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How To Get Away with Writing

Two Badgers chased their dreams all the way to Hollywood

Vanessa Benton x’15 and Vanessa Benton x’15

Last summer, Taren Mansfield ’14 had just two weeks to pack her belongings and relocate to Los Angeles after finding out about the opportunity of a lifetime. She left Madison to spend the next four months in Shondaland — Shonda Rhimes’s television production company — working on alongside actors such as Viola Davis on the hit TV show How to Get Away with Murder.

A Hollywood career wasn’t her original plan. After earning her bachelor of arts in political science and a certificate in gender and women’s studies, Mansfield had stayed in Madison for five years. She first joined Target as an executive team leader. Initially, the experience felt scary because she was working in a position of power, but she also made great money.

“I was starting as a manager — someone charged to have all the answers — but when I went home and spent some time alone, I realized I wasn’t fulfilled,” Mansfield says.

Her long-term goal was to go back to school to pursue a degree in entertainment law. Mansfield loves anything political and questioning the law, but she also had other interests. She loved watching television and had spent her time in college dabbling in creative projects. Growing up, she wanted to be a Disney Channel star, and writing had always been a hobby.

“At the end of the day, I knew that I was meant for something different,” she says. “There was something inside of me, and I had to honor it.”

At the time, Mansfield was working as a precollege adviser to high school students in UW–Madison’s PEOPLE program. “All of sudden, this opportunity just fell into my lap,” she says. The opportunity came through an industry connection, one Mansfield had made at the UW: Vanessa Benton x’15. After two years at the UW, Benton transferred to New York University where she earned a bachelor of fine arts in television and film production.

“Because art is such a subjective field, you don’t know where you’re going to get a job next or how you’re going to get a job next,” Benton says. “Your options are limited.”

When it came time to graduate, Benton focused on finding an internship in New York City and worked a few other jobs in between. She interned for Magilla Entertainment, CBS’s Inside Edition, Nickelodeon, and on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. Eventually, she landed a position as a showrunner’s assistant for BET.

“The biggest part about being out of college is not knowing how this stuff is going to pan out, your career, your dream,” she says. Then, her career began moving faster when she moved to the entertainment capital of the world. After seven months with BET, she became a showrunner’s assistant at How to Get Away with Murder, and then a writer’s assistant in less than three years.

Along the way, she maintained her friendship with Mansfield. “We had three-hour conversations sometimes, and she would tell me about her life in LA,” Mansfield recalls.

When an opportunity came to work with Benton on How to Get Away with Murder, she went for it. Benton told her she had her back and not to worry about not having professional experiences in the industry. Benton also introduced her to other emerging Black writers, producers, and entertainers.

“It’s really exciting, and every person that I meet is really excited about their new projects, which are Black female-driven, Black male-driven, or Black ensemble,” Mansfield says.

Both women talk a lot about the importance of working in the industry at a time when so many Black artists are succeeding. This gives Mansfield hope — she now has a strong community in Los Angeles. She says the Black writers in the area willingly share information about new opportunities, which is motivating, because the life is a grind.

Through her friendship with Benton, she found her place in a city where so many people go to accomplish their dreams. After interning at ABC Studios and working as an assistant at HBO Max and TNT, Mansfield now works on an Apple TV drama as a writers’ production assistant. She and Benton remain close.

 “I had such a beautiful experience because of my community,” Mansfield says.

Benton learned to never compromise in the pursuit of her goals. The desire to work in an industry she loved resulted in her working in one of Shonda Rhimes’s most successful television shows … and another she cannot mention at this time.

“I’m glad I get to work in entertainment,” she says. “What others come home to unload to is what I get to do.”

Mansfield spends her days attending events and premieres and building community with others. She wants to make sure that whatever she creates puts diverse voices to the forefront while normalizing Black love, Black fear, and excitement. Every single day, she wants to pinch herself because she feels like she’s dreaming.

“Whatever my ultimate dreams are will come in its time but right now,” she says, “I have to appreciate the moment and just be gracious.”

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