Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Barbara Nicolosi was once a nun who found her niche in life by entertaining her sisters in the Daughters of St. Paul convent. Now she is a screenwriter living in Hollywood and the founder of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, a nonprofit organization devoted to recruiting and mentoring screenwriters who are Christians.

“I thought, ‘Wow, if I can do this, if I can make nuns laugh, I wonder if I can make other people laugh,’” Ms. Nicolosi said.

The success of spiritually themed television shows such as “Joan of Arcadia” and movies such as “Bruce Almighty” apparently reflect a growing public interest in such themes. Act One hopes to prepare writers to meet the audience demand for entertainment with an eye on eternal values. But the group is looking beyond projects that have a strictly Christian slant.

“We’re trying to retrain the Christian community so they’re not writing propaganda or message-driven stuff,” says Zena Dell Schroeder, associate director of Act One. “The church has stopped being the patron of artists. We no longer turn out the Michelangelos. We settle for mediocrity.”

In the past, Mrs. Schroeder says, Christians have chosen either to boycott or protest Hollywood when in disagreement with its products. She hopes Act One will be a bridge between the Christian community and Hollywood.

“One of our themes has been that man will be saved by beauty,” she says. “You can have a beautiful film that’s a big fat lie. We’re saying that beauty is the marriage of the superior craft of art and truth in content.

“We would rather see an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie. We’re not interested in having the Christian community write things that lack sex, violence and bad language. Sometimes, you have to have those things to tell the truth about the human condition. All truth ultimately leads to God without ever having to say the word, ‘God.’”

In 1999, Ms. Nicolosi started Act One after being prodded by acquaintances who noted that she was an outspoken critic of the quality of films produced by Christians. She then met with other professionals to discuss how Christians could develop their voice in the Hollywood community. The core group of founders envisioned the idea of a screenwriting “boot camp.”

“We wanted to develop something very intensive and craft-oriented, but that also provided ethics,” Ms. Nicolosi says. “These writers, they all want to talk about deeper issues of spirituality and social justice. We wanted to help them find a way to do that in which they would find a public hearing.”

The first boot camp was so successful that although it had been intended as a one-time event, Act One decided to replicate the program through monthlong workshops and weekend conferences nationwide. The group has attracted strong interest in Washington, which is known for politics, not entertainment.

About 50 aspiring screenwriters gathered on Jan. 16 and 17 at the Falls Church Episcopal Church in Northern Virginia for a weekend conference titled “Before Act One.”

A discussion that Friday evening provided the philosophical framework that Act One promotes. Mrs. Schroeder boldly challenged the attendees’ view of what constitutes art as made by Christians. She stated that it is not possible to show redemption without depraved characters.

“Film is not an evangelistic tool,” Mrs. Schroeder says. “This is where you ask the poignant questions of humanity and trust your worldview will come out. Hopefully, every time you write you will be wrestling with your own demons, you will be struggling with your sin nature and you will avoid the opportunity to preach.”

An intensive lecture series Saturday taught a few of the practical skills needed to write for Hollywood, such as plot, characters and industry standards.

“You can have the greatest script in the world, but if it’s not in the right format, nobody will read it,” says Thom Parham, assistant professor of communications studies at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif. He is a member of the Act One advisory board and a conference instructor.

Like other Act One instructors, Mr. Parham warns of the temptation to write preachy scripts.

“We’re trying to teach writers how to organically integrate their faith into creative endeavors, not just make Bible tracts,” Mr. Parham said.

During the weekend, students viewed clips of various TV shows and movies such as “ER,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Magnolia.” The instructors used these examples to demonstrate artistic integrity.

“Over and over again, you hear the instructors preaching ‘Excellence, excellence, excellence,’” says Dave Yoder, 29, a conference attendee from Alexandria. “Your work has to stand on its own two feet. It has to garner respect from everybody. You have to gain respect for excellence and professionalism.”

Because of the strong interest in Act One’s first event in Washington, the organization will offer a monthlong workshop from May 9 to June 5 at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Northeast.

The program costs $1,195 and is strictly limited to 30 full-time students. Applicants must submit a 10-page narrative writing sample, an application, story ideas and a personal statement. The deadline is March 1 and more information can be found at www.actoneprogram.com.

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, will give the keynote address at the closing banquet, which is open to the public.

Ms. Nicolosi says she is looking for students who are serious about screenwriting as an art form and a career choice.

Several of the conference participants say they found the weekend so helpful that they will be applying for the workshop.

Richard M. Santoro from Portsmouth, Va., 47, said his experience at the conference spurred him to apply for the May program.

“It’s always interesting to see clips from movies and analyze what’s going on spiritually,” Mr. Santoro says. “That’s something you normally don’t get in a classroom setting.”

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