Writer, Director, Experience Designer
Roger Holzberg spent 12 years as an award-winning Creative Director and Vice President at Walt Disney Imagineering, where he had the opportunity to lead the creative development for a broad portfolio of projects ranging from PlayStation® games to theme park icons and multiple Disney World Celebrations; from mass audience interactive experiences and rides to the MMOG Virtual Magic Kingdom. In "classic media," he has written and directed feature films and television, but is genuinely proud of researching and writing the IMAX film The Living Sea, which received an Academy Award nomination for documentary.
Along with Leonard Sender, MD, Roger co-founded Reimagine Well, a company that designs and builds immersive healing programs for hospitals and treatment centers. The Infusionarium™ platform empowers patients to receive treatment in the place they believe will best heal them, then empowers them with enhanced educational Learn Guides to support their entire patient journey.
Roger served as the first (consulting) Creative Director for the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The “evolution” of Cancer.gov, the NCI Facebook, Twitter, Mobile, and YouTube channels are all projects that his creative team took from concept through launch.
Personally, Roger is a father; a 15+ year cancer survivor; and a competitive triathlete (3 events yearly), using the sport to raise research dollars for causes he supports.
What will you work on at The Mollie New Works Festival this May?
I am honored to have this opportunity to workshop and adapt my new book. Magic String: Jerusalem is a comedic, inspirational and sometimes dark autobiographical collection of short stories that begins on the launch day of Gemini V in 1965. As the adults watch spellbound by the technological miracle of the space program an elfin wonder sits beneath a ficus tree healing children’s darkest nightmares with her Magic String, bemoaning the fact that “the men of science are piercing the belly of God”. Half a century later the final story ends at the Wailing Wall in the city of Jerusalem as her grandson makes his endmost bid to lay her soul to rest. The emotional engine that drives Magic String is the need to explore and (hopefully) resolve a conflict that impacted life and death, searing the hearts of a family. That conflict is summarized in a single question: Is it possible for faith to live side-by-side, in harmony, with science?
What is your favorite creative medium?
As an accomplished creative director at places that range from working as a VP/creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering to serving as the first creative director at the National Cancer Institute, I never let the medium drive the format of the story experience I'm trying to create. I have always believed that the medium, be it film, video game, immersive experience, book, or theater, should only be the vehicle that serves to deliver the right experience, to the right audience, at the right time. Over the course of my career I have always viewed the blank page as a place that can be filled with drawings, words, characters, or designs for experiences.
What writers inspire you the most?
The writers who inspire me the most are writers like Yuval Noah Harari, Malcolm Gladwell, E.O. Wilson and Siddhartha Mukherjee. I find writers like these to be the most inspirational because they open up my heart and mind to new understandings about humankind, often in ways I had never imagined.
How did you become a writer?
As a writer, I find myself driven to explore and answer mysteries in my life. I'd written songs, short plays, and a made a few 8mm movies in high school, but while in college my mother gave me a copy of the book Down the Yellow Brick Road because she knew I'd been baffled about the movie The Wizard of Oz for my entire life. Why did that little girl live with her aunt and uncle, what might have happened to her mom and dad? What would happen to a little girl with that scale of imagination when she realized that her ‘heart's desire’ was nowhere near that dusty mud pit of a backyard? And what would happen when Elvira Gulch came back to do harm to that dog again?! The answering of those questions and more became my first play - Under the Rainbow - that begins 45 seconds before the movie ends and follows Dorothy's life through the next year.
Does writing energize you? Exhaust you? Both?
Part 1 - Facing a blank page, filling it with a vision that comes from the universe, flows through the synaptic filters of my imagination and learning, while knowing that this is the first time in history that this vision has been put down to share, I find to be the most exhilarating act of creativity I know.
Part 2 - Working for a Media Company and implementing the notes handed down from an MBA executive who answers to nothing but the next quarterly p&l sheet, can be like getting a root canal from a hyperactive kid with a hand drill and no novocaine. While directing a movie I wrote an exec. once said, "I don't care if it makes sense or works for the story, I NEED it for the foreign trailer!"
Do you ever start a new play and abandon it? How often? Why?
Magic String: Jerusalem, the book I am adapting for the festival this summer, began as a collection of short stories almost 20 years ago. But it wasn’t until I visited Jerusalem recently that I found the structure, and ending, to deliver the promise of a personal work that authentically explored the question that broke my family apart - Can faith based healing and medical science live in the same house?
What is the most difficult part of writing for you?
Sometimes the most difficult thing is leaving the research, delivering the project to the team, and leaving the world in which you’ve been immersed. The assignment to write the IMAX film The Living Sea enabled me to spend 6 months researching the best places to tell the world ocean story. I often joke, “What arm do I have to cut off to get THAT gig again?!” But then witnessing the academy award nominated outcome with Sting’s music and Meryl Streep's narration taught me that a visionary director like Greg MacGillivray is the ultimate teacher a writer can ever have… AND - Honestly, the biggest writing difficulty I find is the limitation of time...
What is the most rewarding part of writing for you?
The most rewarding part of storytelling for me is being able to create a shared experience for a community. Well over 10,000 pediatric & adolescent cancer patients have utilized the "immersive healing experiences’’ we have installed in many hospitals across the US. Seeing those story experiences diminish the need for their side effects medications is by far the most rewarding storytelling I have ever had the opportunity to do.
Do you see theatre as a tool for social progress? As entertainment? Both? Neither?
I am old enough to remember seeing the Living Theater perform Paradise Now, as well as a first-run production of Hair. I really want to believe that today's theater artists have the potential to deliver theater as socially relevant and politically motivational as those participatory theater pieces were. My play The Trial of Mother Jones takes place after the Ludlow Massacre when Mother Jones put out a call to arms for every United Mine Worker in America to arm themselves, come to Southern Colorado, and exact retribution from Rockefeller's Colorado Fuel & Iron company. The audience plays the role of the union members who vote by secret ballot to make the decision as to whether her level of militancy is an acceptable way to exact retribution for a murderous wrong.
“Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” ––‘Mother’ Mary Harris Jones, at age 84
What are you working on now?
My top 3:
1. At the California Institute of the Arts, I teach experience design for healthcare in the Theatre School. Each class delivers the pilot that solutions a real problem in a working hospital. The students this semester are delivering a guide that infuses creativity into the palliative care, end of life phase of the human journey.
2. My company, Reimagine Well, is launching a series of experiential education programs that game-ify medical treatments and reduce the need for sedation at pediatric hospitals.
3. And just for fun, I'm creating the educational story experience that utilizes a free swimming animatronic dolphin to entertain, inspire, and teach future generations about the world oceans in a sustainable way. If you want to see her perform and teach: see a video about it here.
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