I arrived early. Way early. So early that for the first time I actually found a parking spot on the street when I did my “lap before committing to the parking deck” and then sat in my car listening to the radio and touching up my makeup.
I was nervous. Really nervous. Like the kind of nervous that I used to get before I had to speak to a group of 200 actors for three hours straight. Before I knew how to do that on auto-pilot. Back when that was new.
This was new.
Back in July, Chairman posted a notice about the Warner Bros. Comedy Writers Workshop at a MySpace group we’re both a part of. I was in the middle of “showcase hell week” when I read it, but somehow it sparked off something. Some desire I didn’t *really* think I had.
Maybe I want to write a spec script. Maybe the joy I got out of having my showcase scene performed was something deeper. Something worth exploring.
I slept on it.
The next day, after the first night of the showcase run, Rockstar Intern Julie and I came back home and decompressed (while Keith stayed behind and cleaned up the theatre). I told her about this wild idea I was having trouble putting aside in my mind. She sat up in a most alert-Julie fashion. I’ll never forget her sitting on “her spot” on the floor, me on “my spot” on the sofa, and that look in her eyes that said, “Oh, God, Bonnie, DO IT.”
It would be days before I would mention this idea to anyone else. In fact, I spent an hour trolling through the list of shows in production at CastingAbout.com to write down titles of shows I could potentially spec. I figured, anything I’d seen more than a half-dozen episodes of was fair game. I had no idea for a story. I had no real attachment to any particular show. I just knew I wanted this… and I had three weeks to get it done.
As I created one column for sitcoms and another for dramatic episodics, I felt no real surge of energy over any item on the list until I wrote the words “My Boys“. It was at that point that I knew, I needn’t finish the list. That would be the show I would spec. I’d seen nearly every episode of its first season and, wouldn’t you know it, TBS was running a marathon of its first season on July 29th to get us geared up for its second season, starting July 30th. Perfect. Armed with the TiVo and a yellow legal pad, I began.
And by day, I would watch the episodes of My Boys while writing a meticulously-detailed show bible. I created charts. I had notecards for each main character with all manner of adjectives scribbled in the corners. A print-out of the cast photo was now posted on the wall of my work area. I transcribed the pilot to be sure I got the show format down. I outlined subsequent episodes to catch transitions from early format to “the show standard.”
Cold open. Voiceover. Looooong act one. Voiceover. Short act two. Tag. Voiceover.
There were no script samples available. I looked everywhere. None. Closest I could tell, we were looking at a Sex and the City-style or Arrested Development-style script. Go with the single-camera, no laugh track, voiceover brand of sitcom that came before it, I figured. You’ll be close enough to right. And everything I’d read said that the most important elements were gonna be:
1. You get the show. Its voice. Its tone. Its characters.
2. Your script is clean. Perfect spelling, punctuation, formatting.
3. Your dialogue is funny. Fast, fast, and funny.
Check. Check. And holy-hell check.
I was ready. Four days ahead of the deadline for submissions and I was now ready to start writing my spec script. Setting: A delicious, delightful dinner out with Keith during which I told him about how intrigued one of our showcase cast members had been about my story of how the showcase scene I wrote stemmed from a really horrific set-up I’d experienced when I lived in LA in the early ’90s.
As Keith and I talked about the conversation I had had with the showcaser a couple of weeks earlier, I said, “I think this is where the show needs to go. I think this is the A-story. But what the hell is my B-story? And C-story?” And just then we experienced the Middle-Aged Balding Entitled A-Hole at El Cholo. Suddenly, the B-story was born. And it was so meaty I no longer needed a C-story. It was time to write. The gears were greased and with just one long weekend in which to do it, it was time to open Final Draft and put that puppy together.
Now, I had written one spec script before. In undergrad TV Writing in J-School at UGA. It was for The Simpsons and it was actually damn good. But for those of you keeping track, that would be… oh… over 15 years ago, and even though I’ve paid rent via a writing career for a pretty good long time, now, writing non-fiction for actors is just not the same as banging out a spec script. I was underconfident. I knew the odds were against me getting anywhere close to being in the party of three who would win the Fellowship. I also knew I could do this. And dammit, I was gonna.
And I did.
With just hours to go before registering the script and sending it off to Warner Bros., I sent it to My Ron Howard to read. Anna is not only a brilliant writer and director, she is hilarious. And she knows what sells. She has a flippin’ Emmy, for cryin’ out loud. Her notes were like bonus sprinkles of powdered sugar on already-delicious French Toast. And they came in just in time. Tweak here. Punch-up there. And the best part was the note in which she said, “Oh, and if I’m too late in getting these thoughts to you, please know that you already have a script here that is every bit as good as anything anyone is putting on TV anywhere right now. Your voice is clear. You, my friend, are a writer.”
(Oh, how I would fight with my mom over that one. “My daughter, the writer,” she would say. And I would stomp my pre-teen foot and scream, “Muh-thur! I am an ACK-TRESS!”)
Off the script went and I had absolutely nothing to think about for the next seven weeks. Out of my hands. It was done. On with the rest of the work of my life. We’ll just see what happens come October 8th.
Regular readers of my Showfax column know what happened October 8th. (Actually, I received my rejection letter on the 6th, but the column was so damn good that I didn’t amend it to include the final outcome.)
But y’know what? I didn’t feel sad. I felt empowered. In almost no time, I made a decision to do something brave and scary and then, by damn, I did the damn thing.
And on October 9th, when I wanted to wallow in self-pity over having written a spec that no one would ever see (no matter how “big and bad my talk” was, in that week’s column), I received an email from the good folks at Naked Angels’ Tuesdays@9, reminding me that it had been awhile since my last visit.
In fact, it had. I was a semi-regular visitor back in the summer of 2004. I went to scout actors after Subhash told me about it. I met Blake there and he propositioned me about writing a book together. And we did. Keith went several times and read the wonderful, original material that was being mounted each week. But then life did what it does: got busy. And I stopped going, despite how much I enjoyed the community, the creativity, the cheers.
But it’s like Kathleen knew — when she sent out that email blast to everyone who had ever been on the Tuesdays@9 mailing list — that she was gently reminding me that this did not have to be the end of the story for my little spec script.
Sure, I had Frankensteined a couple of sections of it into scenes for November’s showcase, but I still really liked the script as a whole. So this email at just the right time was enough to convince me to break it into fifths (to meet the 10-page max submission limit) and plan to show up — alone, for the first time in three years — to this once-familiar place, filled with artists who know each other well.
Of course, I found a way to talk myself out of going, around 7pm. I was in the middle of Fixing a Hole, dammit! I hadn’t left the house in over a week! I was deep in a funk-infested process that HAD to be completed in a very particular way, and taking a break to walk into a room filled with people I might not even know with a spec script that was already rejected by the good folks at Warner Bros. when I was happily indulging the depths-of-despair routine so that I could get through it already just did not sound like fun. VERY easy to talk myself out of this one. Very.
And then another email landed in my inbox. This one was from My Cousin Joni, who had helped me with a couple of baseball analogies for PJ’s voiceovers in the spec script. She had read about The Let-Down and wanted me to know that she was still proud of me for having tried it and that she loved the script anyway; thought it was every bit as good as anything anyone is putting on TV anywhere right now. And she loved me for being brave.
That did it!
Out I went. I grabbed the print-outs of the segmented spec script and let the mighty TicTac find its way to St. Nick’s Pub. I was early. I was nervous. I ordered a strong drink at the bar, way overtipped, and climbed the stairs to the performance room. And there was Blake. And Subhash. I could finally exhale. Blake pointed me in the direction of Kathleen, who was happy to take my submissions, assuring me it would be four to six weeks to get in the queue, but that she loved my adherence to the exact submission instructions from the website. (I’m all about the details, baby.) I said to her, “I’m so nervous!” And she said, “That’s why we do this in a bar.”
Before I could get up from her submission table to find my own seat, Blake had come over to hug me some more and catch up on about a hundred things. And then Chuck walked over and we caught up. And then I was introduced around to Steve and Jared and Tom. Finally, I found a seat in a corner. I wanted to watch. I’d never been here “as a writer” and I had brought my notepad, ready to watch this experience no longer through the eyes of a casting director.
Enter: Keith. He has left class early to come support me. I am both elated (that he’s here) and pissed at him (for missing class). Blake comes over and catches up with Keith now, too. Bless Blake. He is such a good man.
The night is over before I want it to be and I’ve embarrassed myself by taking a stutter-step up to my seat upon my return from the restroom, making a loud “clunk” with my boot during Kevin’s very funny scene. I am sure I’ll be asked never to return. Keith says the only thing one can say to the daughter who inherited her mother’s “embarrassment disease.” Let it go. So I do.
We leave and I’m hopeful that I’ll return the following week. And I do. I sit with Subhash and am elated when KiKi comes over to me and pulls me in for the biggest, most welcoming hug I’ve had in ages. Again, the scenes are wonderful, the actors are outstanding, the music is fantastic, and this time I stay after with KiKi and Corey and we talk about zillions of things and laugh, laugh, laugh.
Okay. Now I’m going to be okay. I can come back next week. And the one after that. Then not on the 6th because of the showcase but then after that, just one more week and we’ll be getting to the slots that perhaps one of my scenes could occupy. Cool. Lots of time to get really down with how this feels. Know who these actors are, scope out who should read what, and feel “in” more than I do right now. Cool.
And in comes another email from Kathleen. “Would you be willing to put up a scene from your My Boys spec this week? Any of them would be fine.”
Yes. The answer is YES, dork! YES. “Yes,” I reply. “Of course. Happy to. Thank you.”
Luckily, there are all manner of things to busy myself with between the moment of invitation and THE MOMENT 50 PEOPLE HEAR MY WORK. Showcase, showcase, and more showcase. Plenty to do. Puh-lenty! Keep yourself busy, Gillespie. It’s no big deal.
I arrive early. Way early. So early that for the first time I actually find a parking spot on the street when I do my “lap before committing to the parking deck” and then sit in my car listening to the radio and touching up my makeup.
I am nervous. Really nervous. Like the kind of nervous that I used to get before I had to speak to a group of 200 actors for three hours straight. Before I knew how to do that on auto-pilot. Back when that was new.
This is new.
I walk in, order a drink at the bar (and to tell you how nervous I am, here’s the drink I order: WATER), and head upstairs, only to be asked to come back up in ten minutes (after soundcheck). Fair enough. I am insanely early. I wait downstairs, watching news coverage of the fires on the big-screen TV. I answer a couple of emails on my handheld. I sip my water. Fifteen minutes pass and up I go, along with a dozen other folks. It is time.
As nervous as a loner at the Homecoming Dance upon his approach of the bleachers filled with potential dance partners, I begin walking up to actors, “Um, hi. I’m Bonnie Gillespie. My scene is going up tonight. It’s my first time. Would you consider reading a part for me?”
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME, CASTING DIRECTOR?
I know. It’s insane.
Yet, that’s how it goes. For six roles and one reader of stage directions. Seven times, I’m a nervous wreck. I ask Stacey — whose first time it was two weeks ago when I was first back — whether she felt nervous then. “Of course! I think it would be unnatural not to feel nervous.” Good. I like Stacey. She’s smart.
It’s now out of my hands. Everyone has their sides. I have no idea when my piece will go up, nor do I know what it means if it’s first or last or what. “Mind Taffy,” I tell myself. “Let it go.”
Babes McPhee is here and I’ve not seen her since closing night of her play (which I cast), December 2006. Ack! That’s criminal. We catch up. I don’t remember a thing. I’m so nervous. I need to get more water.
Two showcasers have come to show their support, get in on the actor action, just be there with me. I am so touched. And if I weren’t so nervous, I’d probably let that show a bit more.
Regulars are nodding at me as they pass by. I’m not a stranger now, even though only a half-dozen people here know my name. As I’m walking by the entrance, a young man enters and says, “You’re Bonnie Gillespie!” And I say, “Yes, I am!” as I extend my hand to shake his. “I’m Eric. I attended a talk that your husband gave at AFI a couple of weeks ago and I saw on your MySpace that you were going to be here tonight. So, I decided to take the initiative and come by to introduce myself.”
Rockstar. I tell him how this whole thing works, point out Kathleen, and encourage him to go introduce himself, so perhaps he’ll be asked to read.
I scurry back to my seat and resume taking notes on people. This guy looks familiar. That guy is always funny. See if he’ll read my script if I’m asked to bring one back again in the future. She looks so much like my niece that it’s distracting. Oh dear GAWD that lady is a hoot!
Notes… notes… notes…
And we begin. Michael reaches over and squeezes my shoulder. He knows I’m nervous. I thank him for being there. It means a lot.
Second scene up — it’s mine. Kathleen introduces me and I scooch past Babes to take the stage and set up the scene, while the actors take their seats in front of me. I say that it’s my first time and thank you for the opportunity, this is a spec script for the TBS single-camera sitcom My Boys and the only thing we’ve missed by starting here at act one is the cold open in which PJ agrees to go out on a blind date set up by a coworker of hers. I’m really nervous, so, wonderful actors please introduce yourselves — and I fly off the stage.
I grab my notepad and take Ethan’s seat, since he’s up there reading the amazingly funny part of Mike. On my copy of the script, I place a checkmark every time there’s a laugh. I place an X every time I think there should be a laugh but there is not one.
Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. X. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check… until it’s over. Those ten pages flew by. I recall that halfway through the read, Barbara has turned around, looked at me, and given an enthusiastic thumbs-up while mouthing, “This is really funny!”
It is. It really is. And no one here is laughing because they need me to feel good. They’re laughing because it feels good for them to do so. And my words led to that feeling.
Applause and cheers as the actors return to their seats and the next group heads to the stage. My actors pass me, hand back their sides, shake my hand and say things like, “That was fun,” “Thank you,” and, “Anytime. You’re great!”
Michael leans over and says, “You got some cheers there, girl.”
He is right. This was a very strong scene.
Enjoy the rest of the night, which includes some of the most brilliant song stylings I’ve ever heard. I knew Steve was incredibly funny two weeks ago when he read. And last week too. But tonight he was the musical guest and damn if he didn’t make the entire room burst with laughter and then weep before the song was over. “You won’t be able to buy that on CD, folks,” he said. And I was pissed. Because I totally would’ve bought it. Oh, hell yeah.
It’s at this moment that I realize how lucky I am to live in a town where people get up together and celebrate creative energy, ideas, and music. They riff off each other. They jam. They cheer one another on. They give a shit. And they’re not just sitting around at home thinking about how unfair this town is and how unrecognized their talent is. They’re out there DOING IT. And THAT is rewarded.
Oh my, I realize, I’ve just fixed a hole.
And it’s not because they liked what I did. It’s because they welcomed it. It could’ve sucked, but I was still given the shot. And that, my friends, rocks like nothing else.
Tonight I left clutching the business cards of several people who want me to join in smaller-group writing/reading/critiquing series. I left having connected with actors who moved here having read my books and columns for years, gearing up for Hollywood — and only after Kathleen introduced me and my scene did they put that together. I left with Ernest and Michael who walked me to my car, good southern gentlemen that they are. And I felt so full. So damn full.
And it’s not because they liked what I did.
It’s because I made room for doing it in my heart. And then I did it.
You will get what you want when you are no longer attached to how it gets to you.