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Nonprofit helps kids learn by writing comedy

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Steve Neigher

Steve Neigher

Todd Cohen

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In 1996, looking for a college town as his son prepared to start high school, Hollywood writer and producer Steve Neigher moved with his family to Orange County.

And while he continued to write for TV and movies from his new home and, in 2003, got a job at UNC-Chapel Hill teaching screenwriting, he also thought about a problem that had nagged him since his days in Los Angeles, where he frequently heard news reports about violence involving young teens.

His response is Matinee Scholars, a nonprofit he founded to help middle-school kids be safe and have fun after the school day ends by writing, producing and performing in a simulated TV situation comedy based on their own lives, all with help from college-student volunteers serving as mentors.

“They make believe they are the writers of a show about them, by them, for them, and they act out the episodes they wrote,” says Neigher, who worked in Hollywood for 26 years, mainly writing and producing half-hour situation comedies like The Jeffersons, Barney Miller, Facts of Life and Dear John.

Building on the communications-studies courses he teaches at UNC-CH, where he treats students as if they are the writing staff of a TV series, he asks middle-school kids to embellish and build on a pilot script he wrote about three middle-school siblings.

After writing the script a year ago, Neigher met Suzanne Gulledge, a clinical professor of middle grades education at the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of the board of Student U, a Durham nonprofit that provides academic-enrichment programs for students in the Durham Public Schools.

When Dan Kimberg, executive director of Student U, learned about Neigher’s idea, he offered to pilot it with 10 Student U kids with an interest in writing or acting.

In space Durham Academy provided for free, Neigher met with the kids once a week for four months, along with four UNC students who had taken his scriptwriting             class volunteering as facilitators and mentors.

The Student U kids pitched ideas for improving the script, called The Middle Ages, by incorporating real-world lingo and incidents from their own lives.

A UNC student with directing experience then cast and rehearsed the kids, and videotaped their performance with cameras from The Peoples Channel in Chapel Hill, while another UNC student with acting and art experience painted foam boards to look like school lockers and serve as a backdrop for some scenes.

The show was produced and shot for under $20, and a DVD was shown at an end-of-year gathering to hundreds of Student U kids and their parents.

It also aired in Durham on The Peoples Channel at 6 p.m. every Saturday in October.

Now, with pro-bono assistance from faculty members at the law school and communications-studies department at UNC, Neigher has incorporated Matinee Scholars as a nonprofit, applied to the IRS for charitable status, and created a website at www.matineescholars.com featuring sample scripts, the Student U video and information on how to start a Matinee Scholars after-school program.

After-school programs throughout the U.S. can use his materials for free and work with local college-student volunteers, he says, and they also can look for local sponsors to advertise on the shows.

He hopes to raise $200,000 to $250,000 to help grow the program, mainly by providing workshops and other support for local after-school groups and college students.

Kimberg of Student U says the Middle Ages “did exactly what we hope learning can do.”

The experience “showed our students that what is learned in the classroom is relevant to the outside world,” he says.

And the use of TV as a learning tool is “brilliant,” he says. “There’s an element of TV that is extremely relevant because our students and our culture are so connected to entertainment.”

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