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Four screen and stage professionals share their experiences with aspiring writers

A lively discussion covering everything from transitioning from stage to screen to diversity in the writer’s rooms marked the 2015 School of Communication Writers Panel at Annie May Swift Auditorium.

From left: Alexis Williams, Ellen Fairey, Tanya Saracho, Lydia Diamond

The panelists included:

Lydia Diamond (C92), whose plays include Smart People, Stick Fly, and Voyeurs de Venus, has had her work produced at The Cort Theatre on Broadway, The Goodman Theatre, New Vic (Off Broadway), Steppenwolf, among many others.

Ellen Fairey whose play, Graceland, won the 2010 Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Work, also worked as a writing producer on four seasons of Nurse Jackie on Showtime.

Tanya Saracho has written for Girls, Devious Maids and HBO’s Looking as well as been produced at the Steppenwolf, The Goodman, Teatro Vista and Teatro Luna. Her plays include Hushabye, The Tenth Muse, Song of the Disappeared, among others.

Alexis Williams (C02) is a literary agent at Bret Adams Artist’s Agency, a New York-based agency representing actors, playwrights, directors, composers, choreographers, music directors and designers.

The May 1 panel capped off a day of events celebrating writing hosted by the School of Communication’s Office of External Programs, Internships, & Career Services and the school’s master of fine arts program in writing for screen and stage. The panelists fielded questions from Department of Radio/Television/Film lecturer Brett Neveu and the student audience, discussing a broad range of topics, from how they got their starts to how they keep motivated while they write.

Diamond, who studied performance studies while at Northwestern, said her career started when she took her first playwriting class.

“There wasn’t Google then, so I couldn’t look up ‘plays by black people’ or ‘monologues for brown girls who might be slightly neurotic’ and so the plays I wrote then were really for me and for my friends,” she said.

Williams, another School of Communication graduate, interned for Diamond for a short period, before she became an agent. Williams spent time after graduation freelance directing and producing, but eventually yearned for a more stable career path.

“Being an agent is a great way to be in the arts and to champion writers and their work, while being gainfully employed at the same time,” she said. “And, you know, having health insurance is good. I like going to the doctor!”

Several of the panelists talked about making the transition to TV from playwriting, and Saracho, who ended up writing for Girls and Devious Maids, said she made the mistake of passing up TV offers early in her career.

“I got a call from Weeds,” said Saracho. “And they said they were interested in me, and do I have an agent? And I told them ‘Sorry, I’m a playwright, and I don’t have a TV agent, because I’ll never do TV.’Mind you, everyone in my life told me I was being an idiot, but I didn’t have cable. I was poor! I didn’t know what Weeds was, or how television was changing. I mean, now I know. Now, I understand, but then, I didn’t get it.”

All the panelists agreed that writing for TV and writing for the stage were two very different animals.

“A writer’s room, it’s terrifying,” said Fairey, who wrote for many years for Nurse Jackie. “You’re there with other writers, people you probably don’t know well, and you have to prove yourself every day that you can break a story. It’s hair-raising.”

Williams, who represents a number of playwrights, encouraged all the students in the room to keep writing plays, even if they make the transition to TV. “I always tell my clients to try to write a play a year,” she said. “If you don’t, then those special skills you’ve honed can really atrophy.”

One student asked the panel to speak about their experience being women in the industry and if they ran into any roadblocks. Saracho said she’s often the only woman in the writer’s room, and also talked about the myth of “being The One.”

“The thing is that it’s 2015, but it’s not. And the worst part is that we’re buying into ourselves,” said Saracho, who was born in Mexico. “I once had a meeting with Eva Longoria, and she got excited about the project and told me ‘you’re going to be The One’ –meaning, the one Latina in the writer’s room, and I was supposed to be excited about this, and I was excited, but later, I got to thinking, ‘wait, why does there just have to be only one? Why not three of us?’”

Fairey said that unfortunately, sexism is alive and well. “I love men, I really do, but sometimes, I’ve found that when dealing with male showrunners or writers, their insecurities can come out,” she said. “I hate to say this, but I’ve learned to manage it, to navigate it.”

Diamond also added that part of dealing with racism or sexism is to first acknowledge it. “I think it’s about allowing yourself to acknowledge that it’s happening,” she said. “People will tell you that it’s in your head, or you’re being oversensitive, but if you are feeling discrimination, whether that’s sexism or racism, then you are. You have to acknowledge it yourself before you can then deal with it. Find your group of supportive friends or your therapist, or whatever will help you process it.”

Saracho said that adding more diversity all around on TV and on the stage can help fight the backlash. She and other writers and producers recently formed The Kilroys, which encourages theatre professionals to suggest great plays written by women every year that are being under-produced. The list, the “forty-six” as it’s called, is now creating a lot of buzz in the industry.

One student asked the panel how they know when they’ve written something “good enough.”

“I always feel like every play I write is better than the last one, and I don’t let it go out into the world until I think it’s good,” Diamond said. “But, I also know that while I’m writing the play, about three quarters of the way through, I’ll think this is terrible! Who said I could write plays? I’ll get into a self-loathing mode, but I know that’s my process, and I work through it. What I’d tell you is don’t wait to write something good enough…Just keep writing.”

-Cara Lockwood