Los Angeles has often been seen as a hotbed of opportunity for creative people seeking careers. The dazzling spectacles and attractions can distract someone from their work and ultimately their success.
A fresh-faced graduate from the University of South California determined to make his mark in the entertainment world in the 1980s. Despite having earned his bachelor’s degree in theater, he quickly realized his calling was in writing, not in acting. Pittsburgh native Steve Cuden, born and raised in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, committed to screenwriting even though his success was slow to start. He prioritized his creative livelihood at any cost, even if it meant he starved.
“I did things to survive,” Cuden said. “I figured out how to survive while continuing to write.”
For some three decades, he bounced from odd jobs to numerous writing assignments, spending his time in LA, putting whole characters and worlds down on paper for some 90 scripts, ranging from children’s cartoons to an award-winning musical.
His creative credits are almost innumerable. A screenwriter, teacher, podcast host, author, playwright, lyricist, director, actor, lighting designer and artist, Cuden has spent much of his life exploring and contributing what he can to the entertainment world. At age 64, his intention is to step into retirement.
Since 2011, Cuden has served as a full-time faculty member at Point Park University. He earned his master’s degree in screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2010 so that he could teach at Point Park, and he now lives in Highland Park. As part of the cinema arts department, he has imparted his knowledge of scripts and entertainment success onto dozens of aspiring writers.
One of those writers is senior screenwriting major Charlie Arrigo. Cuden has been Arrigo’s professor and advisor in his years at Point Park. Arrigo credits Cuden in guiding him in improving his writing as well as through the tumultuous process of dropping out and then returning to the university.
“He really took me under his wing, mentored me and helped shape me into the writer I am today,” Arrigo said. “I would not be writing at the level I am now without him. Most importantly, Steve believes in me. That’s something that means more to me than anything else.”
Around the beginning of the spring semester, Cuden announced to his students and colleagues he would be stepping down from his active role at the university and would become an adjunct professor for the fall 2020 semester.
His close friend and fellow professor, Laura Boyd, was not surprised but was a little relieved when Cuden made the decision.
“I was like ‘shut up and go, do it,’” Boyd said. “He talked about it for a little while, and I was like ‘yeah right, this is never gonna happen.’ When he’s like ‘I turned in the paperwork,’ I was actually shocked. I thought he was all-talk because he’s so addicted to work.”
Boyd said Cuden is so dedicated to his work that he is normally at the university most days from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. on weekdays—an anomaly for professors, particularly for those as active as Cuden in other side projects.
“I would rather be busy doing something, something of value,” Cuden said. “That’s the key—something of value.”
Cuden’s fascination with creative pursuits began at a young age. Even though television was just developing during his childhood, Cuden was entranced by WTAE’s Paul Shannon and his “Adventure Time” children’s show where “The Three Stooges” and “Popeye” regularly featured. After setting up in Los Angeles, much of his career was spent writing for children’s cartoons such as “X-Men: The Animated Series,” “The Batman” and “Pink Panther.”
His love of entertainment extends beyond television. At the age of 8, he discovered his love of theater at a summer camp, little knowing he would develop a musical that would debut on Broadway and become an international sensation.
Cuden made a trip to South Korea this past summer after “Jekyll and Hyde” became a smash hit in the country, running for some 14 seasons.
Cuden’s emphasis on quality storytelling is long documented in his books “Beating Broadway: How To Create Stories For Musicals That Get Standing Ovations” and ‘“Beating Hollywood: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Screenplays,” which break down successful plays, musicals and movies for aspiring writers hoping to learn the craft. The lessons he hopes to impart to creators have very much been a part of his teaching style at the university.
“Steve just challenges you to be your best, he has a bit of a reputation of being a tough critic, but that’s only because he cares,” Arrigo said. “He wants you to succeed and isn’t going to let you fall behind. Seriously, if he has a million notes, it’s not because he hates you, it’s because he’s invested in you and your story and wants it to be the best version it can be.”
At this point, while Cuden is grateful to have had an impact on so many students, he feels a little constrained by his teaching responsibilities. After having spent a career as a freelancer in most areas, he is returning to those roots for teaching via his adjunct position and for the rest of his creative pursuits.
“Teaching is a very full-time occupation, we teach four classes a week and there’s a lot of faculty responsibilities that go with the job,” Cuden said. “It takes most of your time and energy to do well. I started to very much miss being more creative, so that is my goal—that is what I’m intending to do.”
Cuden said that he already has commercially viable options lined up. A side-hobby for right now, his podcast, Storybeat, has been a passion project started at Point Park’s own Center for Media Innovation.
In a little over hour-long segments, Cuden introduces and interviews successful media and artistic professionals in order to impart some wisdom and knowledge onto his listeners. His guests have included a variety of notable actors, directors, publicists and many more kinds of creators, and StoryBeat has had 114 episodes to date. All of the podcasts can be found on his website, storybeat.net.
Cuden’s skills in interviewing landed him an opportunity to interview Cary Elwes, star of the 1987 cult hit “The Princess Bride,” at the Carnegie of Homestead Musical Hall in April. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the event has been postponed to Sept. 11, 2020.
He also has two potential musicals lined up and another book he is working on; however, he would not disclose details about any of these projects at this time. He will teach at the university as long as he and the institution agree that it is in both of their interests.
“I am going through a retirement process, but I don’t think of myself as going into retirement,” Cuden said. “I think I’m changing jobs from a full-time tenured faculty member to a full-time artist creative person who teaches.”