UCLA alumna Katie Torpey sits bent forward with her eyes closed, elbows resting on her knees, when she listens to people talk about their thoughts.
Torpey is not a therapist, but a mentor for her students in a screenwriting class. A 1998 alumna of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Telvision, Torpey began conducting small screenwriting workshops at theaters and studios in Connecticut and New York. On Thursday, she began teaching a class on screenplay writing for feature films at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut, which will end May 24. She typically teaches the key structures of screenplays in her workshops, but her current class is meant to help students develop their personal stories into cohesive film projects.
“I believe everyone has a story inside of them,” she said. “So I offer this class for people in the area who have a story they want to tell and don’t know how to do it.”
Torpey said she intends for the class to guide students in how to fit their stories into typical screenplay formats and help them determine where the plots of their stories start and end. Torpey also teaches basic skills, such as dialogue and formatting, so students can create well-told stories shaped by their own experiences.
Bob Lupinacci, who took a class with Torpey six months ago, said it dealt with practical aspects of script formula, including formatting and character development. Lupinacci said Torpey brought informational handouts about genre-specific structures to the classes and then helped the students fit their stories into the basics of a typical screenplay. Together they worked on their proposed concept until it matched the format related to its genre and followed a specific set of screenwriting conventions. One example is dramatic film, in which a love interest and a mentor are typically heavily featured characters.
He also said Torpey’s ability to organize information into comprehensive handouts, as well as her immediate feedback to students, helped expedite the creative process. By the end of the workshop, she had helped him create an entire pilot for a television series about conflicts in the Catholic church.
“More than anything, (the class) empowered me and encouraged me to get material on the page,” Lupinacci said. “It gave me the confidence to get past the minutiae of uncertainty.”
Torpey also allocates part of her session to listening to her students’ ideas for screenplays, said Betsy Ern, a student in Torpey’s current class. Ern said the focus of the class is to get writers to tell their own stories based on aspects of their own personal world, such as where they work and the types of people they know. For example, Torpey asked which themes were important to members of the class, and one student responded with “bullying.” Torpey said isolating a social theme, such as bullying, can help a screenwriter ground the story’s setting and characters.
On the first night of her current class, Torpey gave the 12 students short writing assignments. Each question was meant to prompt students to find filmworthy stories inside their own lives by outlining the world they know, characters in their lives and parts of their own stories they felt were important. Afterward, Torpey discussed the responses with them and isolated the elements that could fit into the structure of a screenplay.
One student, Lisa Keefner, said the session helped her see her own life story in a new light. Because the writing assignments and discussions were impromptu, she said her thoughts were more genuine and helped her reflect on her strenuous and unhealthy relationship with her mother. After considering the effects of the relationship, Keefner chose to focus on it in the film screenplay she began working on for the class.
“It’s a profound story for me,” she said. “A mother-daughter relationship can be tenuous, and I realized how tenuous and impactful it was.”
Keefner also said Torpey personally mentors students, encouraging them to meet with her even after the workshops end and further advising them in their writing. Having taken a screenwriting class with Torpey in the past, Keefner met with her one-on-one in a Starbucks months later to work on a screenplay. Keefner said the classes gave her an avenue to contact Torpey and gain a personal mentor in her writing career.
Torpey has also taught workshops for college students planning on majoring in screenwriting within the classes she has taught in the past six years. She said she hopes each person she has taught can learn to tell their own stories.
“Teaching is about giving back,” she said. “I believe stories can change the world, and everyone has a story, so why shouldn’t they learn how to tell it?”