The Screenwriting Lab at Outfest, Los Angeles’ LGBT Film Festival, offers a platform to tell important stories. In the program’s 19th year, writers Michael Colucci, Kellee Terrell, Chanelle Tyson, Jen Richards and Michael Walek not only got to work with professionals to hone their skills and develop their stories in a three-day, mentor led workshop, but also got to see their visions come to life during the Screenwriting Lab’s Live Stage Reading at Outfest on Tuesday night.
With actors including Elaine Hendrix, Zackary Drucker, Mather Zickel, Jason Stuart, Kym Whitley and Alexandra Grey, the reading presented select segments from each writer’s scripts. From gay ancient Greeks to a young girl exploring her sexuality to transgender women navigating Chicago, it was a powerful and emotional journey through the important and varied stories of the lab’s fellows.
After the reading, the writers and a moderator from Outfest held a Q&A with the audience, digging into the process behind the lab itself and how much a platform like that means to each of them. Through working with industry professionals, honing writing skills, finding affirmation in their stories or even developing important, new friendships, the lab and the reading had a lot to offer for them.
The group’s inspirations were various, from ridiculous ancient Greek societies on the History Channel to unfortunate news events to personal experiences. Tyson touched on something at the heart of the festival itself, saying, “My inspiration was just the common themes of coming out and trying to reconcile what you thought you were with what you’re becoming.” Keeping it short, sweet and still profound, Richards simply said, “My inspiration was life.”
In the stories themselves, a few of the writers got to expand beyond what they saw as poor representation in today’s media. Speaking on her story of three transgender women, Richards said, “I wanted to show the friendship between trans women. So often, trans people, if they’re shown at all, are shown isolated. Most of my closest friends are other trans women and I wanted to get a little glimpse of that.”
Each writer learned valuable lessons once their words were first given voices during the rehearsals for the stage reading. As much as she was attached to her script while writing, Terrell discovered that she was doing too much, saying, “You’re so into your script as a writer that you don’t really know what it sounds like. Once they start speaking, it’s like, ‘Oh shit. This is five words way too many.’ It’s more about the cutting, how can an actor say what you want them to say in less words.”
Colucci shared the sentiments, saying that all the lab participants are “in the middle of massive rewrites, so having that rehearsal and this reading during that process is wildly informative.” The lab even brought Colucci an invaluable opportunity, as he said, “Seven and a half hours of notes from people at the top of their game, be it professional writers or industry executives, you just can’t buy it.”
Despite going through what may be expected during a screenwriting lab — receiving notes, cutting and rewriting — the writers all said that Outfest’s lab was a rich and rewarding time that veered away from conventional Hollywood standards. Experiencing firsthand the issues of having to justify the race and sexuality of her characters, Terrell spoke to how the lab was nothing like that. “This was a lab where I came to the table being very clear that black lives matter and lesbians matter. This is my shit,” Terrell said. “It was never a question from a mentor of, ‘Why are they black?’ or ‘Why are they lesbian?’ or ‘What does this matter?’ It was just, you walked in, you were accepted, you were loved, let’s talk about the work.”
Recalling a fun moment with Walek during one of the nights of the lab when Walek exclaimed that “we’re here because of something we wrote,” Richards said, “it was just that quiet moment of reflection in the midst of all of this overwhelming simulation and affirmation that, ‘Yeah, we put words on a paper and it brought us here and it brought us these relationships and these opportunities.’ That’s something I’ll always carry with me.”
The close bonds that the writers made with each other was most evident in their constant cheering and support when they introduced themselves and their scripts. Richards told the audience, “We’re big mutual supporters of each other,” while Terrell answered with “Yeah, we’re actually obsessed with each other.” As Walek noted the importance of the lab, he made sure to explain what he felt most grateful for, saying, “These four people, getting to know them and their writing has been such a huge, huge gift and I love them so much. This is like our last day of summer camp and it’s really, really sad that we’re all going to be scattered to the winds again. But I love them so much.”
The lab will be open for applications again in the fall. Check out the synopses for the writers’ scripts below, provided by Outfest:
Michael Colucci, “Shield Boy”
“In the 4th century BC, the Sacred Band of Thebes, the famed Grecian army of lovers, all but one man is killed in a battle against Alexander the Great. The sole survivor continues to fight for the freedom of Thebes, but an unlikely new love calls in to question the true desires of his heart.”
Kellee Terrell, “Gemma”
“A woman grieving the death of her wife moves into a rural farm house and befriends a lonely ghost. As they grow closer, the woman gains confidence and is ready to start over, but the ghost lashes out, unwilling to let her leave.”
Chanelle Tyson, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”
“A high school girl finds her life thrown into disarray when she becomes secretly infatuated with a female classmate, forcing her to confront her sexuality.”
Jen Richards, “Any Given Week”
“A week in the life of three successful Chicago trans women shows how becoming yourself is a transition that never ends.”
Michael Walek, “How To Be A Man”
“When 15-year-old Max discovers the man he thought was his dad is not, he runs away to New York City to meet his biological father.”