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Once, she studied theater at CSUF. Now, 'Beauty and the Beast' screenwriter will speak at graduation

When Linda Woolverton graduated with her master’s in theater for children from Cal State Fullerton, she wrote and performed in her own company, which put on shows in churches, playgrounds, parks and malls in Southern California.

“I think I was a penguin or I might have been a turtle,” Woolverton said of one mall performance. “I looked at this tiny patch of carpet and there were three kids who were not listening and one was crying. I thought ‘There’s got to be another way to reach more kids.’ ”

Eventually, her storytelling of a tale as old as time and many other self-empowering narratives would touch billions of children across multiple generations.

Besides penning the screenplay for the 1991 Disney-animated “Beauty and the Beast” and witnessing the success of the story’s live action remake this past spring, the Long Beach native also wrote “Maleficent,” which reveals a backstory of Sleeping Beauty’s antagonist, and the 2010 live action film “Alice in Wonderland,” which reimagines Alice as a heroine who must slay a dragon-like creature.

The screenwriter will arrive at Cal State Fullerton as the university’s keynote speaker for the May 20 graduation ceremony.

“We are thrilled that Linda is returning to her alma mater to speak at commencement,” Greg Saks, the school’s vice president for university advancement, wrote via email Tuesday. “Many of our students grew up enjoying her films, and her career journey is truly an inspiration that we knew would resonate with the graduating class.”

Upon Woolverton’s completion of her master’s degree from the university in 1976, she admits she never set out to be a screenwriter but instead wanted to own a theater company that would perform for children.

“I think finding whatever lights you up and following it is something you have to have,” Woolverton said. “It’s something that may give you a left turn, but it’s important to keep. It’ll keep your soul alive.”

Woolverton’s own left turns in life led her to disbanding her theater company, working for CBS as an assistant, writing her first book and later receiving the offer to write the script for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” after dropping off a copy of her second novel in the company’s offices.

Before becoming the brains behind some of Disney’s notable heroines, Woolverton was a teenager in a Long Beach theater program who voluntarily took the male roles since the girl- to-boy ratio in the drama arena was always uneven, she said.

“I was never an ingénue,” she said of the characters she played. “My favorite role was a dragon in ‘Land of the Dragons.’ I never wanted to be relegated to the backseat as opposed to the driver’s seat or the kitchen as opposed to the library… it’s just my nature.”

That nature came in handy when she was hired as the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney in the late 1980s.

Noting that she was often the only woman in the meeting rooms at the time, Woolverton could relate to the very character she signed on to craft – Belle of “Beauty and the Beast.”

“It was very difficult,” she recalled. “I was a woman and I was brought from the outside. Change is hard, so I was fighting a battle.”

Alongside lyricist Howard Ashman, she shaped the story for what would become the first full-length animated feature film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. The storyline would change a common character concept in the early age of Disney’s princess movies.

“I call it the ‘victim heroine,’ meaning you’re good because you can endure all kinds of abuse with a smile on your face,” Woolverton said. “At the time, it was the perception of what the role model of femaleness should be. That’s no one’s fault.”

She added: “I believe Belle changed that. It was a hard fight to get Disney to embrace that idea, but I think once the audience responded and the Academy responded, they’ve never put another victim heroine in the world.”

After the 2017 “Beauty and the Beast” surpassed the $1 billion global box office threshold, it became clear that the tale withstood the test of time.

Woolverton, who is currently working on a sequel to “Maleficent,” walked the red carpet at the film’s premiere in March alongside actress Emma Watson, the movie world’s new-age Belle.

While Woolverton did not consult for the live action picture, she was given a writing credit in the film.

“I was happy it was a success,” Woolverton said. “It’s really humbling to understand that this character has meant so much to women and continues to mean so much to women.”

Alexandra.Chan@latimes.com

Twitter: @AlexandraChan10

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