For the LaZebnik brothers, the reinvention of Stephens College is about more than career opportunities; it is about family.
Their father, Jack, taught English at Stephens for more than 30 years, and Philip, the eldest brother, likes to say he was raised there.
“I think I know more about Stephens than anyone still there,” Philip said. “I took piano and violin lessons there. All my parents’ friends worked there. I played in the orchestra. I would do anything to help Stephens.”
Philip is a screenwriter and playwright living in Denmark with his family. He recently returned home to Columbia to teach a weeklong screenwriting workshop at Stephens.
Together, the LaZebnik brothers are bringing decades of experience in theater, television and film to Stephens students. And though their paths have taken them to Hollywood and beyond, each maintains ties to the college.
Middle brother Ken LaZebnik is the dean of the School of the Performing Arts. He credits President Wendy Libby with the change and growth Stephens has been experiencing over the last few years.
“Wendy Libby essentially came in about three years ago and saved the school,” Ken said. “She acknowledged that Stephens was first a women’s school, and she emphasized that strength.”
According to public relations manager Sarah Berghorn, enrollment at Stephens in fall 2005 was up 30 percent from the previous fall.
In 2006, Stephens College Theater was ranked No. 2 in the nation by the Princeton Review’s “The Best 361 Colleges” guide. Stephens moved up two places from its No. 4 spot in 2005. The review also distinguished it as one among 81 schools designated as “best values” in terms of academics and cost. A separate U.S. News & World Report ranking recognized Stephens as one of the nation’s best liberal arts colleges because 76 percent of the college’s classes contain less than 20 students, giving it a very high student to teacher ratio.
The brothers couldn’t be happier with the recognition Stephens is receiving.
“It was very tough for our family when Stephens started going downhill and making wrong-headed decisions,” Philip said. “It was sad to see it go down the drain, but it is great to see it coming back stronger.”
While Ken commutes weekly between Los Angeles and Columbia in his dual positions as a screenwriter and dean, his brothers Rob and Philip also play a role in Stephens’ new emphasis on practical training in film and television.
Youngest brother Rob LaZebnik, a television screenwriter for shows such as “The Simpsons,” is on Stephens’ two-year-old digital film program’s advisory board, which includes a slew of Hollywood directors, producers and actors. According to Philip, the board was formed in order to provide current students with insider advice and networking and to help build legitimacy and interest for the program itself.
“Usually it takes years to build a program like this, but this has shot off like a bullet,” Philip said. “In this business, it is more important than any I know to have a network. Hollywood is a people business.”
This was Philip’s second year leading the screenwriting workshop. During the program, he works with the same group of students over time to improve their film scripts. This year, there are six women in the program. The students begin by pitching him movie ideas, and over the course of the year, he helps to flesh them out.
“These workshops are great because he (Philip) has experience in the business. He has credentials, and he knows what he is talking about,” said Stephens’ student and workshop participant Megan Baer.
Although Philip has an interest in seeing Stephens and Ken succeed, his visits are not just a favor to his younger brother or to the school he still calls home; they are also an indication of Stephens’ new emphasis on real-world teaching from industry leaders.
Philip LaZebnik has a lot to offer as far as real-world experience goes — working as a screenwriter for Disney and DreamWorks for eight years. His screenwriting credits include Disney’s “Mulan” and “Pocahontas,” among others. He also penned the Danish play “My Fairy Tale,” about Hans Christian Andersen, which is the biggest-budget musical of any produced for the Danish stage. Philip is working on many projects, including what he calls a children’s “Da Vinci Code,” a Danish horror movie and two animated features.
Asked why his family seems to have been able to find success in a business known for being among the most difficult to break into, Philip says it is no great mystery.
“My father was a teacher and a writer; he taught us by example,” Philip said. “We have each carved out a niche of our own, and it’s nice that we can now help the school out after all this time.”