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You, too, can find success in Hollywood with just a Wittenberg education

Screenwriter Lauren Schmidt, teaching at her alma mater this summer, went straight from Witt to ‘The West Wing’


SPRINGFIELD — The first time Lauren Schmidt wrote an episode of “The West Wing,” Allison Janney won an Emmy for it.

The second time, she had Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Donna (Janel Moloney) finally go to bed together.

And the Foo Fighters showed up to play for good measure.

If Schmidt had graduated from USC or UCLA, it wouldn’t even be a story — it’d just sorta be expected.

“Yet another ’SC grad leaves mark on landmark television drama.”

Yawn.

Next.

But Schmidt graduated from Wittenberg University, which, despite producing a former acting director of the CIA and a guy who led the Saskatchewan Roughriders to their first Canadian Football League championship in 1966, doesn’t necessarily mean much in Hollywood.

So for Schmidt to go from here to there, writing lines for a fictional president years before she herself could technically run for the office — she’s just now 31 — is quite the jump.

“It was a pretty crazy jump,” Schmidt confessed recently. “There are two things to making a jump like this. One is working very hard. And then having a lot of trust, faith and luck.”

What’s really funny is that the 2000 Wittenberg grad from Westerville has embarked on an amazing career as a TV screenwriter — after “The West Wing,” she moved on to “Private Practice” — and yet she knows actual film-school grads who still can’t find work.

“Every day I feel so lucky to be doing what I’m doing,” Schmidt said. “That is so not a lie.”

And she wants students at her alma mater to know they, too, can do what she’s doing.

“No one told me living in Ohio I could move to L.A. to be a screenwriter,” Schmidt said.

Earlier this summer, she decided to tell students herself as part of Wittenberg’s first Summer Screenwriters Institute, a four-week immersion in the craft led by Schmidt and her fiance, producer Michael Hissrich (“The West Wing,” “K Street,” the upcoming “Day One”).

Slated to be held again in 2011 and 2013, 13 students took part in the inaugural course, believed to be the first of its kind nationally outside of a film school. (And even then, this focused solely on television writing.)

“I was where they are 10 years ago,” Schmidt said. “I did it with the same preparation they have.”

The goal was to write a pilot script for a series set at a small college.

“Mike Hissrich said repeatedly he’d seen much worse scripts that were produced,” said Michael McClelland, an associate professor of English at Witt.

Schmidt not only is adhering to Wittenberg’s motto — “Having light we pass it on to others” — she’s amending it, too.

She’s passing famous friends on to others, too.

Producer Aaron Sorkin, creator of “The West Wing,” spoke to the class via video chat, as did actor Paul Adelstein (“Private Practice”) and producer Jesse Alexander (“Alias,” “Lost,” “Heroes”).

Schmidt, however, ended up appearing via video chat most days as well.

The day before she was set to fly back to Ohio, she was hired as a writer-producer on “Parenthood,” a new series based on the 1989 Ron Howard movie set to debut this fall on NBC.

“I sat at the kitchen table and just cried,” Schmidt said.

A weird reaction considering that “Parenthood” was “the job I wanted,” she said. “I had given up hope of getting it.”

It’s just that the Wittenberg class was something that was even closer to her heart.

Hissrich made the trip alone. Schmidt flew in from Los Angeles twice for marathon weekend sessions, including a Sunday class that ran for six hours.

“It wasn’t what it was supposed to look like,” Schmidt said, “but it was one of the best experiences of my life.”

McClelland, who teaches creative writing and journalism at Wittenberg, was floored himself by the experience.

“It was phenomenal,” he said. “The knowledge and experience she and her fiance brought to the class was incredible. These are two top-ranking Hollywood people. For them to come to Springfield and give, and give like they did, was inspirational.”

A psychology major when she arrived at Witt — “The practical side of me was looking for a career,” she said — Schmidt switched to creative writing her sophomore year and always saw herself going on to grad school to teach writing.

But between her junior and senior years, Schmidt landed the best unpaid job of her life.

While visiting relatives in Los Angeles, Schmidt thought it’d be fun to help answer phones for a family friend, an assistant to a producer.

So off Schmidt went, answering phones for some new TV show.

“The show just happened to be ‘The West Wing,’ ” she recalled. “That’s the luck factor.”

She ended up proofreading Sorkin’s scripts — her introduction to screenwriting — and the rest is, well, fairly obvious.

In all, Schmidt served in some capacity with “The West Wing” for all seven seasons.

When the show ended in 2006, she had gone from getting coffee to researching scenarios (like what happens if the president has a heart attack at Camp David) to writing episodes.

“I took what was a menial job,” she said, “and learned everything I could learn from it.”

Other people would grumble that they didn’t go to college to get coffee.

“You did go to college to prove you can do whatever it takes,” Schmidt said.

So eat your heart out USC.

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0352 or amcginn@coxohio.com.


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