Debra Fordham: Distinguished Alumna of the Year

September 23, 2009

Debra Fordham: Distinguished Alumna of the Year

She penned colorful thematic narrations for ABC’s quirky comedy-drama “Scrubs.” Her full-length play illustrates the collision between rooted swamp life and industrial encroachment. These days, she chronicles loneliness and pride on Lifetime’s original series, “Army Wives.”

The characters, scenes and plots of Debra Fordham’s writing career have changed with the seasons; but without pajamas, white noise and peanut M&Ms, she might have joined the Coast Guard.

“Writing for me is an ever-changing ebb and flow of creativity. Sometimes I’m better in the morning. Sometimes I get on a roll late in the day and write into the wee hours. There’s really no rhyme or reason,” said Fordham, who debated entering the U.S. Coast Guard or studying to be a history professor before she found her niche in television prose.

“But there are three absolutes for me to be productive -- I wear pajamas, the television is on for white noise, and I crave a constant stream of Goldfish crackers and peanut M&Ms.”

The clever Tallahassee native, who moved to Los Angeles 16 years ago to try her hand at show business, has since earned three Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award. Her friends at Valdosta State University are proud of her resume -- but the alumni association named her the 2009 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year because of her intense dedication to the university and its students. Director of Alumni Relations John Trombetta, ’01, said Fordham’s contributions -- from scholarship funds to seasoned guidance -- are priceless.

“She has had tremendous professional success in a tremendously competitive arena, yet she is still so grounded, and so giving of her time, talent and resources,” Trombetta said. “Her generosity to VSU has provided students with insight into the entertainment industry that only someone of her stature can provide.”

Most every year Fordham returns to her old stomping grounds -- the VSU Fine Arts Building -- to conduct free workshops for theatre students and handpick scholarship recipients. She has flown from L.A. to New York for student-alumni networking events and has even been known to give feedback to playwright hopefuls and pass along graduates’ headshots to the entertainment industry.

“My professors invested a lot of time and energy in me, so if I can help them out in some way, I will. It is simply my way of saying thanks,” said Fordham, who graduated from VSU in 1991. “But beyond that, I really do feel a kinship with the students in Valdosta. I was a small-town girl with no money and no connections. VSU gave me the courage to dream big and the skills to make it happen. That’s an amazing gift that I’m eager to give to the next generation.”

Contagious Inspiration

Bailee DesRocher, ’04, received the first VSU Alumni Theatre Scholarship, which Fordham funded. When DesRocher asked Fordham how she could ever return the generous advance, Fordham replied simply, “pay it forward.” DesRocher, who specializes in sketch comedy and musicals, credits Fordham’s advice with giving her the gumption to get on a plane bound for Hollywood. Fordham’s story gave DesRocher the assurance that she wouldn’t have to compromise her values to be successful in the City of Angels.

“I hadn't considered an acting career in Hollywood when I was in college, but Deb's visit and then our class trip to L.A. made me rethink it,” said DesRocher, who returned to VSU in 2006 for the Peach State Summer Theatre season. “It seemed like a daunting task to pack up your life in the Southeast and head all the way to California, but she did it and I thought I could too. So I did.”
Fordham transferred to Valdosta State from a Tallahassee community college her junior year, but the eager performance major soon made her mark as a talented performer and dedicated student. The avid athlete mastered tap dancing, managed the box office, and acted in a number of children’s tours and full-length plays. Her talent for the written word revealed itself in a playwriting class taught by theatre professor Jacque Wheeler, who has since become Fordham’s lifelong friend and mentor. Upon graduation, Fordham was awarded VSU’s highest honor -- the Annie Powe Hopper Award -- bestowed upon an exemplary student who possesses the character and dignity associated with the first dean of women.

“Deb was talented in all aspects of theatre -- from stage management to acting -- but when she took the playwright class, I realized she had a real gift,” said Wheeler, who has worked at VSU since 1986. “She is a true storyteller with no single limiting style. She has a great sense of humor and is particularly good at capturing how people speak.”

A Leap of Faith

After graduation, Fordham took to the stage as a resident company member at the Burt Reynolds Institute Theatre in Jupiter, Fla. A year later, she moved to Los Angeles and sold sandwiches out of a cooler to pay the rent. Three months after her arrival, Fordham traded in her food cart for a job as a production assistant -- shuttling cappuccinos and script revisions to actors -- eventually landing on the set of “Murphy Brown.” Her storyline behind the scenes of comedy and drama began.

“No one gets anywhere in life without a helping hand,” Fordham said. “My VSU professors gave me important recommendations. An alumna in Los Angeles (Karen Heck, ’85) got me my first production assistant job. A writer at ‘Murphy Brown’ handed my scripts to his agent, who then signed me. The list goes on and on. I cannot stress enough how well VSC prepared me for my career.”

In 2003, Fordham began writing and producing fast-paced, slapstick dialogue for comedy-drama “Scrubs.” Over the course of eight seasons, she wrote sixteen episodes, two of which, "My Life in Four Cameras" and "My Musical,” are considered to be among the show’s best episodes. Fordham also made an on-screen cameo at the end of episode “My Full Moon,” playing a doctor who likes to fist pump over ridiculously mundane things.

Returning Home

Between routine 12-hour days writing and taping episodes, Fordham managed to write a screenplay for Michael Douglas’ Further Films and “Holler Me Home,” a full-length play about balancing tradition and progress. Fordham chose Valdosta State University to premiere the play on February 14, 2008, in Sawyer Theatre. At Fordham’s request, longtime theatre professor Dr. Randy Wheeler came out of retirement to direct the play.

“It was very exciting to direct the first full scale production of a former student whom I admire so much,” said Wheeler, who worked at VSU for 26 years before retiring in 2006. “I know the play has the potential to appeal to a very wide audience. I hope she will continue to work on the piece and look for other venues.”

Cricket chirps and swamper hollers set the mood of the Okefenokee Swamp in 1930, when the federal government began to explore the untamed marshland. Fordham, whose grandmother lived in the swamp, shares the lives of a hardworking, principled people and their struggles when confronted with change. Writing a play about home was cathartic for Fordham, who has misses everything about the South -- except maybe the bugs and humidity.

“Seeing ‘Holler Me Home’ on stage was a revelation. It was funnier. It was more touching. The themes really came through,” said Fordham. “I was blown away by how committed the cast and crew were. They put so much thought behind the production and were so invested in making it work. Just amazing.”

Ever the perfectionist, Fordham is currently rewriting the play using what she learned from the Valdosta staging. Her hope is to have her agent shop “Holler Me Home” around New York within the next year, giving the piece a life outside of Georgia.

Scripting the Military Life

In December 2008, Fordham transitioned from the comical vignettes of fictional Sacred Heart Hospital to the drama of military life as a writer for Lifetime Television’s series “Army Wives.” With nearly 4 million viewers, the series has pushed Fordham to expand her writing and research skills to accommodate the hourlong format. When she is not writing, casting or editing film, she is likely conducting research for scripts or filming on set in Charleston, S.C.

“Research is a very important part of any writing. For ‘Army Wives,’ I didn’t have to look that far -- my sister was an army wife for over 20 years. But I still read lots of books, talked to army wives and Googled everything I could find,” said Fordham, who said she dreams of writing for Meryl Streep one day. “The Department of Defense was kind enough to arrange a research trip to Ft. Irwin. The entire writing staff was flown there by Blackhawk helicopter.”

Fordham may map out characters’ lives, but her own is still unfolding. The “work-in-progress,” as she describes herself, is open to whatever challenges and opportunities prime time directs her way. One certainty is that VSU will never be written out of her life; the campus, the people and the program are all too much a part of who she was and who she has become.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without VSU, so I feel an obligation to give back as much as I can. The thing I enjoy most is coming back myself for workshops,” Fordham said. “My goal is simply to demystify Los Angeles and the entertainment industry in general. I think it’s easy to get intimidated by it all. My message is, ‘Hey, if you’ve got big dreams, give it a try. If you don’t like it, you can always move back; but at least you won’t have any regrets.’”