A film company was casting for "Cooley High," set in Cabrini Green, where Taylor grew up. Although she was 23 years old at the time, she convinced the casting director that she could play a teenager from the projects. After the movie, she was put on the studio's payroll and began to read the scripts with characters it wanted her to portray. After two months of questioning the limited and negative roles being offered, she and the studio parted ways. "'You don't belong here,' they said, and I agreed."
"That is when I decided to use my talents to make a change, to control
the image and call my own shots," Taylor said. She has never forgotten
what Cecily Tyson said to her: "Thank about what roles your daughter will
see when she's 20 years old and follow your heart."
Founding the Black Ensemble Theatre Company was her way of showcasing the greatness
of the African-American people and crossing cultural borders. "Prejudice
comes from ignorance," Taylor said. The company's mission is to produce
plays that are positive, uplifting and educational. Taylor has written 35 of
the more than 100 plays she has produced and directed, including the long-running
"Jackie Wilson Story."
The theatre company currently has a $1 million budget and a 22-state tour coming soon. However, Taylor never forgets the day she had six months' rent due, a play that was not selling tickets, and two actors that just quit. "I went right ahead and had a temper tantrum, throwing things all over the office," she said. She credits her success to a strong group of people helping her and the attitude that "No matter what anyone says, take a deep breath, wipe yourself off and start all over again."
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