Shoshana Rosenbaum is a writer/director and educator based in Washington, D.C. Her award-winning short film THE GOBLIN BABY has screened at festivals around the U.S. and internationally. She was an invited filmmaker at Stranger With My Face International Film Festival’s inaugural 2015 Attic Lab with her supernatural thriller script THE GOBLIN CHILD. Her Goonies-for-girls script THE CREEPY HOUSE was a selected project at the 2016 Stowe Story Labs. Her screenplays have been finalists in the Austin Film Festival Pitch Competition, Nashville Film Festival, Hollyshorts Film Festival, DC Shorts Film Festival, and Asian Pacific American Film Festival. Follow Shoshana on her website, Facebook and Twitter: @shoshanarosenba
When I first heard about Stowe Story Labs, I liked what I saw on the website: a community of screenwriters and filmmakers learning together in a beautiful place. Initially, I was put off by the cost ($1,250 for the fall lab, although about a quarter of all attendees are awarded fellowships through organizations like PAGE, ISA, and Tangerine Entertainment.) Last year, I started hearing more about Stowe from the women in my screenwriting group (the Story Broads), so I gave it another look. I submitted a feature screenplay and was selected for the 2016 Fall Narrative Lab.
The project I brought to the Lab was one I’d pitched in the finals of the Austin Film Festival Pitch Competition and developed briefly with a production company, but now it felt stalled. Would four days in Stowe help?
Who Goes to Stowe?
Stowe is as picturesque as quaint New England towns get: a village of 19th century buildings framed by beautiful mountains. The Helen Day Art Center, where the Lab met, felt right: warm, a little messy, authentic.
The Fall Lab was overwhelming female – 32 of the 44 writers were women. (The mentors/instructors, on the other hand, were mainly male – five out of seven – although in other years it has been more balanced.) I asked Stowe Story Labs founder David Rocchio if they were selecting for women. He said no – in fact applications were blind. They were looking for people who could collaborate: give as well as receive feedback, listen as well as talk. In addition, the aim was to bring together an interesting mix of writers with a variety of experiences. Loglines, synopses, and scripts – scored by PAGE International Screenwriting Awards readers – were also considered.
There wasn’t a lot of racial diversity (something I hope the organizers examine in future years) but there was a wide age range, from college students to people in their 60s. There were eight international attendees (five from Canada, and one each from the U.K., Portugal, and Australia.) Slightly over half were from in and around big cities; the rest were from U.S. locales as far flung as Montana, Missouri, and Alabama.
A feeling of generosity and civility pervaded my Stowe experience. A fellow participant volunteered to pick me up from the airport. Meals were brought in. Drinks were free at the nightly cocktail hour. Volunteers made sure there was always coffee brewing. Mentors were open, friendly, and happy to chat outside of sessions. The group trouped en masse to the town cinema for nightly screenings of films by alumni, and hung out at the bar afterwards. Those with cars made sure those without didn’t have to walk back to their lodgings through rural darkness.
Pitching vs. Talking About Your Project
Our first session – led by program director David Pope – was called Talking about Story. We were about to spend the next four days doing a lot of that. David encouraged us not to think of it as pitching (which implies throwing something at somebody) but rather as learning how to better have conversations about our projects.
Did I, 2015 Austin Film Festival Pitch Competition Finalist, need this?
Absolutely. The 90-second performance pitch of AFF this was not. This was real world practice in talking about your story – bringing out the broad strokes of plot, character, and theme – in different ways, for different people. But more on that in a minute.
In my day job, I run a professional development program for teachers. I’ve spent years – as a middle school teacher, and now as a teacher-educator – thinking about how people learn. Teaching isn’t telling, but most people who aren’t K-12 teachers (and some who are) don’t know that. To learn, we need to participate – even in small ways – in order to engage our brains. Every little act of participation gets us to lean forward and invest more of ourselves in an experience – and therefore get more out of it.
Right away, David Pope made us participate. He asked us to write down three words that described the kind of movies we wanted to make. Not genre terms, not plot points, but three words we’d like people to say to each other as they left the theater after seeing one of our movies.
Then he made us go around the room and say the words, out loud. To a group of over 50 writers and mentors we hadn’t met yet. He made the mentors – writers, directors, producers, development executives – say their words, too.
It was scary. It was a leap. (My words were: atmospheric; engaging; heartfelt. I hesitated on that last one because I was worried it was cheesy, but I said it anyway.) And here’s the thing: everyone saying their words transformed the room. We’d taken a risk, collectively, and we were a tiny bit closer because of it. We were in this together.
Mentor Groups & Peer Groups
Later that morning we had our first mentor meeting. In my mentor group were three women I’d be with throughout the lab: a screenwriter/social worker from Maine; a screenwriter/producer from New York City; and a screenwriter/journalist from the D.C. area. Their projects were on a range of topics: a female U.S. Senator who stood up to McCarthy; a mother and daughter in the Syrian refugee crisis; a middle-aged sex farce. One had a well-known director attached already. One was a short, maybe to become a feature.
Our group of four sat in a circle with our first mentor and another group of four. The format was simple: we each had 10 minutes to talk about our projects. The first three minutes were the writer’s; the remaining seven were a conversation between the writer and the mentor. Sometimes (especially as days went on, and we got to know each other’s projects better) other participants chimed in. There were five mentor meetings over the four days, each lasting around two hours. Each time our group of four met with a different mentor and another mentor group.
I had my elevator pitch down – in fact I’d had it since before I’d written the script: Goonies for girls. That often made the listener’s eyes light up, but whatever I said next wasn’t super clear. Digging into a feature script to find the broad strokes sometimes feels like wandering through a forest and trying to pick out the biggest trees. It seems like it should be easy, but it quickly gets confusing and hard.
All the mentors excelled at active listening. They listened to story after story and were able to follow the often tangled threads. Their comments were insightful. My first mentor said he’d lost track of my protagonist’s needs and wants. Some mentors encouraged group discussion (“What do you guys think?”); others kept the conversation mainly between the mentor and the writer. Different mentors latched on to different aspects of our stories. Their comments and questions reflected whatever resonated for them particularly.
Sometimes when you’re pitching, the listener doesn’t get it. You might be flailing and failing to articulate the authentic essence of your story, and the listener steps in to try to help. Or you are articulating the concept well, but it fails to land, because there’s nothing in it that this particular listener can connect with. In either case, the listener sees an opening (or a vacuum), and she tries to fill it. You can (and probably should) choose to take this as a compliment – she’s interested enough to engage with your concept, after all – but it doesn’t always feel complimentary.
In one of my first mentor meetings, I was struggling. But the mentor had an idea, and he ran with it. I listened respectfully as he got more and more enthused about his idea – which had no place in my script, and took one of the characters in a completely different direction. But of course, he didn’t know that. He hadn’t read my script, and in the real world, he wouldn’t, unless I did a good enough job convincing him it was worth reading.
That particular mentor meeting didn’t feel good. In fact, it made me angry. But it was a gift. Being angry about it spurred me to do a better job. If I left gaping holes in my pitch, someone was going to jump in and fill them. The mentor showed me that I wasn’t communicating who my characters were and what kind of journeys they were on. I needed to buckle down and figure out how to tell my story more strongly.
You get a lot of feedback at the Lab, and it’s a challenge to find the time to incorporate it into your pitch before the next mentor meeting. The schedule is chock-full; it doesn’t leave time for introspection or individual work. The first morning, David Rocchio told us he understood that this experience might feel like a wave crashing – and that was by design. The approach is called action learning: you learn by using content immediately, and reflect on it later.
Many of us writers are more on the introverted side, and being with a group of people from 10 a.m. until the wee hours every day – talking, talking, talking – is fun, but hard. The more tired you get, the more burnout lingers around the edges of everything. You start to feel vulnerable. You might start to shut down a little. But the writers around you are feeling the same way, and the experience is structured so that you begin to lean on each other. That’s when you start to bond.
Within our mentor group, as time went on, we piped up more for each other: “I really like how you punched up that part this time” or “Don’t forget about that great thing you said last time.” We started getting ideas for each other – opening images, turns of phrase to describe characters, ways of driving home the themes. We stole moments in between meetings to share these with each other. Interaction by interaction, relationships were being built.
In addition to our mentor groups, we met each afternoon in peer groups. We had a different assignment each day: give a one-minute pitch; talk about the themes in your script; explain why you’re telling this story. The final day was the best: write loglines for each other. At this point we knew each other’s stories; we’d helped each other struggle through how best to talk about them. It was surprisingly fun to write each other’s loglines. Something that’s usually so hard – reducing 100 pages to one evocative sentence – turns out to be a joy when you have a little distance from the work. The loglines we got from each other were rich with words and ideas we could use.
In addition to the mentor and peer meetings, mentors gave sessions on their areas of expertise: structure, adaptation, development, crowdfunding, foundation funding, finance and distribution. In addition, there was a panel on episodic content, and “in conversation” sessions with a working screenwriter and a writer/director. One participant – a writer/director whose movies had screened at Sundance – also gave a short talk about her experiences with festivals.
And then it was, suddenly, over. We gathered on the porch for a farewell photo. It seemed like we’d been together forever. It felt like we were parting too soon.
Was it worth it? Stowe Story Labs is expensive, when compared to submitting to a contest or festival, or attending a conference. But Stowe is a different experience (and similarly priced to similar experiences, like Cinestory’s retreat.) The fall lab is a small, intensive program that builds both your capacity as a writer and your relationships with peers and mentors. Perhaps it falls somewhere on the spectrum between attending the Austin Film Festival Writers’ Conference and getting an MFA in screenwriting. For me, it was invigorating to spend four days in a beautiful place, focusing on my craft, not responsible for anyone’s needs but my own (The latter is a big deal when you have three young kids.)
As for the cost, David Rocchio told me he’d like to open the lab up to a wider pool of talented writers by finding more fellowship sponsors. In addition, Stowe Story Labs is a nonprofit organization, and is planning a scholarship fundraising campaign.
I learned and grew in Stowe. I met peers and mentors with whom I’ll keep in touch. As David Rocchio said: “If we’ve done our job, your time in Stowe is not the end of your participation.” Through mentor, peer and staff contacts, the aim is to connect you with “kindred spirits to collaborate, commiserate and create with for a lifetime of work.”
I’m glad I attended Stowe Story Labs. Now it’s up to me to make the most of the investment I made.
Follow Stowe Story Labs on Twitter: @StoweStoryLabs
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