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IOWA Magazine | 09-30-2022

Emmy Winner Teaches UI Students How to Create Compelling TV

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Rick Cleveland, a writer and producer known for The West Wing and other acclaimed shows, teaches a class called Television Writers Room this fall.
Katie Farnsworth PHOTO: BOB RIHA JR./GETTY IMAGES In 2000, Iowa Playwrights Workshop alumnus Rick Cleveland won an Emmy with Aaron Sorkin for outstanding writing on The West Wing.

He’s penned a hit monologue play about former president Bill Clinton, walked off stage with a golden Emmy Award, and been one of the brains behind a host of cult-classic television shows. Now Rick Cleveland (95MFA) is letting University of Iowa students in on the secrets to his success.

The prolific writer, producer, and performer—a six-time Emmy nominee who has worked on plays, films, and small-screen blockbusters that include The West Wing and Six Feet Under—is teaching a Television Writers Room course in the UI Department of Theatre Arts this fall.

“A smart writers room really raises your game, and I always wondered if that experience could be replicated in a classroom,” says Cleveland. “I think we’re close.”

In his seminar, a group of students and postgraduate fellows gather for three hours every Friday afternoon—through a mix of in-person and virtual sessions—to develop television scripts and critique one another’s work, just as they would in a professional writers room.

“Rick encourages us to write from our own perspectives and is incredibly generous in meeting us at our levels,” says Ann Kreitman, a graduate student from the class who studies directing.

She and her peers watch TV pilots—the standalone episodes that help sell a new show—of everything from Breaking Bad and The Sopranos (which Iowa graduates Mark Johnson (73MA) and Robin Green (77MFA) respectively produced) to BoJack Horseman and Atlanta. Students also explore plot devices and characters; pitch story ideas; and hear from guest speakers that include Emmy Award-winning TV writer Lila Byock (04MFA), known for hits such as Watchmen, Castle Rock, and The Leftovers. At semester’s end, class members will submit drafts of their own pilots.

“Television often is the most accessible form of storytelling,” says Kreitman. “Through this class, I’m learning what it means to tell those stories.”

Cleveland gleaned such lessons at Iowa, too. Born in Parma, Ohio, he honed his acting chops at Second City in Chicago—and as a founding member of the American Blues Theater—before graduating from the UI Playwriting Workshop in 1995. Since then, he’s made a name for himself on stage and screen, even winning an Emmy for best writing for a drama series, alongside Aaron Sorkin, for The West Wing’s “In Excelsis Deo” episode.

That fruitful collaboration was one of many throughout Cleveland’s career. “A writers room is no place for wallflowers,” he says. “You’re working with very intelligent people, and you’d better be able to play at their level.”

Thanks to his master class, Iowa students will have the skills and confidence to do just that.

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