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Neighborhood Newsy: Creating a Virtual Show (Part 6)

Neighborhood Newsy 2021 Rehearsal (clockwise from top left): Marla Cotovsky as Kimmy K., AnnaLisa Erickson as Gigi, Alana Webster as Admin, Michael Caldwell as Trystan, Alexis Martino as Lotus,  David St. James as Joe S., Jerry Weil as Captain Outrageous, Janet Hoskins as Mrs. Helen M. and Rachel Winfree as Babs B.


Note: This is the sixth article of a series in which Buzz theater columnist and critic Laura Foti Cohen explores the creation of her Zoom-based play Neighborhood Newsy. (You can read Part 1 here and link to subsequent stories from there.) She’s documenting its development process for The Buzz.


I worked all summer on Neighborhood Newsy 2021. Each subsequent episode took longer to write than its predecessor. In part this was because I was mentally wedded to the nine-person Zoom grid I used in the 2020 version of Neighborhood Newsy.

To make this logistical challenge greater, I was juggling a larger cast this time around. Nine characters had been plenty before, but Neo Ensemble Theatre has a deep bench of talented actors and I wanted to involve more of them. With the Zoom grid locked down at nine, I shuffled casts between the five episodes and moved characters on and off Zoom within the episodes. One would be kicked off for trolling, another would quit in disgust, and replacements would enter to keep the 3×3 grid intact.


The Neighborhood Newsy 2021 spreadsheet of characters (click to see full size image)


If the logistics behind corralling 17 characters were hard, giving them interesting arcs, leading them into—and out of—relationships and revealing their souls was much, much harder. My spreadsheet grew new tabs. Many conversations and scenes were trashed.

By the end of the summer, Neighborhood Newsy 2021 was done. The five-episode show featured fictional Hancock Park-area neighbors meeting monthly, from January to June 2021. As in the original, the group imploded at the end of the fifth episode. The heinous characters mostly got their comeuppance, and a few non-heinous characters suffered, too.

In mid-September, NEO held a workshop to give the cast a first look at the first draft. The primary takeaway? It was long. Way too long. Mark Twain allegedly once said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” Same with plays. Writing long is faster and easier than writing tight, as the months I spent grappling with NN2021 proved.

I had to make it much shorter and add lots of details about the characters. Less and more, no problem!

It was time for a rewrite. Of course. Writing = rewriting. I was at first depressed, but after extensive conversations with producer/director Rachel Winfree, I got the courage to throw out large chunks.

Originally, I’d used the conceit of a new group to allow all characters to introduce themselves. For example, here’s GiGi:

“Hello, I’m GiGi, with two capital Gs. These days I mostly do self-tape auditions from my closet. But in the before times I performed across the country. I was known as the queen of the national tour! Hello, Dolly!, Sweeney Todd, Wicked, I starred in them all. I guess economic recovery is my issue, the vacant storefronts on Larchmont, the unemployed. It’s hit us all. With theaters closed, I had to let my dogwalker go. My beloved miniature poodle is FiFi! Spelled with two capital Fs.”

Reading that now, I cringe. The rewrite took out all the on-the-nose introductions. Instead of going around the grid learning everyone’s backstory, NN2021 now starts in the middle of a fight between neighbors. The audience learns organically who the characters are from their behaviors and what they say in conversation, not monologue.

Through her actions in Episode 1, GiGi reveals herself as a waters-soothing extrovert who occasionally bursts into song. When, in Episode 2 she says, “They don’t call me the queen of the national tour for nothing,” it feels like a discovery, not a handout.

Of course, all of this should have been obvious as I was writing. I know the rules, starting with ”Show, don’t tell.” But when it comes to my own work, I am blinded. Thank goodness playwriting is a collaborative art, where those backstage and onstage conspire to make a script much, much better than it was when pounded out alone in a converted guest room by a woman talking to herself.

(Clockwise from top left) Sophia LaPaglia as Marti, Ben Gillman as Nate, Vered Federman as Kate and Alexis Martino as Lotus.

NN2021 went from 59 pages to 39, and from five episodes to six. Episodes feature as few as six onscreen characters (but sometimes more). We rehearsed it last week and I made some final, minor edits over the weekend. It grew a couple of pages, but I’d like to think all the junk has been identified and tossed. The rest of the rehearsal process will tell.

Neighborhood Newsy 2021 will be performed live on Zoom Saturday, November 13 at 4:00pm and Sunday, November 14 at 7:00pm. Details will be published in The Buzz.

You can read part 7 of this series here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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