Knowing your audience: Chapman Professor Douglas Cooney reaches students from five years old to college
Before sledding down a hill, Princess Sofia and her friends need to put on a helmet to be safe.
This is something that Chapman English professor Douglas Cooney had to keep in mind while working on the writing staff of the Disney Junior series “Sofia the First” in 2013.
It wasn’t the only adjustment.
“We teach students to write in a dramatic narrative where characters encounter conflicts and overcome those conflicts to reach their goals. In writing for Disney, we were suddenly required to write stories that had no conflict whatsoever,” Cooney said.
It seems to have worked.
Cooney, who teaches journalism and creative writing at Chapman, was nominated along with the rest of the writing team on “Sofia the First” for a daytime Emmy nominaton. Aside from teaching, Cooney is a screenwriter, playwright, novelist and lyricist, specializing in young audiences In 2010 he was awarded the prestigious Charlotte Chorpenning Cup by the American Alliance for Theater and Education for his distinguished body of work for youth.
He’s popular with college-level students too.
“Cooney has that wise auro that some people just have,” said Jade Boren, a junior journalism major, in his feature writing class.
You can bet he’s shared his Disney experience with students as a learning exercise.
“Sofia the First” was a special challenge. Although Cooney was accustomed to writing for young children, the age demographic was younger than he was used to. He said that friends were shocked that he even wrote this script, since its goal was to entertain 5-year-old girls.
“We were under a great deal of pressure to create something that Disney would like,” Cooney said.
His big issue was that Sofia, the main character, could not be in any conflicts during the program. Cooney describes it as a rather “vanilla” script.
“Our main character could help people, restore people, encourage people but she never encountered a conflict,” Cooney said.
Another challenge he said he faced was writing a story that would appeal to a lot of different countries whose children may be raised in different ways than Americans.
“Writing for a global market that would be understood in Latin America and China where they have different notions for keeping pets or raising children,” Cooney said. “The stories had to reach everyone.”
The process of creating the show was very global as well.
“We were working on one corner of a project that had songs being written for it, drawings being made, backgrounds being drawn and the whole thing was being edited all together in South Korea,” Cooney said.
The writing process was time consuming: Each script took months just for 20 minutes of animation.
“We worked so hard for a script that could be killed at any moment by one email, and it happened a lot,” Cooney said. “So you learn to write, re-write but also you learn to let go.”
But the effort was worth it, he said, and not just for the Emmy nomination.
“It still makes me very proud when I see little girls enjoying Princess Sofia,” he said.
And Sofia’s tale for his college students? It’s all about the audience, or the readers.
“He teaches us how to deliver a story for maximum impact,” Boren said.
Kristen Weiser, a junior political science major, thought the features writing class was going to be just journalistic. She was pleasantly surprised.
“For me, I have always stuck closely to a formula when writing my stories,” she said. “But Cooney taught me that using different styles of writing can really improve your work.”
For Weiser, reading her work out loud in class made her a more confident student.
“He treats us like equals even though he has so much experience and he could easily talk down to us,” she said.
That’s not far off the “Sofia the First” tale. She’s a commoner who has to adjust to the royal life when her mother marries a king. Cooney might have kept her out of conflict, but he did give her the power to talk with animals.