September 4th, 2018
Geraldine Inoa and Gracie Gardner have a lot in common. Both are young writers who are relatively self-trained (neither chose to pursue an MFA) and who go back and forth between the worlds of theatre and television. Both women are also the recipients of very prestigious awards, The Unsung Voices Playwriting Commission and The Relentless Award, associated with Shonda Rhimes and Phillip Seymour Hoffman respectively. Additionally, both have plays being produced in New York this month. Geraldine’s play Scraps is receiving its world premiere at The Flea, while Gracie’s Athena is being remounted at JACK by the Hearth and was just published by Samuel French. This fall, both writers will be returning to LA, where Geraldine will continue writing episodes for The Walking Dead (her latest episode comes out in late October) and Gracie will begin developing a new project with Paramount. I recently sat down with Geraldine and Gracie to discuss their experiences working in theatre and TV, from the realities of balancing writing with day jobs to the unspoken gendered rules on how writers are expected to present themselves.
You are both in the wonderful position of having recently received some pretty great awards that were in honor of very well-known people, Shonda Rhimes and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, so congratulations on that. What was the application process like for you? What was it like to find out you’d been selected?
Geraldine: I actually sent Scraps, which is the play that I have now at Flea. It was just something that Niegel [Smith], who is directing Scraps, recommended me for. It was such an interesting time in that I was in the last few months of the [Public Theater’s] Emerging Writers Group, and thinking about TV, so it was the most honest, and naked, and vulnerable artistic statement I’ve ever written. I was like, “I’m tired of writing these artistic statements, because this is what you do to win. You highlight this, and do this.” And I was like, “No, I’m just going to break down in very vulnerable, raw language what my work is about, and what this play means to me, and what I would do with this award.” Then I won, and I found out in the summer, and now I’m working on a play for the IAMA Theatre and I’m now sort of connected to Shonda Rhimes for life, which is interesting.
Gracie: Mine was the same thing. I had a Google doc that I used to do play submissions. I try to do as many as I can, and The Relentless was one of those submissions. I had submitted plays in the past that I knew weren’t really the kind of play they were looking for. I was like, “This is the best example of my writing, but this isn’t me going out of my comfort zone and doing something that comes at personal cost.” I had written Pussy Sludge, and it was something that freaked me out to write, and freaked me out to send out. The idea of meeting people who knew that I had written this play freaked me out. Then, I found out when I was working as an assistant on a TV show in LA, and I couldn’t tell any of the people I worked for, for like a month, until it was announced. Since then, in came the financial support that allowed me to take some time to just write. I got to stay and write on Ryder Farm. And now I have a bunch of workshops coming up of Pussy Sludge.
It’s interesting to hear how you both let yourselves be vulnerable in terms of the work that you submitted for these particular awards. Could you tell me a little bit more about the ways in which these particular works, Scraps and Pussy Sludge, resonate with you?
Gracie: It was a little bit like a beast that ran out of a hole in my subconscious, like a mole or like a groundhog. It was really scary to let that thing out because it was a lot of pretty disgusting thoughts that were not pleasing, not pleasing to me anyway. I think that was what was hard about it, especially because, for one thing, my grandparents keep up with what I do. I was like, “Oh my god. They’re going to see this title. What are they going to think?” When you Google a playwright’s name, all the names of the plays come up. I was like, “This is going to be one of the things, for the rest of my life, if I send this out.” That the words Pussy Sludge were going to be attached to my name was horrifying. I just said, “Fuck it.” I wrote it. I feel good about it.
Geraldine: For me, Scraps has had a very long life. I first wrote it in 2014. It was the first real play I had ever written. So, for a while, Scraps was my play that helped me get everything, so that’s the play that I submitted to Shonda Rhimes because that’s what got me there. Then I had a workshop of it about a year and a half ago with Niegel at the LAByrinth. That collaboration inspired to rewrite the second act. The play that you see, it truly represents me, in that there are parts of my old self in it. Now there’s this entire break with form, and there’s an entire genre change in the middle. It actually includes a queer character. I wrote it before I had come out. It really truly is the most synthesized play I’ve ever written. You can see where I’ve come and where I am. It’s such a beautiful thing to be able to look to the first act and be like, “Yeah, that’s where I was when I was 23. I wrote like this and I still thought that realism was the only way we could express ourselves.” Then, 26-year-old me came in and was like, “You know what? We’re queer. We have to change the form. Let’s introduce absurdism, surrealism, and the things that you’re interested in now.” Also, the play itself is meaningful because I started writing it in the days after Ferguson. For a while that’s what that really was. Now I think it uncovers the deeply rooted effects of trauma, and it actually is about the short term and long term effects about trauma. In both mediums that I work in, it’s all about bringing complexity to people who are survivors of trauma.
Going off of your comment that Scraps was the first “real” play you wrote, when did you two first think of yourselves as playwrights specifically? Was that an identity that took a long time to grow into or one that you embraced from the get-go?
Gracie: I started writing plays when I was a really young kid. But I didn’t say I was a writer until maybe six months ago [when I won the Relentless Award]. I think I didn’t feel comfortable saying I was a writer because it wasn’t my job. Until that point, I was working as an assistant in a writers’ room. There’s a whole hierarchy in these systems, and it felt really weird to call myself a writer as an assistant to writers. It’s a draconian way to think, but I just felt like [calling myself a writer] was pretentious or something. But I don’t necessarily know if that’s true. I think it was just my own insecurity. For me, at least, I don’t love it when people are like, “a female writer.” There are times when people are like, “we need some women writers.” I feel a little it bad about that for some reason. No one ever says “male writers.” I wish writing would come first and in that is the identity, one would hope.
Geraldine: That’s very valid. Men never have to quantify their existence.
And Geraldine, when did you first feel like you were a playwright? Or, actually, do you consider yourself more of a TV writer now instead?
Geraldine: Well, now I call myself a writer. I always wrote, and I wanted to be a writer since I was eight. Then, after college, I started writing plays. Up until I moved to LA and started working in TV this year, I was a playwright. Now I think that that word is too limiting because I am a writer, and television has given me the ability to understand the breadth of writing. It’s more than what medium you’re working for. It’s also a technical skill. It’s a thing that I can do, and for my show I write prose, I write dialogue. Only calling myself a playwright doesn’t do justice to the way I can stretch my abilities. Now, I call myself a writer who lives in LA, who writes plays and TV. I have no shame for theatre. I just think we shouldn’t limit ourselves to one medium, especially when it’s a privilege to be a writer, and if you can actually do multiple forms then you should apply that label to yourself.
Both of you seem to have gone back and forth between the worlds of TV and theatre. Did you get any specific training in stage or screen writing in college? Have you learned on the job how to adapt your writing to each medium?
Geraldine: I went to NYU and I was in Tisch for Dramatic Writing for two years. Then, I transferred because I didn’t like it. I went to Gallatin, which is the more artsy school, where you have an interdisciplinary degree and make up your own curriculum. Technically, yes, I have taken TV writing classes, and playwriting, and screenwriting, but I taught myself how to write plays in my shitty studio in East Flatbush, and I’ve taught myself how to write for TV with the show I’m on. It’s just so rigorous and that’s how you learn it. I didn’t get an MFA because I don’t like to be taught in one restrictive way that this is how things are. I like to figure out my own stuff. I think because of that I have escaped this monolithic taste that comes out of those MFA programs, where they all learn how to write plays in this one way. It took me a long time to get to the level where, professionally, I could present my work, and it could be examined by peers, but I have my own taste because of that.
Gracie: Yeah, I felt the same way. I also didn’t really ever think of an MFA, that was just something that was on the back table. In terms of training, I did a lot of acting just because I was around theatre, and when you’re around theatre, you get roped in to doing different things in theatre. I was acting a lot and that was really helpful. I took playwriting classes in college. Then, when I moved to New York, I took a lot of free classes and I did a lot of writing groups. I didn’t get accepted into any of these fancy writing groups until later, so I spent, like, four years coming up with writers groups with friends of mine. That was very instructional too.
It’s great to hear you both talk about your experiences right after college. People are often tempted to gloss over the realities of rejection, and financial struggles, and day jobs, and just present the Cinderella version of overnight success instead.
Geraldine: For sure. When I moved to New York and I had a day job, I wrote every play with a 40-hour week day job. I always admired those people who could have an unconventional source of income, and somehow made rent. I’ve always been a little more rigid in my finances. I’ve always had serious [day jobs]. I was a grant writer for a non-profit and I was 40 hours a week. I wrote all my plays Saturday and Sunday for 15 hours a day for eight years. When I was unemployed for a long stretch of time when I was 23, I didn’t write a single word. The minute I got a job, I started writing Scraps. I think that also works for me; my brain likes to be focused on one thing and then work on my creative stuff on the side.
Gracie: In my experience, when you’re desperate for a job and desperate for money, that takes up so much brainpower that it’s really difficult to make space for writing. But my experience in New York was always cobbling together like three different jobs, which isn’t great either. I bartended. I worked for an energy healer for a long time. I walked dogs. I was a script reader. I worked as an assistant. I worked as a PA. I worked as a camera operator, camera assistant, set PA. I made little videos for local businesses. I’ve done ad copy. I’ve done a lot of different things to get money. I’ve just always had many different jobs. Even when I was PAing, I was still doing other supplementary things, because it’s really hard to just live off of being a PA.
Did you also write on weekends?
Gracie: Well, the great thing about PAing, especially on Mr Robot, which is shot mostly at night, is that my job was basically done by 10:3pam. I was working in the office and I would get there at like 7pm, and everyone would go off, and shoot. Then, I would have to stay awake in the office until like 7am. For whatever reason, that worked really well for me. I wrote three plays while I was working on Mr. Robot. That worked for me, but when it wasn’t a night shoot, then I was working as a PA all day and was really busy and had no time to write. It’s tricky doing that job because you just very suddenly have to take care of something very fast. I got a lot of applications done at the desk jobs. When I was bartending, I remember I had a phase where I would write things on my iPhone, when it was really slow, late at night.
In TV, the writing is a much less solitary process because there is a whole staff of writers in the room with you. Do you enjoy those types of collaborations, or do you prefer when it’s just you and your thoughts, even if it’s at 7am and you’re scrounging for scraps of time in which to work on your play?
Geraldine: I like working with other people. My show’s interesting in that we are a staff of eight but everyone else is in their 40s. I was born in 1991, so I don’t have the same references as them. “No, I didn’t see any of the movies in the ’80s. I missed all of the ’80s because I wasn’t born.” But I have my own well of resources, like psychoanalysis is a huge thing for me. I always try the phrase “how can we subvert the rhythm?” In my own writing, I’m always like, “how can I subvert the rhythms of workplace comedy?” which is the next thing I’m writing, or “how can I subvert the rhythm of a play with black people who have been through lots of trauma?” Exhaust realism, that’s how you subvert the rhythm. I also have found that working with other people is such an incredible experience, to be able to have a notion, have someone else contribute to it, build on it, and then together you make this incredible thing, and it’s like making a baby, or a cake, or something. It took the both of you, and that doesn’t happen in playwriting until production, where suddenly you have other people. For many years, I thought writing was this very difficult thing that I had to figure out all on my own, in my apartment, in the dark. Now, I’ve come to think of it as a much more healthy experience. You can write while you’re well fed. You can write while you’re happy.
Did you ever feel like you had to work extra hard, especially at the beginning, to prove yourself in your writers’ room?
Geraldine: I think my writers’ room is really unique. I hear horror stories of writers’ rooms where titles are very important, and staff writers—I’m a staff writer—don’t get to speak, and you’re just paid to exist. My writers’ room is very collaborative. It’s very much a family, and I think they appreciate my ignorance in certain things. It actually makes me an asset because they’ve been doing this for so long they can’t see certain things anymore. I’m a brand new person who just started watching the show eight months ago. I didn’t have to work really hard to get their respect because they’re respectful people. I did have to work to prove to them that my assets as a playwright could help them in this medium.
Gracie: There’s less ego involved in collaboration, so it’s a really different thing. I love designers and actors and directors. I love writing on Google Docs and live editing with actors in the room. That’s one of my favorite things to do with plays. It’s just a really economical way to improve on dialogue. I think when you have different people in the writing room, it’s [using] a different part of your brain. You’re negotiating, you’re selling something, and it’s also a performance. It’s not just writing.
When you say that it can seem like a performance, does that mean that, at times, you feel obligated to dress or act a certain way?
Geraldine: Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. My wardrobe has grown. The more successful I’ve become, the more things I get in my closet. Not because I like clothes but because you have to be different people at different times. That’s the only reason I buy clothes.
Gracie: That’s totally true.
Geraldine: My boss is the first female showrunner of The Walking Dead. She and I have talked about this; she dresses in a certain way because it commands a certain level of respect. I totally do that as well. There’re so many different facets to writing. If you’re selling something, you definitely want to bring your best self, and that often means wearing whatever you’ve decided makes you look the best. I definitely dress more femininely in certain settings. When I went out to LA last year, trying to get a job, I had makeup on. That’s how I learned how to do makeup; I got general meetings in LA. It’s an unspoken thing that this whole situation will go better if I am dressed in a certain way.
Gracie: I’m in the process of moving to LA right now. I’ve been going through my wardrobe, and selling stuff, and deciding what to keep. It’s funny, there are certain items of clothing where I was like, “I should keep this for this sci-fi thing I’m pitching,” and “I should save this for this docu-drama thing.” It’s a little bit like an actor auditioning. I feel like I have to set a certain tone.
Do you feel that there’s a double standard? Would a male writer in your situation have to put in the same amount of effort in terms of clothes?
Geraldine: If I were a guy staff writer, I’d wear fucking sneakers. If I were a man putting on a play in New York, I wouldn’t be all fem. No, men don’t have to do this. It’s just expected of women. I don’t fight it. I feel like as a person of color and as a queer person, I’ve always performed. That’s just a part of my existence, and my identity has always been a performance, but now there is a financial aspect to it, a career aspect to it, where a certain performance will turn into money, or it will turn into a career move. I don’t mind it. I actually think men have it too easy.
Gracie: Sometimes our image is used in ways to create a specific narrative.
Geraldine: I have Eurocentric hair in my headshots. I sometimes wear my hair in an afro. I sometimes wear it natural. The headshot that we use for anything that matters has Eurocentric hair. But I don’t want anyone to ever go into anything I wrote, or anything I have my name attached to, and find a black or queer element, and be like, “Oh no.” Even in my episode for this show about zombies, I wrote in a brand new black girl, and there’s a gay magazine in it. I was like, “I’m going to put my identity into that because that’s who I am.” I don’t think of myself as separate from those identities because so much of my life has been determined by one or both of those identities. I embrace that.
If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Geraldine: One of the reasons I have ambivalent feelings towards theatre is because the industry, and the people who do it, and the culture surrounding it, is predicated on scarcity. There are only so many plays being produced in New York. There are only so many slots in New York. One of the reasons I gravitated towards television is because everyone there accepts that this is a commodity and if we didn’t do it today, we’ll do it tomorrow, we’ll do it next year. Because of that, I find that television is a much more embracing medium. Theatre has this scarcity mentality that makes interpersonal relationships competitive and fraught with tension because you’re literally competing over resources, so why would we be happy for each other when you allegedly think that I took something from you and vice versa? I think the scarcity-mindedness makes me weary of relationships. I left New York with very few playwright friends because, to me, it’s always been a place where I don’t feel like people are trained to be happy for each other. We’re trained to compete and to tear each other down. I’ll give you one example: My play’s going up in New York, and the majority of the writers and some actors and producers from my TV show are coming out for this one night in September to see it. If I had some sort of equivalent television-wise, that would not happen in theatre. The problem with scarcity, with this mentality that resources are scarce and we need to fight over scraps is that it removes the celebration and community aspect. I also think that they should teach younger playwrights how to accept feedback and where to draw the line from “that’s a thing that someone’s saying about my play to help me grow” or “that’s just something that you let fall to the ground.” I feel like my biggest hurdle was realizing when and how to accept feedback. When you’re younger, you feel like you should take all the notes.
Gracie: When you get a good note, you go, “Aha!” and when you get a bad note, your heart
sinks. Whenever somebody’s like “this is like [Famous Playwright]!” I feel like that’s always this person showing off, you know what I mean?
Geraldine: I hate those. Those are not helpful. Comparing my work to something else is not helpful. Everybody’s first draft is derivative because you’re just misremembering things that you’ve seen. That’s how writing is. Everything is derivative at the first pass. That’s just how American writing works. We’re inundated with ideas and stories from the minute we’re born.
I know that, especially in the writers’ room, where you’re constantly trying to generate story, the easiest things to reach for are things we’ve already seen. In theatre, I can truly say things that are unique. In television, I have weeks to put together something, and in theatre, I have years. With years of preparation, I can say something different. I can say something no one else has said.
Gracie: Can we talk about money for a second? I kept trying to figure out what exactly playwrights get paid. How much does a playwright get paid for an off-Broadway production? How much does a playwright get paid for a publication? For an off-Broadway premiere, you get paid under $5000.
Geraldine: You could make that in a week as a staff writer.
Gracie: Publication: $2000. These are very small numbers, and they are so unbelievable. I know so many actors working off-Broadway, making $500 a week, who have kids, and have to have another job. It makes me really sad. People love it, and people do it, but the economics of that are just wrong. When I was 21, I thought that if you had a play at Lincoln Center, you got paid $100,000 and you were living large.
Geraldine: I think the fact that being a playwright is not a livable profession, the fact that every playwright who I know is established is either teaching or dabbling in television, speaks volumes to what this actual profession is, which is a side thing. Theatre is going to continue to suffer from having all these playwrights wake up, get reps, and move to LA to get an actual job that pays a living wage. I think plays are awesome. I still believe in the medium, but I don’t like to teach.
Gracie: Me neither. I taught writing for a summer and I was not good at it. It’s a real gift; God bless teachers, but it is not what God gave me. I think theatre is so good. Theatre is so transformative. I see some people who are getting their first productions this year and have been working for 20 years, turning out really quality work. How is this amazing person continuing to do this, continuing to push out work for plays that I read when I was a script reader five years ago, and that are just getting produced now? It’s a miracle that this person is still writing plays after 20 years of rejection.
What’s the impulse that leads you to keep going, to keep writing plays, despite all this?
Gracie: I think, at least for me, it’s finding people who are supportive. I have found very supportive people in unexpected places. There are a lot of people who are incredibly discouraging and say such mean shit, but finding people who were encouraging and really treasuring them and appreciating them and supporting them also is a really great thing about New York theatre. It’s just rare and special. Treat those people with kindness.
Geraldine: I, too, have found encouraging people. The Flea Theater has been very encouraging. They decided to do my play; now they’re doing an entire season of color brave, plays which is a different way of talking about race. Niegel’s been an incredible support and helped me develop this second experimental act. The Public Theater was an incredible resource. Their Emerging Writers Group was an incredible place to learn how to actually be a writer, and, in many ways, it trained me to be able to function in a writers’ room. The LAByrinth Theater was an incredible place that gave me the resources to change my play and work it.