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MSLCE Professor Teaches Aspiring Creatives How to Raise Money

By Jacob Nelson

Cory Sandrock wants to teach his students the stuff he wished he’d learned when he was an undergraduate studying theatre: how to raise money.

A Northwestern alum who majored in theatre, Sandrock has always been interested in live performance. He recently directed a production of Frankenstein at a community theater in Elmhurst, and spent a few years working in the New York theatre scene after he graduated. His struggles to raise money for the productions he was working on pushed him to get his MBA. Now, he works as a vice president at Northern Trust.

When you have a really good arts education you don’t necessarily learn that,” Sandrock said about basic accounting and finance skills. “It wasn’t recognized as being important.”

Sandrock, who now works as a vice president at Northern Trust, is teaching an Masters in Science for Leadership in Creative Enterprises course this winter about finances in the creative industries. He wants his students to know where to look for capital, how to ask for capital, and how to create and manage a budget for a company or production.

He knows those skills don’t sound immediately engaging, but hopes they will jump out at some like they did with him.

I went to business school not thinking I would like a lot of the classes,” he said, “but I really liked economics, so that for me was like how do I bridge the worlds and still be creative.”

Sandrock is happy to see that, as the theatre scene becomes more competitive, the division is coming down between the art and business side of things. He remembers working for a Broadway company and getting blank looks when he asked if the production had enough budgeted for him to print copies of flyers.

“Everyone looked at me like I had four heads and someone said, ‘You’re not supposed to worry about that,” Sandrock said. He remembered thinking, “Well, do I have the money to go make copies?”

He’s also hopeful his students will see, as he did, the similarities between business and performance.

“The minute you give a monologue for an audition you are selling yourself,” Sandrock said. “Art and business are basically after the same thing, they just speak two different languages.”

Ideally, the class will equip students with the skills they need to understand the basics: what a spreadsheet means, for example, and how to navigate a financial conversation. In short, the skills that, if Sandrock had learned them as an undergraduate, may have made a big difference when he was working in New York.

“I would have totally applied for this program,” Sandrock said. “I think it’s important for (students) to have both skills, add enough skills so that you can take it to the next level and not always be just trying to make it.”

Steppenwolf Artistic Director Talks About ‘Institution Building’ at Northwestern

By Jacob Nelson

“Before artistic director, I was a babysitter, a waitress, a receptionist, a teacher… a waitress.”

So began Martha Lavey’s explanation as to how she got to be Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Artistic Director during the Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprise’s January speaker series event. Lavey, who has been Artistic Director for about twenty years, revealed at the event that there is no paved path to a successful career in theatre. Hers began after graduating from Northwestern, when she saw a production of “Say Goodnight Gracie” at Steppenwolf and found her calling.

“I thought, ‘By golly, if I could ever act with people that good I’d be happy'” Lavey said, “and by golly, I was right.”

Under Lavey’s leadership, Steppenwolf has been awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the Illinois Arts Legend Award, and nine of the company’s 12 Tony Awards. Lavey said the learning curve for the culture of Steppenwolf was steeper than the learning curve as the artistic director of the theater. She learned as artistic director that being collaborative helped.

“One important part of the learning curve is I don’t have to do it alone,” she said.

During the question and answer portion of the event, Lavey was asked for advice about pursuing a creative career. She told them to work with people they like.

“Work around people you really like,” Lavey said, “and then your path just starts to find you.”

Lavey was careful, however, to acknowledge the risk inherent in pursuing a career in theatre acting or directing.

“There’s the plan, and then there’s what happens,” Lavey said. “Most careers… you could basically count on the fact that at the end of it you’d probably be better off than when you started. Independent actors and directors can’t count on that. They deserve some latitude.”

When asked about whether or not her gender had affected the way people treated her when she took over as Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Lavey replied, “First of all, I have five brothers.” However, she did offer advice to the women in the audience about navigating the professional arts world. She told them to “quit apologizing. Not everything needs to be in the form of a question.”

“That’s not a closed chapter, that’s an ongoing assertion of your place in the world,” she said.

Over the years, Lavey, who began at Steppenwolf as an actor, took fewer acting opportunities to focus more on direction and other administrative duties. She said she learned that she gets a lot of satisfaction out of institution building.

“I’ve always sort of followed my nose,” Lavey said. “I’m hopeful that’ll be helpful for the next chapter.”

The next Speaker Series event will be with Sheetal Prajapati, the Assistant Director of Learning and Artists Initiatives at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The event will be held Wednesday, Feb. at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus, in the Frances Searle building (room 1-421). The event is free. Click here to RSVP.

NU Professor Teaches Course on Digital Television

By Jacob Nelson

Aymar Jean Christian is trying to change the way his students think about television.

“When we think of TV we think of corporate produced products,” he said, “but that’s only a result of a very specific developing process so TV distributors can make money.”

Watch the faculty profile of Aymar Jean Christian here.

Christian, a Northwestern assistant professor, is currently teaching a winter quarter course for the Master of Science for Leadership in Creative Enterprises. Titled “Digital Television: Developing Television for New Media,” the course is designed to teach students how to make media products outside of the corporate system. Readings will include theoretical and empirical studies on development and distribution and independent television development, as well as internet distribution.

The assignments, on the other hand, will be a little more creative. “Students will be tasked with coming up with a proposal for integrating video into project they could operationalize in Chicago.”

Students, in short, are going to come up with a digital media project. If students are interested, they may end up getting some pretty hands on experience. Christian is currently working on an independent television project, and he will offer students the chance to help him with it. The idea is to get students thinking about the nitty gritty process of making media.

“How do you decide who to collaborate with?” Christian asked. “What are the basics needed for various resources?”

The driving question Christian hopes to answer with his class is what it means to work outside the status quo as it relates to television.

“Working outside the corporate structure has always been an option,” Christian said, “The difference has been how many people can you get to see what you produce and what are the resources you have to develop them?”

Chicago Filmmaking Continues Steady Uptick

By Amy Ross

Although 2014 was a smaller year for Chicago as a destination for filming Hollywood features, local productions and television series helped maintain the city’s steady uptick of filmmaking. Richard Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office since 1996, estimates that the revenues and total number of shooting days of 2014 would continue the growth trend of the last five years.

Aside from films and television series, commercial production also played a key role in boosting the filmmaking statistics of 2014 to a record of 2200 filming days and approximately $358 million dollars in local spending towards actors, equipment rental and facilities, among others. “What we are very enthused about is the growth of the local filmmaking community making independent features that may not be Hollywood films but do well in festivals and ideally secure theatrical releases,” said Moskal.

The Chicago Film Office is a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and is in charge of attracting and facilitating the production of local screen entertainment, including feature films, television series, commercials and documentaries. The Office comprises four people and functions as a “one-stop liaison” for filmmakers who need support obtaining permits and accessing city services, among other things. According to Film Office director, the competition for attracting Hollywood producers is fierce and the business is often fickle in term of where to film. 

The state of Illinois currently provides a 30 percent tax credit on all local spending, as do many other states across the country. However, Chicago offers other production incentives, including its architectural and its cultural life. Others involve the variety of resources available, like the birth and consolidation of CineSpace film studio, which undoubtedly aids in attracting filmmakers.

“Chicago is built on its reputation as a theater town with a host of large and small theater communities that offer nationally and internationally recognized talent,” Moskal said. “That is a huge benefit for casting in the city because it cuts time and the costs of flying people in from other places.”

The Chicago Film Office also often accommodates unconventional requirements such as low-flying helicopters and explosions for films like the upcoming Batman v Superman and last year’s Insurgent. In terms of television series, Chicago Fire and Chicago PD continued shooting locally as they had the previous year, joined by new projects like the musical drama Empire which will air over the next months on FOX. The Chicago born Wachowski siblings also shot their upcoming sci-fi show Sense8 in the city. That show will be available on Netflix Sense8 this spring.

Chicago Dance Company Reaches Out To ‘Dance Citizens’

By Amy Ross

By Amy Ross

The future sustainability of dance depends as much on nurturing extraordinary artists as it does on cultivating an audience, true “dance citizens.” This is the philosophy behind DanceWorks Chicago, an organization founded in 2007 to provide a laboratory for early career performers while reaching out to the community. On Dec. 13, Danceworks gave a clear example of its intentions to engage the community: its staff opened company auditions to the public. Members of the audience were allowed to watch this competitive process, held at the Dance Center of Columbia College in Chicago.

“Creating an environment for meaningful exploration by artists and audiences is an important part of continuing the forward movement of the art form as well as part of building Chicago as a destination for dance,” said Julie Nakagawa, who directs DanceWorks alongside Andreas Böttcher. As they sum it up on their website, Dancework’s commitment is to “community” not “company”; to “participatory,” rather than the “proprietary.” An Evanston native, Nakagawa has invested her efforts in the development of dance artists and their collaborators since 2007, after retiring from a successful career as a dancer with Christopher D’Amboise’s Off Center Ballet, Cleveland Ballet, and Twyla Tharp Dance.

For Nakagawa, “making it” in the dance scene depends more on the measuring stick than on anything else, as there are many ways successfully participate in the dance community. DanceWorks Chicago fits into that equation by allowing dancers and choreographers to explore new levels of artistry through training, collaboration, mentorship, and performance.

“Dance has really grown in the past few decades, in lots of ways, not all of them qualitative. There’s more out there to navigate, whether studios, post-high school options, companies, non-profit structures, etc.,” she said. Although she works far from the commercial dance arena, Nakagawa believes that commerce and art can maintain a healthy and fulfilling relationship in dance, as they do in many other art forms such as architecture, fashion, music, and theater. “Technology provides a lens through which to experience more dance,” Nakagawa said.

“Technology is not changing the body and the possibilities of the body, rather it is changing how we view bodies in motion, literally and figuratively.” Dancework’s next live performance will be held on Saturday, January 17 in the Family Matinee Series at the Harris Theater, located at 205 East Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are available here. For more information on the DanceWorks community and upcoming events, you can visit the company website or follow its Facebook page.

Steppenwolf Artistic Director to Speak at Northwestern

By Jacob Nelson

During her tenure as Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Martha Lavey has overseen the production of hundreds of plays, many of which have transferred to Broadway. She’s also seen Chicago grow into a destination for aspiring theater professionals.

“There is nationwide regard for Chicago as a fertile ground for actors,” Lavey said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “Chicago has that reputation as being a sophisticated place with a down to earth, blue collar sensibility.”

Lavey will be speaking about her career and leadership experience at the MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises’ upcoming speaker series event on Jan. 7. Under Lavey’s leadership, Steppenwolf has been awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the Illinois Arts Legend Award, and nine of the company’s 12 Tony Awards. During that time, Lavey says she hasn’t found that there is any one way to become a successful performer. Many performers who audition for Steppenwolf come from undergraduate training backgrounds or from graduate programs or classes.

“Classes are a good way to get plugged in and how to find an agent,” Lavey said. Getting plugged into the scene is important, according to Lavey, especially as Chicago’s theater scene continues to grow and more opportunities open up. “Here in Chicago the pool has grown,” Lavey said. “The theatre scene in Chicago has just flourished.”

Pointing to storefront theaters in addition to the larger ones like Steppenwolf, Lavey said there are many opportunities for aspiring theater professionals in Chicago. These opportunities include pathways toward non-acting positions as well. Though Lavey began as an actor for Steppenwolf before becoming its artistic director in ’95, she explained that Steppenwolf now offers apprenticeships in a variety of areas, including stage management, development, and marketing. These apprenticeships are not only ways to get exposure and an invaluable education – it could also lead to a job. “We hire internally, always apprentices first,” Lavey said.

“We always looks to that pool of people when we’re hiring first at the entry level.” When it comes to acting, however, training will only go so far. What Lavey says that what she looks for more than anything else is truthfulness and authenticity. “An actor’s job is to try to know him or herself and be truthful in that representation,” Lavey said. “It’s human behavior that’s captivating to us and that’s what we look for in actors.”

Lavey’s presentation will be held in Frances Searle Building Room 1-421, located at 2240 Campus Drive in Evanston, on at 5 p.m. on Jan. 7. RSVP here.

Learn About MSLCE Faculty and Events on YouTube

By Jacob Nelson
The Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises recently launched its YouTube channel. Check out our videos highlighting the program’s faculty and the courses they’re teaching.
Faculty Profiles: We’ve also posted video highlights from our past three speaker series events.
Speaker Series:

Games Producer Advises Northwestern Students to Collaborate During MSLCE Speaker Series

By Amy Ross

Collaboration, no matter how high-tech the endeavor, is about people. To be a success in the gaming industry, it’s just as important to know how to critique creative teams without irritating them as it is to understand how to code. These are some of the tips that game producer and content designer Matthew Schwartz gave in his talk at the Masters of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises’ (MSLCE) speaker series on Dec. 3.

Schwartz graduated from Northwestern’s Radio, Television, and Film department in 1995 and has worked as a games producer at Adult Swim Games and as a content designer at Cartoon Network New Media. “I developed a certain skill at being able to deliver creative direction and input…you didn’t want to come off as hostile, but at the same time you wanted to make your perspective very clear,” said Schwartz. This task was particularly complex because much of the communication took place through computer screens and was often directed towards people in other countries with different cultural backgrounds and limited English. Schwartz’ strategy focused on conveying to his developers that the feedback was coming from a place of respect and understanding, both of the product and the vision behind it.

These are crucial elements when critiquing projects that are often a product of years’ worth of a person’s time and effort. To do so, he invested hours and hours playing the games before offering feedback. He knew that the platform on which the projects were published tracked and reported this time back to the creators. “This is a much better way to get a creative person to see your view. As a producer your job is to make sure everybody is marching in the same direction. Sometimes your coder will become obsessed with the menu and other fundamental things are broken so you have to find ways to get everyone back onto the ‘critical path,’ which totally represents the production mindset, aside from being a gaming term,” said Schwartz.

Throughout the talk, Schwartz offered students insight about pitching, teamwork and project management. He also offered advice on how to reach out and get started in a creative industry like gaming. He also pointed out some of the major differences between working in gaming on a mass scale at large companies and at a smaller one with indie gaming. The larger companies tend to have much more specialized jobs like being “the bat swinging” or “dust kicking guy” of animations, while independent productions tend to be broader.

Schwartz encouraged students to muster up the courage to contact influential people in their areas of interest through tools like LinkdIn, Twitter and Facebook. He landed his first job at MTV after randomly contacting a man his girlfriend’s aunt rode with on a bus in New York. This man happened to be the president of development at MTV and wound up becoming his boss. “There are people out there and for every person that is willing to talk there will be tons of emails that go into the black hole but you have to be resilient and not take things personal. These people are very accessible now days,” he said.

MSLCE program director, Pablo Boczkowski, hosted the event and Northwestern University professor, Eric Patrick, was the moderator. The next talk in the Speaker Series will feature Martha Lavey, artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre since 1995. That event will take place on January 7th. For more information or to RSVP, click here.

Oscar Torres Survived a Civil War and Became a Film Producer

By Amy Ross

It is hard to imagine Oscar Torres as anything but a successful writer and film producer, but the heart-wrenching story of children recruited as soldiers that inspired his first screenplay, Voces Inocentes (Innocent Voices) offers a glimpse into his past. The movie allowed Torres to cope with and process the trauma he lived as a child in the Salvadoran civil war. He said the film not only helped him work his way into the film industry, but have also allowed him to advocate for peace around the world.

“Innocent Voices is by far the most fulfilling not only because it is so personal and has the most feeling but also because of the feedback and trajectory. Ten years after it was made, I’m still travelling to speak at universities all over the world,” said the Los Angeles-based producer. For Torres, the movie that came out in 2004 was as much therapeutic as it was a career launching project.However, he didn’t always know he wanted to work in Hollywood. Before pursuing his film career, he studied Latin American studies at the University of California at Berkeley and worked as an English teacher at a small school. Virtually every night he would try to find someone willing to go to the movies with him. “I felt that I was teaching 30 people at a time and I wanted to teach millions as a time,” said Torres, who fled El Salvador during the conflict.

He started out delivering packages in 1994 at a movie agency where he later became an actor. There he started to get some commercial jobs and opportunities working behind the camera, doing lots of free work as a production assistant. “I learned a lot and met a lot of people,” he said. With nothing more than the scripts of five of his favorite movies in hand, in 2001 Torres set out to write his first script: the story of his life. Although he had never taken a film class in his life, he said he simply understood the language of cinema.

“I read the scripts one page at a time and learned how the flashbacks, transitions and cuts were done. That is how I did it,” said Torres. Cinema Paraíso, Forrest Gump and Before Night Falls were among those screenplays he studied. Since then, Torres has been the involved in productions like Máncora, which was in the official selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (writer); Pulling Strings, directed by Pedro Pablo Ibarra (screenplay and producer); and more recently Bravetown, a project that is still in post-production and is starring María Bello, Laura Dern and Josh Duhamel (screenplay and producer).

As for choosing which films to pursue, Torres said he always makes his decisions out of genuine love for the projects, focusing on stories that are inspiring or fun to him. “I know that as long as I respect that I can achieve the quality that will let me connect with audiences and that allow me to be financially free as well,” said Torres. With four other major productions on the way, including his directing debut and a television series, his goal is to continue taking movies from all the way from their inception to the big screen. The key to success, said Torres, is to be your own biggest ally.

“There is a process that you can’t do out of money, but out of love and desperation. You do it as much as you want to breathe. I don’t think I could live without making movies and the sense of creating and sharing, the giving, the receiving: thats my life,” he said. Stay current with all things MSLCE, click here to join our mailing list!

Video Game Designer to Speak at Northwestern on Wednesday

By Jacob Nelson

Before he pursued video games as a career, Matthew Schwartz became a devoted player. He brought an SNES back to his senior year apartment in Evanston, and a video game fan was born.

Then, he graduated and looked for work in the film industry.

“I didn’t think of games as a career possibility,” Schwartz said during an interview. “Now you can study game making, but the only game knowledge I had was as a player.”

After working for three years in New York as a location scout and a manager on small independent films, Schwartz was ready for something new. He ended up landing a job at Cartoon Network, and moved to Atlanta to work on the television channel’s flash game development.

“All of the sudden I learned that when you waste your life playing video games, all of the sudden I had this huge wealth of knowledge of games that was hugely valuable,” Schwartz said.

The job taught Schwartz that “making games was something fun and you could make a living doing it,” two lessons that have stuck with him through a career of games development. He worked at Cartoon Network for four years before joining a unique project based around providing internet users with retro video games.

“It was a Netflix for games,” Schwartz said, “just not current ones.”

The company didn’t last long, but the experience was a fun and valuable one for Schwartz, who then returned to Cartoon Network’s digital group to work on a huge MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game. Because it was so big, it took three years for the game to finally launch. Schwartz enjoyed seeing a game through from beginning to end on such a large scale, but decided that he preferred working on smaller projects. He’s worked on small games and large ones in different capacities, and his experiences have given him valuable perspective on the gaming industry.

“The Matt Schwartz perspective has always been the business interests fuel my ability to do the cool content and the cool content drives the revenue,” he said. “I really like the indie space I think it’s where interesting stuff happens.”

Schwartz has noticed that while the work available for game designers has increased dramatically since he was an undergraduate, the path for obtaining those jobs is as unclear as ever.

“It unnerves me how unequipped some students feel for… if their dream job is to work on Sky Rim… there’s no clue of what that path is and part of that is because the industry is just a younger industry and also technology changes so many things and changes so quickly,” Schwartz said.

He hopes to take on this uncertainty when he speaks at Northwestern this Wednesday. Schwartz will be speaking at the Masters of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises’ speaker series event this Wednesday at 5 p.m.

“What I learned about movies,” Schwartz said, “is that the things you like to consume as a customer is not always what you’ll love to do as a profession. If you love Madden you may not love making Madden.”