There and back again

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • September 5, 2013

Kevin Bright, named founding director of Emerson's Los Angeles Center in May, in front of the building site.
Kevin Bright, named founding director of Emerson's Los Angeles Center in May, in front of the building site.

One late-July evening this year, Kevin and Claudia Bright opened the backyard of their Los Angeles home to more than 400 people. The couple was hosting the kickoff event of a campaign to raise $20 million for Emerson’s Los Angeles Center, scheduled to open early next year. 

“All Emerson affiliated, supposedly,” Kevin Bright later joked of the attendees, who included alumnus and America’s Funniest Home Videos creator Vin Di Bona and Larry David, whose daughter attends Emerson. “I should have checked to see if they had their IDs to make sure. I think there were some freeloaders.”

Bright, who was one of the original executive producers of the mega-hit TV show Friends, had been appointed to lead the Los Angeles Center in May. And he was likely too busy that night to worry about verifying his guests’ identities. Before addressing the crowd as one of the night’s speakers, Bright chatted with attendees to paint a picture of his vision for the Center. On top of that, he ensured the event’s program went smoothly, noticed Jordan Perry, a junior visual and media arts major who co-emceed the night at Bright’s request.

“He was able to have two hats — to play host and open up his home, but then direct the event as he was hosting, talking with A.V. guys and making sure the catering was working,” Perry said.

Since joining his alma mater’s faculty in 2006, Bright, 58, has often shown the same hands-on approach. He has led 11 “Kevin Bright Workshops,” a course where he teaches students to produce a television show. For years, he has also advised Emerson’s annual EVVY awards.

“Even when it’s hectic and there are a million things going on, he’s good at stopping and talking one-on-one with students,” said Perry, who first worked with Bright as an actor in one of the Kevin Bright Workshops. “He pushes them creatively and professionally. It’s a balance — these are students, but he’s also training professionals.’”

Paige Newman, a senior visual and media arts major, was a supervising producer on last spring’s Kevin Bright Workshop and worked on multiple EVVYs shows. She said that Bright has a knack for getting his students to come up with good ideas on their own.

“Sometimes you think he’s just talking, but he’s always teaching,” she said. “He’ll motivate you to find the perfect answer.”

Bright said that while he doesn’t make decisions for the students, he tries to steer them in the right direction.

“I don’t feel the lesson is ‘Go out and make your mistakes, and you’ll learn from your mistakes,’” Bright said during a recent visit back to Boston. “Some mistakes have already been made many times.”

Many students arrive at Emerson hoping to end up in Los Angeles — fewer make it big in Los Angeles and then come back to Emerson. Bright graduated from the college in 1976 and, after working for a few years in his native Manhattan, went on to Los Angeles to work on comedy specials and TV shows including In Living Color and Friends. He joined Emerson’s faculty in at a transitional time in his life, following the cancellation of the Friends-spinoff Joey, for which he served as executive producer.

“After Friends I was reminded you don’t automatically continue the path you were on. You go back to square one. And square one can be painful because you lose control again,” Bright said. “They wanted something that was going to be Friends again. That’s hard to do. I just wanted something that was going to be Frasier.” (He also doesn’t hesitate to point out that the numbers Joey posted before cancellation would make it one of TV’s top comedies these days.)  

He said former college president Jacqueline Liebergott asked him to come aboard for a semester. He had already been on the school’s board of trustees since 2003, but had little teaching experience outside of a few courses at the American Film Institute. 

He didn’t expect to stay on so long — during his first year on the faculty, the Beacon reported that Bright said he had not ruled out staying for one more semester. But since that request from Liebergott, he has served as executive artist-in-residence, a visiting professor, an associate professor, and, now, the leader of the school’s west coast expansion.

 “It was a door that was continuously opening,” Bright, who split his time between Boston and Los Angeles while teaching at Emerson, said of his longer-than-expected stay. “The projects at the end of each semester kept encouraging me to keep going.” 

Without actively seeking to get back into the professional TV business, Bright said there weren’t any projects beckoning him back to Los Angeles, either.

“To a certain degree when you leave Los Angeles, they pretty much take it that you’re not available,” he said. 

He also found himself forming other ties to Boston during his stay. For the last several years, he’s taught film at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, for which he was featured in The Boston Globe and on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.

He said he’ll miss the ties he’s formed in Boston as he takes on a role that Emerson president M. Lee Pelton said only Bright could fill. Bright had originally been on the search committee tasked with finding a director for the center. But after narrowing the applicant pool to a group of finalists, Pelton and Bright agreed that none of the candidates fit had the vision they were looking for. Bright, though, had been involved with the plans for the L.A. program for years and had a vision for where it should go, said Pelton.   

“When I say he’s a creative genius, he’s much more than that. He’s also a businessperson. He ran a complex business called Friends for a long time,” said Pelton.

Pelton said he has also been impressed with Bright’s eagerness to help students at any time. “I know he’s been out filming at midnight,” said Pelton. “He has remarkable commitment.”

(Pelton, who said since coming to Emerson he’s become friends with Bright, took special care to note the importance of Bright’s wife, Claudia, in Bright’s acceptance of the position. “He doesn’t make significant decisions without her counsel and support and love,” said Pelton.)

As the director of the Los Angeles Center, Bright said his major goals are to hire the staff for the new building, to transition the existing program into the building, to develop new programs, and prepare for the March 7, the tentatively scheduled ceremonial opening. In the longer term, he wants to expand the appeal of the Los Angeles program for students outside of visual and media arts and acting majors. The overall goal is to create a “synergistic” program that offers something unique to Los Angeles but builds on the curriculum in Boston.

Eventually, “once things settle,” he said he also hopes to start something like the Kevin Bright Workshop in Los Angeles – though the possibilities for new programs will evolve slowly.

“What’s really going to drive that is the students — what can we give them that’s going to be a unique experience there?” Bright said. “But I’d love to continue what I started here.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said Bright had been on the faculty since 2003. He had been on the board of trustees since 2003.