Art by Nick Gentry
It is the timeless, universal language that ties us together as human kind. It helps us make sense of our lives and the world around us. It can illuminate the human spirit and not only delight and entertain, but enlighten, engage and inspire change for a better world.
Story has the infinite power to connect us across time and space, and frame the human narrative by transcending borders, cultures, boundaries, and barriers. It gives voice and meaning especially to those who may have been silenced or where no voice existed before.
Story can be an extraordinary force for good; for transformation; for positive social change, influence and impact. And, at this critical moment in our human history, there is a need, more than ever before, for new diverse humanistic voices to be heard and for new stories to be told and delivered over a multitude of platforms that digital technology has democratized and made available to everyone.
I think story has the ability to save our world. It can galvanize, inform and move millions of people to action around the world. Just look at how individual stories created by simple, inexpensive cameras and mobile devices and distributed across all forms of social media sparked the Arab Spring. These were stories that captured the hearts, imagination and courage of so many. This is only one example of the power of story to positively impact social change; to move the dial; to connect us in ways not imagined before; to change the course of human history.
Yes, story matters. So why don’t we value the power of story, as much as we do science or medicine, in our culture and in our institutions of higher learning? Why don’t we treat story as an area of study and training as important as science, engineering, and medicine? Story cuts across everything we do. Scientists, engineers, business leaders, and doctors are now looking to the power of story to help them communicate their ideas and research more effectively to both their peers and a broader public audience. I can safely say this because as the Dean of the one the most elite professional schools for entertainment and performing arts education in the world – the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (UCLA/TFT) – I am finding that my esteemed colleagues in science, business and medicine are now reaching out to us, the storytelling school, to help them do just this.
If I might take this one step further, through film, television, digital media, theater and animation, we know that we have in our hands some of the most powerful tools and platforms in history for creating and delivering stories to the widest possible audiences around the world. Why not use this power well and for the greater good? Why not make it imperative to build social and civic responsibility even more deeply into the very fabric of our film and theater school curricula so classes and workshops encourage student filmmakers, television creators, digital makers, performers, scholars and faculty to work collaboratively across disciplines to use their stories, their performances and their research to not only delight and entertain, but to enlighten, engage and inspire change for a better world? Well, we can, if we have the will and intention to do so.
Without question, social responsibility in entertainment and performing arts education should not be relegated to the backwaters with a few classes here and there. Rather, it can, and should be, central to the academic mission and a core focus for curriculum as a whole. It is just as important to infuse this ideal and goal into narrative film, animation, digital media, television and theater classes (whether mainstream or independent) as much as for documentary classes, an area often thought of as the primary domain for social impact filmmaking.
Just recently, at UCLA/TFT, Participant Media, founded by the remarkable and visionary Jeff Skoll and under the great leadership of CEO Jim Berk, established the “Jake Eberts Fellowship for Social Impact Filmmaking” to support the work of our outstanding graduate students in directing, writing and producing with a focus on the humanistic ideals found in Jake Eberts’ extraordinary films from his narrative classics such as CHARIOTS OF FIRE to his profound documentaries such as OCEANS. As an excellent example of how a partnership between industry and a film/theater school can be created around a central mission, this relationship underscores how Participant Media values and supports the importance of entertainment and performing arts education and curriculum development that incorporates social responsibility into the very fabric of the offerings. Participant Media wisely realizes that film and theater schools can serve as an exciting, important reservoir from which outstanding, diverse storytelling talent can be nurtured and developed to not only advance the art and craft of great filmmaking, but to serve as a pipeline into the industry with the kind of new voices that can help shape our world conversation; address our most pressing global challenges; and impact and influence social change – all the while delighting and entertaining audiences through the power of story.
“Our enormous value as storytelling schools cannot, and should not be, underestimated. Through the power of story as expressed through film, television, theater, digital media and animation, our value is of profound importance and benefit to the world.”
UCLA/TFT alum, Dustin Lance Black who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for MILK and wrote the play, PROP 8, about California’s controversial Proposition 8 that bans gay marriage, is teaching screenwriting at UCLA/TFT this year and brings a humanistic consciousness and spirit of social responsibility to every one of his lectures. Similarly, Oscar winning writer/director and UCLA/TFT alum, Alexander Payne, is bringing the same humanistic focus and inspiration to his graduate directing class. THE SIMPSONS creator, Matt Groening, has established a special fund and class for animation students to create short animated films focused on issues of social justice and the environment. Through the vision of award winning producer and UCLA/TFT alum, Frank Marshall, and in partnership with the Telluride Film Festival, our PhD students are developing storytelling and media curriculum in one of Los Angeles’ most underserved innercity high schools helping young students find their storytelling voices through the power of film and digital media. This past year, V DAY founder, Eve Ensler, work-shopped her new play in our Theater Lab with professional actors alongside our undergrad and grad students focusing on the environment and issues for women and girls. Antwone Fisher did the same with our students around race in America. As part of our year-long student theater season, we just presented a wonderful production of ANGELS IN AMERICA that was accompanied by conversations with students and faculty around the issue of HIV/AIDS. We partnered with the Gates Foundation to create a class for students to make short films about the problems facing K-12 education in America. And, we are launching a Center for Social Responsibility in Entertainment and Performing Arts as a hub for research, curriculum development, distinguished visiting artists and public programming. These are just a few examples at our school that focus on social impact storytelling and research, and that build upon and expand the many classes that our faculty offer in this arena at UCLA/TFT. But, this is not enough.
We must be more strategic for the long term. And, by that, I mean, the “collective we”. We, who are educators and leaders in schools of entertainment and performing arts education around the world, are sitting in a central position to harness our resources to nurture and develop the kinds of artists and scholars who can make a difference in the world through the power of their stories. And, with technology as the game changer as to how we can create and deliver our stories over a multitude of platforms not dependent, anymore, on big money, we can help a wide, diverse array of students develop into the kind of artists and scholars who can make a difference whether through mainstream or indie films, television, animation, digital media, DYI platforms, interactive games, experimental theater or Broadway.
But, to do this, it means that we must re-frame the educational approach by putting a stronger emphasis on social responsibility and humanistic storytelling into our missions. Not just at UCLA/TFT where this is already in our DNA and part of our public mission, but for all film, theater, television, animation and digital media schools around the world. This is my call to action to all institutions of entertainment and performing arts education. It’s time to act now. Make social impact entertainment central to your educational offerings and missions, not just an add-on for a few students and faculty. Let’s have our entertainment and performing arts schools be the place where the great humanistic storytellers of the future emerge. Where we nurture and develop the kinds of artists and scholars with the skills, artistry, confidence and real-world experiences so they are not only prepared for long-term success, but will use their stories and their successes to make a difference. Position and encourage students to become the leaders of a new kind of entertainment and performing arts industry that embraces the ideal of the double bottom line: that you can do well and do good in life. Just look at Participant Media. What they have done as an industry leading entertainment company with their many outstanding, award-winning commercial successes from THE HELP to LINCOLN to AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, should serve as a north star guide and strong role model for entertainment and performing arts schools as to what is possible to achieve when you focus your mind and heart, time and energy, strategic plans and good stories, into a particular ideal and mission.
Our enormous value as storytelling schools cannot, and should not be, underestimated. Through the power of story as expressed through film, television, theater, digital media and animation, our value is of profound importance and benefit to the world. Like science and medicine, it plays a major role in impacting and influencing the equation for dynamically moving our human history forward; for improving our lives; for tearing down the walls that have long separated us from one another; for connecting, informing, engaging, and inspiring positive social change; for enlightening and enriching our culture and society; for illuminating our hearts and minds and elevating our consciousness; and, for delighting and entertaining us, all at once.
Yes, story matters.
Teri Schwartz is Dean, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. She has launched a vision and plan re-imagining entertainment and performing arts education as an interdisciplinary enterprise grounded in humanistic storytelling, innovation, social responsibility and global diversity.