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Outside, it's a gloomy morning on Carnegie Mellon's Pittsburgh campus. But inside the Rauh Studio Theater, there is a meticulous, almost frenetic energy. Students seem to be everywhere—sliding lights across the stage, walking with open laptops as they review sounds and images, practicing their lines one last time.
Seated just a few feet away from the School of Drama students is an alumna and university trustee— Paula Wagner, who also happens to be one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. Dressed in a conservative black suit accented with a pink satin blouse and donning very smart black glasses, she greets the students for her Future Stages workshop. Wagner exudes a level of Hollywood intensity and focus that can be expected for her line of work. She's here, along with another alumnus—legendary television writer and producer Steven Bochco —for a day of collaborative student workshops.
Wagner, who earned her degree from the College of Fine Arts School of Drama in 1969, had her marquee dreams just like many of the students scurrying around the theater. After graduation, the young actress had success, landing roles in several Broadway and off-Broadway productions, even performing at the prestigious Yale Repertory Theater. Growing tired, though, of the countless auditions and lack of consistent, quality work, she decided to try her hand as an agent when her agent offered her a job.
Anticipating that her new endeavor would be as competitive as acting, she determinedly pored over books and industry trades, spending hours learning the ins and outs of the business. All she needed was that one client, which she aggressively pursued. One screenwriter was so impressed with her drive that even though he opted to go with the well-established Creative Artists Agency, he told those in charge there about their competitor's acumen and persistence. The praise prompted a phone call to Wagner from the agency head. She ended up becoming the agency's first female agent. It turned out to be a good move. She would shape and influence a number of Hollywood careers and projects. Her roster of clients read like a Who's Who, including box office superstar Tom Cruise and acclaimed movie director Oliver Stone. With Cruise, she would form Cruise/Wagner Productions in 1993 and develop projects like the Mission: Impossible series, Vanilla Sky, and War of the Worlds. Those motion pictures grossed more than $3 billion worldwide, and, in 2004, Daily Variety christened the production duo, "Billion-Dollar Producers." Wagner would eventually move on to head United Artists. Today an independent producer, she heads her own film production company called Chestnut Ridge and has several projects in development as well as entertaining a number of entrepreneurial pursuits.
The drama students, in preparation for Wagner's workshop, have created four original pieces. Throughout the collaboration, all of the interactions—involving everyone from actors and writers to those behind the scenes—were tracked with a design journal shared online, via Wiki. The journal serves as as an electronic diary of the weeks of preparation that took place before Wagner's visit. Before performing each piece, the students share with Wagner how every aspect of the production evolved on and off stage. Then, Wagner gets to watch the end-result performance. As the houselights dim for each production, the students' exuberance is replaced by a remarkable calm. Moments before the final performance, one student actor exclaims, almost jokingly, "Let's do it; it's time to be a star."
The purpose for the stagings is for Wagner to consider the value in their work from conception to performance. For the students planning to break into the entertainment industry, either on stage or behind the scenes, this is their moment of validation—the moment when someone who's truly established and trusted tells them what they hope to hear, that it all will be worth it, that they're on the right track, that they will find success.
Now, post-performance, students are seated in the theater, anxiously awaiting Wagner's critique. Smiling, she seems pleased. As she speaks, there's a rustling of backpacks and laptops booting up so any and all of her feedback will be filed away. Wagner doesn't disappoint. She talks about the importance of studying your craft, cross-media explorations, and how audiences "should feel something." Although she has had her hand in a number of Hollywood films featuring massive explosions, death-defying stunts, and computer-generated images, she makes it clear that she is also a fan of the stage. Her face lights up as she talks about the many opportunities in live theater and the blending of different media. The students, most leaning forward in their seats, seem mesmerized. Wagner doesn't have any profound "insider secrets" to share. What she does pass along is what they probably already know but don't mind having reinforced—acting is a tough craft, so is the business of Hollywood, but ... there is room for them in the industry.
When Wagner disappears off stage, it's not unlike the intermission of a play or orchestral performance. Some students check email, others grab some food or head to the restroom to freshen up. Quickly, though, the seats are once again filled and an air of anticipation permeates the theater.
Enter Bochco. His industry success from a television perspective is as impressive as Wagner's motion-picture prowess. He, like Wagner, enrolled at Carnegie Mellon as a drama major, earning his degree in 1966. Along the way, the young student writer landed an MCA Writing Fellowship. The fellowship led to a chance summer job at Universal. There, he worked hard to climb the ranks, shaking hands with whomever he could to get noticed. After graduation, he was welcomed back at Universal, where he assumed the role of writer and eventually story editor. He hit the big time with the television series Hill Street Blues, which he co-created and produced; he also frequently wrote episodes. During its seven-year run from 1981–1987, the police drama was nominated for an astounding 95 awards, winning 51 times, including 26 Emmy awards. Among the Emmys were "Outstanding Drama Series" wins in 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984, with Bochco credited as executive producer. More television hits followed, including the award-winning series L.A. Law (1986–1994; 113 nominations, 36 wins) and NYPD Blue (1993–2005; 163 nominations, 78 wins). Like Wagner, Bochco today heads his own production company, Steven Bochco Productions, which produces the critically acclaimed TV law drama Raising the Bar.
Tall and slim with a relaxed swagger, he is a native New Yorker and he wears it. He casually takes his seat wearing a powder blue sweater, jeans, and a slight smile. Bochco is easy, but clearly just as focused on the moment as Wagner was earlier. In his TV workshop, Bochco wants the students to understand how it all works and how it often isn't fair. "I want to talk to the actors," he states in a suddenly serious tone. He readjusts his seat, switching positions as students sit silent, ready to latch on to what he is about to share. Be prepared, he warns, for "flop sweat," the nervous perspiration caused by a fear of failure before an audience. And, for everyone in the theater, don't be afraid to approach big-time producers or actors if you get the chance, even if you're their waiter at a restaurant, just don't be too aggressive, let them enjoy their meal. In other words, you can't avoid being green, but use your smarts.(Continued …)