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September 9, 2008

Assisting The Assistants

SCA Launches the Assistant Training Program for Television Writers

By Cristy Lytal

Success in the entertainment biz has always boiled down to two things: What and whom you know. With the founding of the Assistant Training Program for Television [ATP(tv)], eight recent graduates from the SCA writing division got the inside track on how to put their knowledge to work on the front lines of the television industry.

The program, which kicked off with an intensive six-day workshop this June, was co-founded by writing alumna Kam Miller (M.F.A. '03) and Carole Kirschner. Miller, who is a staff writer on Law & Order SVU, also founded the division's annual First Pitch event in 2002. Kirschner, who serves as the ATP(tv) director, co-created the CBS Writers Mentoring Program and the WGA Showrunner Training Program.

"I wanted to have a nuts-and-bolts program to address TV and how you break into television," said Miller. "Being a writers' assistant is one of the best ways to get your foot in the door and get moving up to being a staff writer."

Miller and Kirschner selected the eight participants from the undergraduate and graduate class of 2008—Jess Brownell (B.F.A.), Beth Graddy (M.F.A.), Katie Johnson (B.F.A.), Matthew Montoya (M.F.A.), Heather Regnier (B.F.A.), Amy Rubin (M.F.A.), Jaydi Samuels (B.F.A.) and Chandra Smith (M.F.A.)—based on writing samples, personal essays, résumés, recommendations and interviews, as well as how they would gel as a group.
Glen Mazzara, executive producer of Crash, Life and Stand-off, shares professional experiences and career tips with ATP(tv) trainee Jaydi Samuels.

"We looked for people who had great attitudes and were willing to work hard," Kirschner said. Since the workshop Montoya, Samuels and Brownell landed jobs on Valentine, Family Guy and Private Practice, respectively.

Over the course of six days, Miller and Kirschner gave a crash course in the world of television writing. They provided organizational charts detailing the chains of command at the major networks and studios, taught practical skills like keeping track of Starbucks orders and rolling calls, and conveyed the subtler points of writing room etiquette. Most importantly, they emphasized the role of helping others and giving back.

The ATP experience "gives the participants an inside look at how the business works and how and why people get hired at the entry level," Kirschner said.

"Part of the larger goal of the writing division is not only to teach people how to write, but also to help with the transition to professional life," said division chair Jack Epps, Jr.. "ATP(tv) is a terrific culmination to the program."

Twenty-one guest speakers—ranging from writers' assistants to showrunners—shared their personal experiences and hard-earned wisdom with the trainees and offered their support to help the students get their first jobs. Each trainee also had the opportunity to spend time shadowing on Crash, CSI, How I Met Your Mother, My Name Is Earl, Pushing Daisies, Saving Grace, Ugly Betty or The Unit.

Besides getting a clear picture of the television industry, the participants learned how to give vivid portraits of themselves through their bio blurbs and résumés.

Regnier, who is currently interviewing for assistant positions, composed a fun bio highlighting her diverse internships at the "fantastical world of Marvel Studios" and "the civilized BBC;" her work on the Ed Wood Film Festival award-winner U.R. Ass-King For It; and her USC status as a Renaissance Scholar who minored in neuroscience.

"We were taught how to tell stories about ourselves that showcased our talents as an assistant and learned the social codes of working in a writers room," Regnier said. "I feel that with the knowledge I've gained through ATP, I can approach any job opportunity with the confidence necessary to make a good impression on potential employers."

The trainees also benefited from some skills that might not have been on their CVs.

"What really caught the attention of the people at Family Guy, you would never imagine, but it was my background in table tennis," Samuels recalled. "They have a table in the office. And it gave me an opportunity to interact with everyone, even the writers and producers, on a very informal level."

In keeping with APT(tv)'s core philosophy of giving back, several of the trainees plan to share what they've learned with other writing division students and alumni at an event in October. "The best way for you to get ahead is to help your neighbor to get ahead, because the two of you will be able to help each other in the long run," said Samuels. "Television is such a collaborative experience that you don't really get far in life by just looking out for yourself."