Writing Scripts in the Digital Age: An Interview with Michael Tesney

Udemy is proud to continue its interviews with Udemy’s online instructors.  This installment features Michael Tesney.  Michael teaches the popular course Writing for the stage, screen and Internet -from radio plays to webisodes, a complete course on script production.  Michael talks about the positive and negative impacts of the technology in the creative field and being an instructor on Udemy.


1. Can you tell us a little about your background (e.g. where you are based, projects you are associated with) and why you created a course on script production?

I started out writing plays in Boulder, Co in the late 90’s. I had just moved there to attend school and there was a right place in the right time moment. I had a script gave it to the right guy, a week later some actors tracked me down and we started doing shows. This went on for a couple of years. At the time I was really into political activism. I used to run the paper at Naropa with Renny Baker and was involved in the Indymedia Movement in the late 90’s. I would write a play, do a reading, publish it and start another. I gave up trying to have full productions in favor of fleshed out readings. I liked the immediacy of it and that, seeing a not quite finished product audiences were more open to dialogue. It was actually a dialogue between the audience and I, not me saying, here is my finished work, enjoy it or not, it’s finished.  But as they say all good things …

After the war started there was a theatre blackout and things kind of went to hell all over, I ended up moving back to Alabama to finish my degree and ended up founding a program in Radio Drama at the University of Alabama with Dr. Jerome Rosenberg.  I managed to get through all of three semesters before I decided to flee to NY to try and do some theatre.  I was only supposed to be there for 3 months, but I just kept getting gigs.  I did lighting work, sound design, script work, props, costume, carpentry, grant writing.  I worked for allot of great companies, but only for a few days or weeks at a time.  The nature of freelance.  I worked on a play that Phillip Seamore Hoffmans company did, I was a costume prop assist for my lover Niki, a gorgeous Jewish Girl from the Upper West Side, who lived in the East Village with her Irish Boyfriend – I had a blast but eventually I had to return home, and when I got there it seemed a little too small and I freaked out, decided to move to NEW Orleans… this was in the spring of 05, well… a few months later…. back in Alabama.

Yadda Yadda Yadda, no theatre in Alabama, no freelance, I ended up starting a little online lit mag, Lemon Puppy, the first issue was fantastic, but it damn near killed me- I had editors all over the country but I did all the final edits myself and uploaded everything to the site, I went back to being a chef to try and raise some cash to help the magazine grow, but I ended up working way more than I wanted and I just kind of sacked the Mag, once the economy really hit the shitter I started volunteering at this place in Birmingham, Alabama Greencup Books, a non profit community bookstore, with left leaning tendencies.  About a month or so after volunteering the owner/director had to move out of town and I took over.  I started teaching creative writing classes, scheduled more shows, (modern dance, noise, punk, improv, readings, and so forth).  Things went well for about a year, then a new developer bought the city block which was my parking and began construction on CITYVILLE, a shit heap of high end urban yuppie living. long story short, who the hell wants to hang out in a bookstore with no parking and where it’s so loud that you have to use hand signals to communicate.  Anyway, after that I moved to T-town to open a new place, only to have my partners bail.  In the meantime I started a web-comic and thats when I found Udemy.

2. What issues have you noticed that many new students face getting started in script writing? And, do have any suggestions to overcome those challenges?  Also, are there any important differences between different types of scripts (e.g. stage v. screen v. Internet)?

I have noticed that allot of people lack real focus.  It takes allot to sit your ass down and write till your eyes bleed, pass out on your keyboard and then wake up and do it again.  People say, yeh, I want to do this, but they don’t commit.  As a result nothing ever comes of it.  The age that we are living in has been great for some things, but the constant flow of information and distractions has caused a serious lack of craftsmanship.  I don’t know why people would choose to write a script.  I never have, it just sort of comes out sometimes.  Writing anything is like snatching a handful of sand- even if you are determined to get ahold of it, the harder you squeeze the more you lose.  It’s best to just learn how to turn off your inner dialogue, let the moment of creation be witnessed and see where it goes.  Don’t edit till your done, don’t question what works, don’t talk about it, don’t show your girlfriend,  Don’t do anything other than write, eat, drink and release waste from your body.  OH yeh, and just because you thought it was funny while you were smoking a joint, doesn’t mean it is funny.  Drugs and Writing only work if you know literature like your lungs know air.  In other words, You aint wordsworth, opium will just make you stupid.  Even Hunter S. made that shit up.  No one can do drugs and write like that.  Trust me,  I went to Naropa, you know the beatnik college, it doesn’t work – we all tried.

Differences in Script types… Yes and No.  Three things happen in all forms of stories and humans have been telling stories since we started using our tongues.  The only difference is format and length.  Nothing major.  If you can write a radio drama, you can write a movie.  On that note, there is a difference between Theatre and Radio vs. Film, TV and Internet.  With the former it’s about the dialogue, the timing, with the latter, it’s about the image.  Film and TV are extensions of the art of photography, people forget that.  Theatre and Radio Drama are extensions of well, Theatre.

3.  How do you think online education can change the current models of teaching future writers?

I don’t know, I don’t think they will, a workshop is a workshop, it doesn’t matter if someone critiques your work to your face or online, though out of choking distance people might not be so polite.  Then again, most workshop writers aren’t polite either way.  So I guess, my answer is that, besides saving everyone money, I think workshops will remain.

4. What software do you think is most beneficial to aspiring script writers and what software do you feel is missing?

I wrote my best stuff on a hand me down 95 macbook, before that I typed everything, that’s right TYPED.  And before that I would write on legal pads and moleskins.  There was this old surfing movie from the early 90’s about this kid from Arizona that moved to Hawaii to surf, he ends up broke, beaten and robbed and this old surfer takes him in and teaches him the history of surfing, from long rudderless boards to current models.  That is kind of how I feel about writing.  You want to do this, write with a pen, re-write with a typewriter, finalize on computer.  The only time a writer needs to worry about software is when they are laying out their E-book or actually book.  And by the time I make that list it will be out of date, so…

5. What trends do you see in the creative industry overall because of online educational tools?

Honestly  I think it’s  too early to tell.  Mostly it is still the privileged  classes that have access to this kind of material.  The big change will come when everyone has access and suddenly Tully from Queens has the same educational opportunities as Little Lord Tight pants from, wherever the hell rich people are.  Then, kind of like YouTube, scholars will pop up out of nowhere overnight and take the world by storm, until they are forgotten a day later.  The more info we consume, the less value it has.  Sigh….  i love  the Internet age but part of me…. i still kind of wish it was 1920.