Roundtable at Writers Guild of America East (Jan. 2005)

Roundtable at Writers Guild of America East

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

January 21, 2005

2:30-5:00 pm
New York, NY


Richard Backus, WGA East

Don Colson, WGA East

Mike Hodge, SAG

Sharon Jensen, NTCP

Scott Kardel, WGA East

Eddie Pomerantz, WGA East

Susan Rice, WGA East

Don Richards, SAG

Richard Wesley, WGA East

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.

Today’s roundtable specifically is intended to explore issues facing writers.  To begin, we ask the following questions: “How is diversity affecting your work?  Do you find you are consciously or unconsciously writing to reflect our changing world?  Or, is your work unaffected?  How do you find yourself reacting to the demands of diversity?”

  • “It’s not a bad idea to remind people, i.e., decision-makers, that there are many roles that can be played in a number of ways (with respect to culture and disability, for example.).”
  • “I take another point of view and think you should write it in – make a character culturally-specific:  it’ll help to raise awareness.”
  • “Ageism is also an issue.”
  • “While The Cosby Show was on, it was cast non-traditionally for seven years.  It demonstrated what was possible.  Now, there seems to be a retrenchment.”
  • “Since Cosby, shows such as The Shield and 24 are good examples of diversity and non-traditional casting.”
  • “A good example in film of non-traditional casting is Sandra Oh’s character in Sideways and the fact that she has a black child.  It’s not commented on in the script; it just is and it works.”
  • “In talking about movies and scripts, there are two crucial stages – the writing of the script and then, the casting of it.  I had the experience of writing an independent feature that was New York-based.  Originally, I had in mind a white, Jewish family as the central characters.  But because I had given no last name to the key characters, I could be flexible.  I ended up making the family Latino.  It worked and didn’t involve changing anything.

Then, in a new script I’ve written, I haven’t specified cultural identifications for the characters.  For           financing purposes, it can be an advantage to leave this open.  However, in my mind, I’ve envisioned      the characters in very specific ways culturally.”

  • “The Writers Guild could make writers aware that roles can be written as culturally-specific or disability-specific on the one hand and/or also that they can be cast colorblind, on the other hand.  The Guild can remind writers to put this information up front in scripts and to tell directors and casting directors that, ‘remember, many parts here can be cast in a number of ways’.”
  • The question is asked, “how much do these issues (of diversity and inclusion) come up for writers?” The response:   “We write what we know, whatever that is…While obviously there is no hard and fast practice, typically this means that whites tend to write about whites and so on…        ”
  • The point is raised that some recent television programs have been quite “white” in their portrayal of society, shows such as Friends and Seinfeld. One individual commented that it was primarily filmed on backlots, except for cutaways.
  • Then the point is made that in some of the larger educational institutions that have dramatic writing programs, the student body is not only primarily white, but a narrow band of Caucasian  — those who can afford a more expensive education, who score very high on SAT’s, who have a high GPA, but whose language and experience may be quite narrow.
  • “I go to poetry jams.  It’s a great mix of the population – I hope that’s the future.”
  • “Networks are now beginning to realize the financial potential of the Latino demographic.  A number of studios and networks are setting up cultural programs.”
  • “It would be useful for writers to know about NTCP and to remind writers to keep diversity in mind when they describe characters.  For example, as a place to start it is especially easy to do this in describing characters in minor parts, to be very specific and inclusive, i.e., ‘Gerald and his henchmen…’  This may foster an awareness which might lead a writer to make these minor characters more three-dimensional, and to build from there.”
  • “In an ideal world, I want two things:
  1. more non-traditional casting – such as the example of Sandra Oh in Sideways
  2. writers to be encouraged to create more three-dimensional, culturally-specific work – above all, avoid stereotypes”

  • “Our times are changing:  now white audiences will watch black characters where before this was not true.”
  • “In daytime television, day players are frequently cast non-traditionally, but not as lead characters.  I can think of one actor who, because he is a dark-skinned black, will not be given a love story by the powers-that-be.”
  • “We need to feed the pipeline.  For example, younger potential writers might start out in office positions to make a living, get to learn the daytime stories and develop into writers over time.  In daytime, it all happens so fast – four days might include 40 characters, all in very different voices.  How can someone jump into that?”
  • “There may need to be top-down awareness from network and studio executives, but there also needs to be awareness from the bottom-up.  If there were a new way of describing things, then perhaps one would owe the character something and one would think more about the character s/he was developing.”
  • “The Guild could send out an NTCP brochure and a reminder because most of us don’t think about this.  The incentives are that it could help (expand) the work, help the individual writer and it may open up opportunities for the writer and the project.”
  • “Information could be shared in the Guild’s newsletter.”
  • “I did a script some time ago that included a character of a different cultural identification from mine.  I decided to ask a young writer of that specific cultural identification to write that part of the script.  I mentored her.  And now she’s a (regularly contributing) writer on one of the networks.”
  • “Writing involves writing about what you don’t know you know.  It requires a deep connection to authenticity that does not have to be literal and often isn’t.  A script I’m working on now is adapted from a story from the 30’s that comes from a very specific part of the country that I’ve never been to.  However, the story speaks to me and to my imaginative life.  To me, the story is like Moliere and I’m able to tap into and respond to the farce of it.”
  • “Although occasionally a writer has an arrogant perception of what ‘authenticity’ is.”
  • “One daytime program I can think of tells major Latino stories:  it used to be thought of as ‘the black soap’ of the 60’s and 70’s.  The rule of thumb on daytime is that if a character is a major character, he or she will have a major romance, and then the question is with whom will that person be paired?  Non-traditional casting is fairly frequent, with respect to characters who are not the leading characters.  If a character is a leading character, however, it means the character has been developed and has gotten the network’s okay for him or her to have a long-term relationship.  Very occasionally, these relationships are interracial — it happens, but it is not routine.”

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.