Chapel Hill middle school students experience Hollywood writing process

Even while writing scripts for television shows in Los Angeles, Stephen Neigher just wanted to help children he saw on the streets.

“I always felt that the kids were just helpless,” he said. “They either joined a gang or got killed.”

The UNC communication studies professor — who moved to Chapel Hill in 2001 — decided to act on his philanthropic spirit on the other side of the country.

Sticking to his strengths, Neigher created Matinee Scholars, an after-school program that gives middle school students the chance to write and produce their own television series, “The Middle Ages.”
Its second season is in production at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA after a successful run last year at the Durham Student U.

For the past month, students from various middle schools have been writing screenplays for two 10-minute episodes. Some of these writers are also part of the show’s cast. Filming is set to begin Nov. 19.

Neigher said the show’s production process mimics that of Hollywood. The writers brainstormed together in order to create scenarios for the show, and actors had to audition for the roles they wanted.

“It’s basically giving you the real experience even if it’s toned down,” said Saane Chamberlin, 13, who both writes and acts for the show.

Joseph Megel, UNC communication studies artist-in-residence, is a volunteer director for the program.

He said he doesn’t see the students’ work as different from any other performance he has worked with.

“I’m taking their work very seriously and doing what I would do with any other script,” he said.

Zac Johnson, 11, said he prefers writing scripts to school reports.
“When you’re writing a report, it’s really boring,” he said. “It doesn’t usually have people talking or expressing themselves.”
Neigher said his goal is to allow children nationwide the same experiences as Saane and Zac.

After filming and editing, the show will be distributed to YMCAs and other organizations across the country.

“There’s such an appetite for this,” Neigher said. “It’s just a matter of executing it.”

UNC students are also involved in the program, helping the middle schoolers through the writing and performing process.

Kristen Chavez, a junior communication studies major at UNC who volunteers with the show, said she has been impressed with the younger students’ creativity and focus.

“These guys do have a lot of potential, a lot of promise.”

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