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THUMBS UP OR THUMBS DOWN?!
I recently learned the term ‘the tables have turned’ originates from 17th century board games, and signifies the reversal of fates; turning a position of disadvantage into one of advantage, as you assume a stronger position than the person who had been maintaining control.
In this country many cities and (10) states (why not NY?) now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of or in addition to Columbus Day. No, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not being widely promoted. It does not mean there will be more economic support for community development, or reparations. It does not translate to a welcoming seat being pulled out at the table.
What is turning, drastically and quickly, is the stagnate air that had been surrounding the table, as witnessed by the broad public support for Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Majorities across the U.S. are recognizing that wrongs have been done to whole communities and covered up. There is growing support to give people who have been systematically wronged, platforms to tell their stories and reaffirm their cultures.
This being opposed by many of the panicked heads at the tables -- and those protecting them – the would-be monarchs believing they own all the game tables. With twisty rules, they try to control – or freeze -- play at the table. But they don’t own the air that surrounds us all.
Public conversation in diverse locations around the country is turning into discussions of how to write a more truthful history of our country – with the hopes of a more compassionate and informed future for all.
At tables in our own homes, we can do more than hope for this. First, as individuals, we need to redefine what stories are worth telling --- realizing that stories of ordinary live occurrences can be big and dramatic (or comedic) – when told vividly from the perspective of the people undergoing those experiences: us. Secondly, we need to overcome the self-consciousness, confusion, or even dread, some of us feel about our writing and sharing it (especially when telling personal stories).
But once we can craft deeply felt stories, if we take those stories out to the public gaming tables to pursue recognition and support -- BEWARE! You need to know about the all-powerful (over us) Gatekeepers. They are employed (and oriented how) to judge whoever comes (without an influential sponsor) to the gate. With their critiques, the Gatekeepers control who gets through the gate to even see the pathway to the gaming tables and success. If a Gatekeeper rejects your story and gives you a critique:
1. Always look for the grains of truth
2. Know you have the right to question if the Gatekeeper
is treating as valid the reality and goals of your storytelling.
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table,
bring a folding chair.”
- Shirley Chisholm
The content I am sharing on Catering2Us, in essays and short memoirs, is very personal and necessary for me. I recommend you watch ‘THE 40 YEAR OLD VERSION’, then maybe it will be easier for you to see what I’m about to share. The film just won the Best Director Award at the (2020) Sundance Festival for Radha Blank, the Black woman who is also the film’s writer and star.
In ‘THE 40 YEAR OLD VERSION’ (Netflix), Blank plays (yes-it’s-close-to-home) ‘Radha’, a 40ish Black woman playwright, surviving by teaching apathetic teens. Her last believer does a hard sale that her professional deliverance will arrive -- just suck up to downtown wealthy whites, and their finely tuned assumptions and bright ideas on how to improve. What stops Radha’s surrender and further degradation? She literally becomes possessed! Then inspired. The f*--ing spirit starts spitting out of her in angry raps, that gets us around her nodding, ‘Yes’!
Radha Blank is one of many of us, knowing we hav-ta construct our own f*--ing tables! Because at the big gaming tables, they might not even recognize your story as a story.
As a 63-year-old-Black-woman, I have my own version
of experiencing a big gaming table’s Gatekeepers reject my work,
and then in critiques suggest how to improve my scripts
BY CHANGING THE GOALS OF MY STORYTELLING:
A Brief Pause On My Story For:
To ensure that only the best work gets to the table, a team of readers is engaged to plow through the incoming piles of scripts. They prepare ‘coverage’ forms; summarizing setting and budget of story; giving an overview of the story and its potential audiences; and providing advice on how to proceed with it. First round rejection means the Gatekeeper is the beginning and end of a script’s journey. This comprehensive decision-making form typically goes to the company, not the writer.
The goal of readers script coverage is usually to hit upon what might sell.
Not discover stories that can change how we perceive the world and each other.
MY DISCLAIMER : I have no knowledge of the inner workings of the Nicholl Fellowship organization. I don’t know what their Reader’s Coverage form looks like, nor the qualifications of their readers. or how long a reader is given to review a script before filling out coverage. - T
I submitted two feature scripts (NEXT DOOR and BILLIE’S SONG) to the Academy’s (2020) Nicholl Fellowship competition. I’d been writing and teaching short scriptwriting for years. I was returning to something I couldn’t get right before – writing features. I knew l000s of scripts might be submitted, and while you always hope, I didn’t expect to be chosen. What excited me was that by payin$ extra, I was guaranteed to get written comments by at least two professional industry readers on each submitted script, and that could be invaluable in helping me improve upon my scripts.
Neither of my scripts advanced to the final rounds. In August I eagerly opened the email with the greatly anticipated readers comments. For both scripts, the readers all singled out what they liked, and gave a couple of critiques / suggestions I thought helpful.
BUT WHAT?! BUT WHAT?! I also got a load – a small but significant one from the NEXT DOOR readers, and big ones from the BILLIE’S SONG readers. Comments, that to me -- does-my-opinion count? -- showed the cultural and historical ignorance of the readers. Over and beyond whether I did a good job as writer, it didn’t seem to me that they could even grasp the stories I was trying to tell.
What the two NEXT DOOR readers liked:
Reader #1: The context is vibrant and very visual, and the emotions of the two girls are vividly portrayed…Charlie and Max are strong characters, very well characterized, and with an interesting dynamic. Their dialogue is sharp and tight. The two girls have very distinct voices, believable for two girls of their age. In the end they both had their evolution, and have become tougher, more mature, and seemingly happier. The script explores the theme of love among siblings and depicts the desire for a better life of the two sisters in a compelling way.
Reader #1: I found the characters intriguing and I was genuinely curious to see where the script would go…. Charlie and Max are vivid characters that I cared about, and that kept me invested… Charlie is a strong protagonist.
What NEXT DOOR readers didn’t like:
Description a bit cumbersome / unneeded details and repetition slowed the pace / made it take too long to finally get to the action / the script is quite slow in the beginning / The script doesn’t seem too sharp in some choices./ keeping an aura of mystery around them doesn't seem justified / script could have introduced (villain) in less heavy-handed and creepy way
When I got the readers comments, I already had been working on a new NEXT DOOR draft. and knew I needed to do some cutting. But I have my own hit on why, to me, the readers were especially impatience with my slow, repetitious opening act: It tells me they want a different story than the one NEXT DOOR is telling.
Without you having to have read the script, here is one comment by a NEXT DOOR reader that might help you understand my take:
"Great work has been done on building the universe
of the film. On one hand, the 1975 setting doesn’t
seem justified, because other than for some minor elements, this story could be set in any other era."
MY RESPONSE: 1st thought: How can “great work…building the universe of the film” be follow by in the next sentence “the setting doesn’t seem justified”? But beyond that, if they doubted the relevance of NEXT DOOR being set in 1975, it told me they didn’t understand the larger issue that the script is ultimately about. No wonder they both were so impatient until the first act was over, and the entertaining action thriller part of the script finally kicks in.
NEXT DOOR is first and foremost about criminal child neglect, a form of child abuse. Though both readers mentioned how much the kids must do on their own, neither spoke of the script being a depiction of child neglect.
In the early 70s, as a young teen (yes-it’s-close-to-home), I lived alone in a house with my two sisters and was their sole caretaker for two years. It was a period before societal light was shone on situations of child neglect like this. It was only in 1962 that the Social Security Act required all states to include child protection in their child welfare systems. Not till 1974, with the passage of CAPTA, were state responsibilities for child protection established and federal money earmarked for programs.
In NEXT DOOR the two girls, Charlie and Max (13 and 8 years old), go to school, but outside of that they are at home mostly on their own, watching TV. In 1975 there was no internet to connect them to a larger world. No gaming and texting. The girls each watch specific TV shows from that era that inspire their behavior and inform their dreams. Their lives and exposures are not like two girls their age in the 80s, or 90s, or now.
How could the Nicholls’ reader so completely discount the relevance of a specific time to the telling of the story? (How real is the earlier history of this country to them?)
Ah! But so many more loads from the two BILLIE’S SONG readers:
Reader #1: Billie is learning and growing, plagued by the world that she sees, and seeing different sides to the people in her life. Yet there’s no “and” or “or else” that gives the situation a feeling of urgency or stakes to lend a sense of structure or focus.
Reader #2: A rewrite could focus on channeling that passion into a stronger sense of structure. On page 33 I found myself still wondering what the story is and what is happening. I think it could help clarify the narrative drive if Billie has specific goals driving the action forward.
You would never know from any of these readers’ comments, the showiest story layer of the script is the exposing of a secret gentrification plot -- complete with a public protest and a climactic scene where widespread violence threatens. Not only do the readers never mention the gentrification plot, they also never remark on the class and racial scrimmages between the main characters, $-poor Black Billie and wealthy White Ben. The readers in fact never mention the races of the characters (how could that be relevant?!), or how the dysfunctional inner lives – so many f*--ing issues and lies -- of both characters eventually push them to take dramatically opposing actions.
Tell me how I’m not telling my story well; don’t tell me I don’t have a story because you’re not interested in a life you don’t know or don't understand. I wrote to the Nicholls Fellowship with my very specifically detailed responses to the readers’ comments. I indicated. this is not about advancing in a competition. I just want to get the informed readers comments I paid for. Could they have readers with a great grasp of psychological and historically plotted scripts read the scripts and send me comments. I got back a blah-blah-it-is-what-it-is form response.
#OscarsSoWhite has made the Academy put a focus on increasing the diversity in its membership so that its annual award nominations might show respect for a broader range of storytelling. But what about their Nicholl Fellowship writing program? From my recent experience, I’m assuming the Fellowship program believes it good enough if they have readers who are women and of color (which undoubtedly they have) – who work for them under their long-time guidelines (assumptions of what makes a good script).
I shared this essay as a draft with an advisory group. Two friends, politely, wondered if maybe I was being a little thin-skinned and overdoing with my reaction to some of the readers’ comments. They both are professionals who work in industries where they are being critiqued CONSTANTLY (a friend put in caps).
One agreed with me -- up to a point: Absolutely, sometimes the decisionmakers miss the point entirely. But it’s on you to make it clearer or move on and do it better the next time. You can’t change the fact that other people’s brains work differently than yours, and don’t make the same connections. They’re just trying their best to give constructive criticism.
That's sound advice. But what if it’s not just that the decision makers' brains work differently? What if they are trained to over value certain features, and to devalue accomplishments outside the normal? What if the goal of readers script coverage is to hit upon what might easily sell; not discover stories that can change how we perceive the world and each other?
(And what if your script has a fresh unique structure -- remember PSYCHO was a total innovation in its day -- and that reader has one day to read the script and write coverage before moving on to the next script in the pile?)
I read an interview with Nyles DiMarco, a producer of the new series DEAF U (Netflix), and the only deaf winner of America’s Next Top Model, and the second deaf winner of Dancing With The Stars. In the interview he said as a producer he pushed to have deaf people on the crew. It made a huge difference because the deaf crew could see little gestures by the deaf reality cast that only a deaf person (and those versed in deaf communications) could understand as important and telling. Because of the knowledge of the deaf crew, cameras were placed in new positions.
The truth is, when you tell stories about traumatic situations or unique societies and groups ---- there is always going to be two vastly different responses from your audience, depending upon their personal experiences (and not counting the haters):
#1) THE EYEWITNESSES: Those who are members of the group the story is about, or who have ongoing intimate contact with people who are. This portion of the audience will be quick to catch subtle gestures, private language, and the building of patterns, as well as have already ingrained empathy for how the people experiencing the situations are being impacted.
#2) THE VISITORS: They might be open and sympathetic people -- but haven't had personal contact with the depicted situations and people. They don’t know what to look for in terms of private language and subtle gestures. And if they waltz into a story composed in salsa rhythm, they might read the story totally off beat and off meaning. They might be easily bored with the details of a life they don’t recognize (especially if it has no eye-candy and pop), and be marking time hoping something big is going to happen soon (so they miss all the little things building up to the big).
I have my own storytelling goals, and they are out of the ordinary (MY STORY).
They led me to create this platform where not only I can present my unique perspective, but where others of us can as well.
Catering2Us is a new free online platform with a hybrid mission:
Create a forum for in-depth discussion about storytelling by and about us
Introduce working people from all walks to the craft of storytelling
Help them develop, write, discuss, and showcase short memoirs (two pages or less)
Introduce them to scriptwriting basics to help them turn their stories into short scripts
We are offering:
Online Showcase For Your Memoirs
This site draws inspiration from the people-on-the-street interviews of Humans of New York; the difference being that we want to help people write their own stories. A second inspiration is the (6) Word Memoir – and imagining if those writers were to write short stories based upon their (6) word memoirs.
The initial urge though to help working people write about their own lives comes from Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center (BYFC), the small, volunteer-run, neighborhood non-profit I established years ago with a few friends and collaborators. In recent years BYFC has gone underground, as we developed a concept for a People’s Hollywood which Catering2Us is a component of. - Trayce