Note: This is the third in a series of articles in which Buzz theater columnist and critic Laura Foti Cohen explores the creation of her Zoom play Neighborhood Newsy. (You can read Part 1 here and part 2 here.) She’s documenting its development process for the Buzz.
Workshops are easy. Writing is hard. The Neighborhood Newsy workshops involved a dedicated group of artists exploring characters and storylines. About 15 people played off each other, riffing and reacting, and it was a blast. All that fun provided some great material, which could have made the solitary part of the process a tough transition.
Luckily, I was beginning my writing in April because that’s the month the Dramatists Guild runs a program called End of Play. It ends, naturally, on April 30th, and I’ll miss it. The concept is simple: sign on to a Zoom meeting with other writers for one hour a day, with your camera on and your sound off. It’s like being in a library, silently sharing space with others tapping their keyboards. Having the camera on keeps me working. Having the sound off means no one can hear my dog bark randomly.
After the head start of the workshops, End of Play helped encourage me to do the hard part. In the first two weeks, I futzed around with the episodes’ structure, as important to any play as its character development. Then I finally got down to it and wrote the first episode of Neighborhood Newsy.
As I wrote, I read the script aloud, cracking myself up a few times. I was concerned I’d look like a lunatic on webcam—until I saw other writers silently mouthing their own words and occasionally laughing themselves. Dialogue is meant to be heard; reading out loud is a must to check for authenticity. Another reason to keep the Zoom muted.
Although we’re up to 18 characters in the show, only nine are onscreen at any given time. I cut myself some slack with the first episode and had no entrances and exits. I wanted to establish the world and most of its main characters before throwing out a group member for poor Zoom etiquette, or having someone leave in a huff, and admitting replacements. All that and more will happen in future episodes, now that I have my sea legs.
In the final episode of the original Neighborhood Newsy Zoom Edition, the social media company in the story had come to a definitive end. So the first step in the new version was to establish the reactivation of the platform. I created a new corporate overlord, Nothing to See Here, Inc., to acquire the remnants of the defunct business.
The new parent company created an Advisory Group to bring together community members and guide the platform on its path. In the first episode, all characters, whether old or new, were asked by a moderator to introduce themselves and identify a local issue of concern to help Nothing to See Here, Inc. succeed.
Naturally, a year of hunkering affected the neighbors, some of whom showed signs of mental decay and testiness—which of course provide more opportunities for the kinds conflict that fuels plays and playwrights. Inspired by the workshops and my own mental decay and testiness, I gave the characters their marching orders:
- Spa owner Trystan insulted the group by suggesting they all needed to visit his business ASAP; partier Richie D. expressed interest in a “relaxing peel.”
- GiGi and Joe S. argued about terminology: she preferred “unhoused” while he advocated a return to “bums.”
- Kimmy K. and Pearl W. had a meeting of the minds over policing, much to the consternation of Lisa N., who uses three security companies to supplement LAPD.
- Lotus, a mindfulness meditation teacher, added calm to the proceedings and Debra P. suggested each meeting open with a kind word. (Spoiler: That didn’t go over well.)
I sent the script to the core group of actors—Rachel Winfree, Michael Caldwell, David St. James and Debra Kay Lee—and they played multiple roles in a table read (that all-important step of hearing dialogue out loud). I took notes, made some edits, and moved on to Episode 2, ironically entitled “Staying Sane.”
And now…back to Zoom for some End of Play motivation!
You can read Part 4 of this series here.