Roundtable at Writers Guild of America East (2005)

Co-sponsored by WGA East, SAG-New York, and NTCP

Friday – May 23, 2005

5:00 – 7:40 pm
New York, NY


Richard Backus, WGA East

Angela Bullock, SAG

Return to: National Diversity Forum Main Page

David Steven Cohen, WGA East

Peter Jay Fernandez, SAG

Mike Hodge, SAG

Sharon Jensen, NTCP

Christine Toy Johnson, SAG

Scott Kardel, WGA East

Jack Landron, SAG

Eddie Pomerantz, WGA East

Susan Rice, WGA East

Bob Schneider, WGA East

Initial welcome by Scott and Sharon.

The following is an edited summary report of the roundtable discussion.  Because it was off-the-record, remarks are not attributed to any specific individual.

  • “If we create roles that are culturally- and/ or disability-specific, then we have to write them.  I’m in favor of this, because if, as a writer, one takes the responsibility, it’s incumbent upon her/him to know enough about the culture or disability to write it well.”
  • “On the other hand, part of the reason that the television program ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is so successful is because it’s diverse, but non-specific culturally.”

“The primary producer/ writer also happens to be Black.”

“In ‘Grey’s’ there is a given understanding that we, of many different cultural identifications, are participating in all levels of society.”

  • “As writers, we need to talk with the Guild and have the Guild make a statement:  Diversity animates work artistically, gives it added dimension: we need to make this clear and hold it up as a reason to think ‘out of the box’.  It’s not about being ‘p.c.’; rather, it’s about expanding the creative impulse and enriching the script.”
  • “As an actor of color, I am most often submitted for a supporting role.”
  • “We need to shift language in casting breakdowns to urge agents to submit actors of all ethnicities for major roles and for casting directors to consider us for the major roles, not just the small supporting roles.  It’s also the only way we will effectively break down stereotypes.”
  • “The dominant culture knows far less about those of us who are considered ‘minority’ than we know about both our specific culture and the dominant culture
  • “At the same time, as a writer, I feel that things are evolving (for the better), change is happening:  we’re seeing more diversity in many arenas.”
  • “Assumptions are made that are not always accurate or helpful, and understanding varies so much.  For example, I pitched a story about a man who was 1/32 Black.  The white producers weren’t interested because they said people weren’t like that anymore.  But, a Black producer and director liked it very much.”
  • “Coming to this meeting, I had a wonderful experience.  I got in a cab.  The driver was Asian.  And when he spoke, it turned out he was from Trinidad.  Even though I am more than one cultural identification myself, it completely surprised me.  Just as when I encountered a Chinese man who happened to be Cuban and was the manager of a Cuban restaurant.”
  • “Cultures are seen as monolithic and stereotypical, and too often, this is carried through in the writing of roles that are culturally-specific.”

This point is seconded.  “For example, in the Latino community, there is great diversity and variation.  However, typically those sought for ‘Latino’ roles are either white-skinned Hispanic or black-haired Mexican.”

  • “I’m a comedy writer – white and Jewish.  And yet, some years ago, I wrote for a television show that was Black.  I found I could do it.  It was a wonderful experience.  I think a lot of it is forcing the issue and getting yourself out there.”
  • “The ‘nicheing’ of the marketplace has had an impact:  as an actor, I’m ‘niched out’.  We understand that it’s business-driven, but the majority culture doesn’t know about other cultures nearly as well, and, therefore, portrayals (of non-Caucasians) tend to be fewer and more limited.”
  • “As an actor (of color), I think the writer’s willingness to do research and curiosity are key.  I’m excited by the change I see in television, especially in cable.  On the network ‘procedural’ shows, I tend to play a lawyer or social worker.  But I pursue work in cable more, because there are more opportunities and it seems more creative.”
  • “With respect to Asian American portrayals, there is rarely a story that doesn’t involve a foreigner.”
  • “A disadvantage in daytime television is a lack of time and the fact that most of the writers are white.”
  • “I am interested in the question of assimilation vs. niche:  do each of us just end up watching ‘our own’?  Is it, as Virginia Woolf says, historical inevitability?  The reality is that multi-ethnicity is here, now, not in the future.  Like the earlier examples given, I just had a Russian waiter serve me in a Mexican restaurant.”
  • “The ‘Julius Caesar’ on Broadway is the top ticket and is playing to sold-out, full houses every night.  There are huge Black and Latino audiences.  The audience is primarily coming to see Denzel, and, at the same time, they’re being introduced to Shakespeare.”
  • “As a writer, when I send a script to directors and agents, I put in a cover letter that indicates the way I see my movie and how I see it being cast, so that when the script is read, the reader can see how I envisioned it.  At the same time, I don’t indicate specific characters culturally in the script; I leave it open.”
  • “The dominant culture in television and film in Los Angeles has been a club.  But we’re bumping head-on into a monolithic culture run by businessmen and lawyers.”
  • “The camera diminishes by what is not seen.  Popular culture(s) drives and evens the playing field and not in a good way.  It’s a problem when we try to bring truth, beauty and humanity to the screen.”
  • “But we need to start providing stories that writers typically don’t have access to.”
  • Two issues are identified:  mentoring younger writers and gaining access to new stories.
  • The point is made that there are two separate credits:  a “story by” credit and a “screenplay” credit.  If a screenplay is produced under a signatory, then the Writers Guild controls the credits.  If there’s a dispute, it goes before a panel of arbitrators, and it’s settled based on the nature of contribution, etc.
  • “As writers, we need creative partnerships.  We always need stories to tell and we get tired of telling our own.”
  • “As a writer, I’m most interested in what I don’t know and stories that I normally don’t have access to.  Connecting people with stories with writers would be a real service.”
  • “The first step in change is always awareness:  we need to say to our fellow writers in the most primitive (i.e., clear, basic) way to think outside of the box and to indicate if a character is of a specific origin and write to that.”
  • “Hollywood seems more product-driven and the goal seems to be to get more product out to middle-America.  New York seems to have more diverse material.  Perhaps we could find ways to partner actors and writers.  At the same time, mentoring writers of color and writers with disability is crucial.  For a niche market, New York seems more fertile.”
  • A writer asks, “How would we do it?  I would offer to mentor a writer.”
  • To which, Scott responds for the Guild, “We get a lot of calls – perhaps we can develop a mentoring program.”
  • Eddie responds that the program he, Jamal Joseph and Richard Wesley are running is a mentoring program, and that with resources, it could be expanded.  They certainly need more mentors.  The key is always, not simply what’s the story, but what is it about the story that you want to tell, where’s the excitement, the kernel?

This roundtable was co-sponsored by the Writers Guild of America East, Screen Actors Guild-New York and the Non-Traditional Casting Project.  It was made possible by a grant from the Screen Actors Guild-Producers Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund.