Writers Groups: The Coronet Writers Lab

The Coronet Writers Lab is as notable for its intimacy and focused attention as it is for the successes of its members. As an actor, produced playwright and screenwriter, and educator, moderator T. Jay O’Brien could simply focus on building his own resume. Fortunately, his passion for bolstering new talent, complemented by the commitment of a tight-knit group of Lab members, finds them all on La Brea most Monday nights.

Name and Location of Writers Group:
The Coronet Writers Lab. We currently meet at The Lost Studio 130 S. La Brea in Los Angeles, Monday nights at 7:00 PM.

URL:
coronetwriterslab.com

Membership:
It fluctuates, but we currently have 15 writers. What makes us different than many writers groups is we are made up of writers and actors. We have close to 30 actors and actresses on our roster who show up for the Monday night Lab sessions. There is a monthly membership fee, but new writers are encouraged to audit a Lab session for free before deciding if our group is right for them.

Brief History:
The Lab started in April 1997 at the Coronet Theatre in L.A. It was an offshoot arm of the Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble (Dan Lauria, Artistic Director) that was in residence at the theater at the time. The Lab was located at the Coronet Theatre for 10 years. Following the sale of the theater, the Lab relocated to the Egyptian Arena Theatre in Hollywood, where it ran until April 2008. The Lab went on hiatus until September 2009, when it resumed operating at its current location.

Mission of the Group:
The Coronet Writers Lab is a group of creative and engaged writers and actors, working together to help writers make their scripts the absolute best they can be.

What successes have writers seen?:
Since the Lab began, over 30 plays have been produced at theaters across the country, including Pasadena Playhouse, Berkshire Theatre Fest, and Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. Over a dozen screenplays have been optioned by producers and production companies; four films have been produced; two TV movies shot and broadcast. One alum is getting high-profile assignments and selling feature pitches to major studios. Another alum is getting attention as a terrific staff writer on Breaking Bad. The Lab is about getting your work tight, superlative, and then out in the market place. There is an extremely high caliber of work that comes from the Lab, reflected by the achievements of our writers. On an individual basis, every writer has reported seeing his or her writing become more focused and sharper.

How do you “workshop” a script?:
Each Lab session, three writers bring in 30 minutes’ worth of material. They may cold cast just before the reading or they can get the pages to the actors during the week, giving the actors the chance to read and be familiar with the characters. When it is one writer’s turn, he/she gives a thumbnail description of where we are in the story and then the reading begins. Following the reading, the moderator brings the writer onstage and begins an extensive period of critiquing and constructive criticism of the material. Comments and observations from the membership are then offered. Finally, if there are specific questions the writer has about material or observations, he/she can ask them then.

I believe another characteristic which makes our Lab special is the nature and quality of the feedback a writer receives about his/her material. Feedback is grounded, cogent, and above all, positive. No one is looking to rip anyone, or belittle material. All are in the same boat, striving to ultimately make a living by writing. To that end, the commentary is truly focused and constructive. Plot faults or character discrepancies won’t stand; writers will be called on them. And the workshopping is all done with a large measure of humor throughout. Bottom line, we take the process seriously, but not ourselves. Ultimately, it is left to the writer to decide which notes to ignore or implement in the rewrite of the material.

What other perks does membership provide?:
Once a writer has worked his/her script all the way through, then the writer has earned the right to a full-length reading. So, instead of three writers on a given night, there is only one: the writer hearing his/her script read all the way through, beginning to end. For the full-length read, the writer may cast outside actors. Usually there are a couple rehearsals prior to the reading. Also, the writer may invite outside friends, agents, managers, producers, or whomever they would like to the reading. It’s a festive atmosphere; the writer has worked hard and earned the read, so he should enjoy the reading and the night (before the rewriting begins).

Periodically, guest speakers are brought in to the Lab. We have been fortunate to have had some great people come in and share their time, experience, and insights with us. Writers, directors, agents, and producers have sat and shared stories and anecdotes and offered tips based on their experiences in the business. (Jim Taylor (Sideways) and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) are just a couple of note.) Often plays that are developed in the Lab have ended up in production, with the actors who helped develop the roles playing those roles onstage. Kind of a win-win situation for both writer and actor.

Is collaboration essential to the process?:
One has to be solitary to write. You need the chance to sit quietly and channel the voices in your head as the lines, scenes, and acts spill out on to the empty page. But when the pages are full, how can you objectively evaluate them? It’s very difficult to truly be open and really objective about one’s own new work. Here is where the Lab proves incredibly beneficial. You get an immediate response from an audience. During the reading, are audience members engaged or coughing, shifting in chairs, distracted; are they laughing at the lines I thought hilarious? Do the characters seem real, dimensional, motivated, and credible like I thought when I was writing them? These immediate, unbiased, and audible reactions the writer can gauge for himself. Then, the moderator brings the writer onstage and the constructive criticism begins. So, short of having a writing partner to instantly bounce things off of, the Lab works as a supporting collaborator for a writer all the way through the writing of his/her script. And through the rewrites as well.

What are your goals for the Lab?:
I joke with the members that my goal is to ultimately walk in to an empty room – empty because every writer has gotten work and is either on set doing scene rewrites, or having drinks with the producer who just bought their pitch, or on staff in the writers room, banging head on desk, or hired by a production company, or receiving funding to direct his own feature, or sitting in a theater, listening to rehearsals of her new play. There definitely is a commercial bent to the Lab. It is not for folks who simply wish to write a script and stick it in a drawer. We focus on full-length works because those are what an agent wants to see. I want every writer to get representation and sell! You must generate material and keep generating it at a consistently high level, which is precisely what the Lab helps and enables a writer to do. The goal of the Lab is to assist every writer to achieve professional success in his or her career. We are proud of the achievements of the writers past and present, and know there are some huge success stories waiting to be told in the near future!

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