An Interview with Chrysanthy Balis: Winner of the 2007 Outstanding Instructor of the Year Award in Online Writing Education

Since 2002, Chrysanthy Balis has taught screenwriting at every level, guiding dewy-eyed beginners and tough-skinned advanced writers with equal aplomb. Chrys teaches regularly on the UCLA campus and in cyberspace, and while she is equally accomplished in both environments, it is her absolutely stellar ability to teach screenwriting to students all over the world – traversing international time zones, bridging cultural and language differences, and addressing diverse expectations of the world film market – that was honored at the UCLA Extension Department of the Arts Outstanding Instructor Awards ceremony in December 2007.

One of Chrys’ gifts is her extraordinary ability to break through whatever sense of anonymity the online format might carry with it, to make a human connection and convey, to use her students’ own terms, “a warm spirit minus hang ups or inflated ego; a class act whose sincerity is nothing less than brilliant.” She reads hundreds of postings each week and gives thorough, considered feedback on each writer’s work. In a field that is itself highly competitive and nerve-wracking, Chrys models positive interaction for her worldwide community of learners. Describing Chrys as “extremely intelligent and persistently helpful,” a recent student said that, “even when Chrys is asking you to reconsider some script choices, she says it in such a way that it feels like collaboration. You can see that she wants you to learn from every word she speaks.”

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a screenwriter? What was your journey like from aspiring writer to professional screenwriter?

A: Since I was, oh, five, I knew I wanted to be in the entertainment industry and a writer. But well into my first few years here in L.A., I took that to mean acting in my youth, then novel-writing once I hit my middle years. The pinnacle of my acting achievement was “Woman # 3” on an episode of a short-lived sitcom. At the same time I was working as an actor’s assistant – doing errands and the like – and, strangely enough, it was she who suggested that I turn a book I was engrossed in at the time into a screenplay. I guess that’s a linear thought-process here in Hollywood. So, I took the writing plunge a bit early just to try my hand. I enrolled in the certificate program at UCLA Extension, submitted my first script to their screenwriting competition, won, and within weeks had used the heat to get an agent at William Morris. A few months later, I got my first feature-writing assignment. And that, aside from returning to UCLA Extension to teach, has been the path ever since.

Q: During our awards ceremony you mentioned how your family background influenced your decision to teach writing. Can you speak a little about the nature of that influence?

A: My mom is a dentist and my Dad was a psychiatrist, and both were immigrants from Greece. I think that their culture heavily influenced their views on teaching, and they preferred to be referred to as professors of dentistry and psychiatry. The fact that they were award-winning teachers in their fields of expertise was most important, and we were raised with the idea that “those who can” have a duty to teach. So for me, teaching well was a goal to reach for in my writing career.

Q: What is the most important lesson you hope students gain from your classes?

A: May I request two? 1. It’s difficult to write a great screenplay. 2. You must have passion for your story or it will be impossible to write a great screenplay.

Q: What does winning the 2007 UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Online Writing Education mean to you?

A: Well, certainly I’m grateful that the hard work I have put into a course has not gone unnoticed. What it really means – and what I know my parents would be most proud of – is that I have nurtured the writers inside my students, that I have taught well.

Chrysanthy Balis will be teaching in the Writers Studio 2008 from February 7-10. Click here for more information about the Writers Studio or contact an advisor at 310-825-9971 or writers@uclaextension.edu.

This article is adapted from a speech given by Linda Venis, Director of the Department of the Arts, and Program Director of the Writers’ Program and Literature Program, at the UCLA Extension Department of the Arts Outstanding Instructor Awards held in December 2007. The interview was conducted by Screenwriting Program Representative Leigh-Michil George.

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