Note: This is the fourth article of a series in which Buzz theater columnist and critic Laura Foti Cohen explores the creation of a second installment of her multi-episode Zoom play Neighborhood Newsy. (You can read Part 1 of the series here and link to subsequent stories from there.) She’s documenting its development process for The Buzz.
I completed Episode 2 of of the new Neighborhood Newsy in April, thanks to the Dramatist Guild’s End of Play program. It was so inspiring to see other writers at work via Zoom. With them on my laptop monitor, I worked on my second screen plotting relationships budding and tense, storylines brief and extended. Then I filled in the specifics.
Episode 2 contains 13 characters, two of whom, Kate and Nate, share a screen. Since there are only nine boxes in the Neighborhood Newsy 3×3 grid, that meant finding excuses to get characters offscreen and bring in replacements. Trystan, our spa owner, is booted for refusing to turn on his video (he claimed he was in the midst of a mud mask); he’s replaced by real estate agent Marti, who had been in the Zoom waiting room. Gig worker Hailey B. leaves early to prepare her apartment for short-term renters and is replaced by lovebirds Kate and Nate. We won’t get into why they were late.
When I finished the draft of the new script, I took it over to the home of Neo Ensemble Theatre artistic directors Rachel Winfree and Michael Caldwell; Debra Kay Lee (Debra P. in Neighborhood Newsy) joined us. We did a readthrough and, based on feedback, I made some tweaks. Then it should have been on to Episode 3…except I found myself stalled.
Episode 3 starts a storyline about homeless in the Hancock Park area, and I needed it to be more than just sparring between NIMBYs and YIMBYs. I was also grappling with the development of a few characters.
Rachel’s “substance enjoyer” Babs B. was one such character. Rachel was concerned Babs was too one-note, and the first rule of playwriting is that each character must change in a way subtle or significant. It was starting to look like Babs wasn’t going anywhere.
Rachel and I discussed having Babs open her home to someone she doesn’t realize is homeless. Over the course of the remaining episodes, Babs would be forced to confront her feelings about the homeless. And because she brings her experience to the Neighborhood Newsy Advisory Group, the other characters must confront their feelings, too.
Since Babs is a retired teacher, Rachel suggested having the person moving in be someone she worked with. She saw a woman in that role, but I thought a man would be more interesting: Here’s someone she thought was passing through town, and instead he’s been living on the streets of Los Angeles and likes coming inside. Now, that’s an arc.
But a new production from Neo was another reason I stalled after completing Episode 2. On May 7 and 8, Neo mounted its Mother’s Day show, MOM:2021.
I wrote a piece for the show, created an opening montage of Neo members and their mothers (and Neo mothers with their own children), and ran some of the Zoom tech. And only then, after our final performance, I jumped back into Episode 3.
Now that MOM:2021 is done and I’ve added the homeless storyline, writing this Episode 3 of Neighborhood Newsy becomes both easier and more difficult. I have to introduce the homeless character (Sam) and establish the relationship between him and Babs. I also have to advance the arcs of the other 14 characters in the episode.
Time to get back to it.
You can read Part 5 here.