TV Writing & Playwriting Tips with Bekah Brunstetter
I love TV teen dramas. It all started with My So-Called Life and 90210 (the old school one, duh). My fave teen drama is Friday Night Lights fan (clear eyes, full hearts can’t lose!), but I have a special place for Switched at Birth. It’s about two teen girls who are switched at birth, and one of them, Daphne, is deaf. It’s just the best. I’ll stop gushing now and introduce the lovely and talented Bekah Brunstetter. She’s an accomplished playwright and story editor on Switched at Birth. I met her through our mutual friend and fellow lovely lady, Elizabeth Castoria. Bekah has THE BEST ADVICE on writing, so read on, learn, and get writing!
1. As you know I’m a big fan of the ABC Family TV show Switched at Birth where you are the story editor. How did the offer come about to interview and write for the show?
Aw, thanks friend! I love that you love it. It’s been a fantastic job. Let’s see. One of my agents at WME heard that they were looking for a new young writer (this was after their first season) and they passed along one of my plays for the producers to read. I have this play, Mine, that I wrote while stuck in an airport over Thanksgiving about five years ago, that was just about some longing and heartache I’d been feeling my relationship, and that play has subsequently gotten me all of my TV work. I guess the take away, when you are really feeling something, write about it, even if it feels small. Anywhoo, they liked the play, and I happened to be in LA for meetings, so I met the producers for breakfast, we chatted. I immediately felt connected to the show, I felt like I understood the characters (the conservative father, the daughter who always felt Other, etc.). I really liked the producers, as people and potential bosses, and thankfully, they really liked me. And so! I was hired! And then had about five minutes to move back to LA from NYC.
2. You’re a playwright and you’ve given me great advice to me about theater. What would you share with fellow playwrights to do to break in?
Write. WRITE! Surround yourself with people who think you’re brilliant. Convince yourself you’re the only person in the world writing plays. Of course that is delusional, but I just mean, too often young writers cripple themselves with self-doubt and I will Never Get there and I am not Good Enough before they even write. Pull a blanket of friends and admiration around yourself and write from that place. And then, DO. Submit your plays. Everywhere. Put them up with your friends. Read them aloud in your house. Send them to theaters. Go see plays and if you like the plays, email your plays to whoever’s in charge. Write and Do!
3. You got into the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference after applying seven times. Any advice for fellow writers who are trying to get into that super hard program/conference/fellowship/artist residence?
If at first you don’t succeed, apply apply again! The nice thing about applying for these things is that if you don’t get in, they don’t come to your house and punch you in the face / tell you you’re worthless or anything. It’s usually just a short and friendly email. Point being: it really doesn’t hurt to apply. Applying for these things is a great way to give yourself deadlines to write and rewrite your plays. Send them off and forget about it. Worse thing that’s gonna happen: a short and friendly rejection email, that you can be ruffled by for a minute and then forget about. Also, when it comes to those really annoying personal statements you have to write: be as honest and specific as possible.
4. There are several playwrights in LA who are writing for television. Any tips for making the transition into getting a TV staff writing job?
I was very fortunate to break in via my playwriting agent, but I won’t speak to that, because that’s an annoying answer to your valid question. It seems like so many writers are getting work today based on work they’ve made themselves. Webseries are getting turned into shows. Twitter feeds are getting turned into shows, y’all! Make your own stuff. Try and make a living doing something that gives you the maximum time and brain space to work on your own stuff. That day job doesn’t even necessarily have to be writing related. I inspected corporate apartments for 3 years. I fluffed pillows and taught confused indian business men what dishwashers are and how to reboot a cable box. Do whatever. And WRITE. Also, in terms of what to write: It really does seem like spec scripts of pre-existing shows are all that valuable anymore. Get your hands on pilot scripts, read a bunch to get a hang of the story structure, then WRITE YOUR OWN.
5) Lastly, you just got back from a vacation in Costa Rica. What was your favorite moment from the trip?
Oh my Goodness. Very hard to pick. It was a transformative but also restorative trip. It’s so beautiful there. I went with my best friend from middle school, who I rarely get to see, and we totally re-connected and got even closer. That was the biggest emotional take away. I think my favorite moment was when we hiked up to the Arenal Volcano: we had impeccable weather and could see all the way to the top, which is rare. We’d packed ourselves a little thermos of mango juice and rum which definitely fueled the beauty of the moment, and subsequently led to volcano dance jump-frolicking type things. It was just a moment of pure beauty and joy. And rum.
You can read Bekah’s blog here.