She Said, She Said: Denise Rogers, Cait Johnston and Sarah Elisabeth Brown

While NYWIFT is famous for its panels, workshops, funding for filmmakers, advocacy for equality and star-studded galas like Muse and Designing Women, perhaps its best-kept secret is its member-driven affinity groups. Members with shared interests can connect through NYWIFT and organize their own informal meetings to network, support and learn from one another. Or, as the members of the New Works Lab will tell you…create fantastic new projects.

Open to writers, directors and actors, The New Works Lab, created and produced by member Denise Rogers, gives the writers positive critiques for their screenplays or plays. Scenes are staged by directors and read by actors during monthly workshop meetings.

In September, the Lab presented selections from two of this year’s stand-out pieces at a showcase for industry professionals, hosted by NYWIFT partner Adorama at the Adorama Live Theatre at CBS Radio.

Lab producer Denise Rogers sat down with creators of the two projects, Cait Johnston and Sarah Elisabeth Brown, to talk all things New Works Lab.

 

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(From Left:) Denise Rogers, Cait Johnston and Sarah Elisabeth Brown

CJ: So what made you start the NYWIFT New Works Lab, Denise?

DR: My main reason for doing this is helping women move forward with their projects. If it’s something that I can be a part of, great, but if I can help you get from point A to point Z—meaning getting it produced or getting an agent or whatever it entails—I would love that! I think it’s about a collaborative effort.

SEB: I think sometimes for women it’s hard to find those spaces and those resources. It’s just so wonderful when women can support women.

CJ: That’s why I joined NYWIFT, because I was excited about women helping other women, and having more females in this industry that’s been largely male-driven for a really long time.

SEB: [to Cait] I’m interested to hear the story of the development of Ask For Jane, because that was really using the NYWIFT resources.

Based on real events, Ask For Jane tells the story of a group of young college women who developed an underground abortion network that helped over 10,000 women get illegal abortions in Chicago between 1968 and 1973.

CJ: Yeah! Ask For Jane came about because I went to a NYWIFT screening of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry [organized by NYWIFT board member Margarita Cortes]. It was a whole documentary about feminism and women’s lib, and there was maybe a 2-minute segment where they talked about this group called the Jane Collective, and I latched onto it. I went home and couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I started doing a lot of research online. I’m primarily an actor, but I wrote out a whole treatment that night. I approached Rachel Carey who I know from The Shelter (which is a theatre company we’re both part of); she’s a brilliant writer, and I asked her if she would write the script… and she was super excited! And she wrote the whole thing, and now she’s a NYWIFT member—

DR: Yay!

CJ: And we brought it to the New Works Lab. It was the last day that we could be considered for the showcase, and Denise chose it on the spot, which was so exciting. It’s an immense story.

SEB: We’re all very excited about it. It just was something that you instantly felt like, yes, we have to make this.

CJ: Thank you so much! So we were gearing up for the showcase, and I went on the NYWIFT member directory online, and I looked at all the producers and people who have experience fundraising and who might want to be involved with the project. The most exciting woman that I found was Caren Spruch, who’s the head of Arts & Entertainment for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, produces films about women’s reproductive health and rights, and sits on the NYWIFT Advisory Board. So she came, we chatted at the reception, and then we met for coffee a little later, and we are going to meet again in November. She’s a lovely woman and I’m so excited to have met her through this, because she’s fantastic. I’m an activist with Planned Parenthood and have been for a while, so it was really cool to meet this higher-up at Planned Parenthood.

DR: That is so cool! I was wondering what had happened with your script. So you’re meeting with her again in November.

CJ: We are. And the reason for that is: Rachel and I reworked the screenplay into this beautiful 10-episode mini-series, and we’re going to the New York Television Festival later this month as a finalist with Participant Media!

DR: Oh my God!

SEB: That’s awesome!

CJ: Thank you so much!

SEB: Well, you are moving very quickly.

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The cast of Ask for Jane at the New Works Lab showcase at the Adorama Live Theater at CBS Radio in September (photo by Katie Chambers)

DR: [to Sarah] So what’s going on with your piece, Pizza Slut?

Pizza Slut: When a pizza junkie falls in love with a raw food vegan she defies her traditional “chubby best friend” role and discovers just how far she’s willing to go for love.

SEB: I think for me, the lab was really valuable to go through and actually to have a rehearsal process and a performance date. It clarified the writing for me. You know, Cait is coming at this as a producer; for me, I was focused on developing the writing.

CJ: Who’s a producer?

SEB: You.

CJ: Oh, me!

DR: [laughs]

SEB: I mean you’re an actor, but you’re pushing the project. The main thing for me about the lab was developing a sense of style and voice with the work. I think it became clear what the tone of the piece is. I was trying to write a romantic comedy, but it’s pretty clear now that it’s a comedy that’s romantic, like Bridesmaids or Trainwreck –it’s still the romantic comedy formula, but there’s this overblown tone to it that’s very broadly comedic that I want to maintain.

CJ: I totally see that.

SEB: And it also became clear that it could be a play too, that’s another discovery that we had. I’m going to be having a full reading on November 13th at Workshop Theater, which is another company that I’m a part of that develops new plays. It’ll be a reading with the same cast, and a talk back.

CJ: They were such a good cast.

SEB: They were hilarious. They were so fun. [The] lab itself was very, very encouraging and fun. I feel like as an artist you need to go where you’re loved. Instead of trying to bang on the door all the time to things that you don’t have access to, go to places where you can access relationships that are nurturing. I mean, this is a life. This is not just about “making it.” We want to build a community; let opportunities come naturally out of that, rather than trying to knock on some unattainable door all the time.

DR: I just want to enjoy the journey, and bring other people along to enjoy it with me.

SEB: Well you’re doing a good job of that!

CJ: Agreed.

SEB: You’re creating a wonderful space for that.

DR: I just want this to be a really loving and creative area for women.

CJ: I feel like as artists, one of the most important things in success is having a community. You need to find your tribe and people that you can rely on, who are all working together to create something beautiful, and supporting each other. And I don’t think you can succeed without that.

SEB: We already have this safe environment… that’s the hard thing to find. Once you have safety, then you can play.

 

The reading of Pizza Slut on November 13th at 6 PM at Workshop Theater is open to the public. See details here.

The New Works Lab is one of several affinity groups and committees that are open exclusively to NYWIFT members. Not a member yet? Now through December 1st, you can get 50% off the initiation fee when you join. Apply today!

 

Additional reporting by Katie Chambers.

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