After many successful years, the annual CBS Diversity Sketch Showcase continues to grow. And with it, the writing team behind the actor’s showcase has grown stronger and more organized as well. About two years ago, Fern Orenstein, VP, Talent & Casting and Producer of the CBS Diversity Sketch Showcase, asked me if I would help in recruiting, organizing and mentoring comedy writers for the showcase. Over the years, writers had come from a variety of sources and often were friends or writing partners of actors involved in the showcase. But no matter how the writers came to our showcase, one thing we noticed was that the stronger the sketch writing was, the more the actors could work with the material, and the better their talents were showcased.
As a more cohesive writing team was established, I began to invite literary agents, managers, producers and creative executives specifically to see the writers’ work on display in the showcase. The first year we brought these executives into the fold, we had writers get signed with managers and agents and sell their work to producers. It was incredibly exciting to be able to extend the fruits of the showcase, benefits that the actors had already been able to tap into, to the writers! Knowing that their participation in the showcase could advance their careers, the next year we saw an overwhelming interest in the showcase that translated to an even bigger, more committed, writing team for the 2013 showcase. Throughout the showcase, I mentored writers and prepared them for the opportunity to network that would come once the showcase was mounted. Writers were again met with enthusiasm from the comedy community and many were able to secure representation and further work as a result of their involvement in the showcase.
But as we looked around at the juggernaut that had become the showcase, we knew there were still opportunities for improvement. By the nature of the Diversity Showcase, the actors must qualify as diverse, however, the writers do not need to meet this qualification. We knew that our program, and the writing that came out of it, would only benefit by including more diverse voices in the process. We found that the traditional sketch comedy venues and training facilities did not offer a lot of diversity, so we looked to other ways to attract diverse talent, including working with the WGA to publicize our program. What we found was that there were many diverse comedy writers looking for the opportunity to get involved with a program like ours.
In hopes of bringing these writers into the CBS Diversity Showcase fold, and with the desire to offer many writers who had not previously had the opportunity to write for live sketch comedy, I decided the best way to introduce diverse writers to our program, and them to us, would be to hold a workshop that would mimic the showcase writing experience. The writing and rehearsal process for our traditional showcase can be intense and this truncated version of the process also moved at a quick pace! I asked each of ten writers to come prepared with two sketches. Seventeen actors, all who had previously been involved with our Diversity Showcase, volunteered their time to act out the written sketches. Then, on Saturday, June 8th, the writers and actors assembled at CBS to workshop the writers’ material. After a short rehearsal period with their actors, the writers rotated through presenting their work to the assembled CBS Diversity representatives – Rick Najera (Director, CBS Diversity Sketch Showcase), Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i (VP, CBS Diversity and Communications) and myself. With his long history of experience in sketch writing and directing, Rick Najera took the lead in offering his feedback to the writers and suggesting ways to improve their sketches. With their notes in hand and considering the insight offered by the CBS team, the writers left the first day of the workshop with the tools they needed to rework their sketches over the next week.
A week later, on Saturday, June 15th, the writers, actors and CBS team gathered again for the 2nd day of the Diversity Sketch Writers Workshop. Following the same rehearsal and performance schedule, the writers remounted their retooled sketches for the team and received feedback. What had transpired was a snapshot of the writing process for the CBS Showcase. The writers gained insight into the process, received valuable training in sketch writing and met members of the comedy and CBS communities. Those of us at CBS were able to familiarize ourselves with the work of writers who were previously unknown to us and we hope that many of these writers will be able to join us as we compose the writing team for next year’s Diversity Showcase.
After a barrage of positive feedback from the writers, actors and executives involved in the workshop, we have decided that the 2-day intensive event serves as excellent preparation for writers interested in working on future showcases. We intend on making participation in future workshops a prerequisite for writing on our annual Diversity Showcase. As interest in writing for our showcase continues to grow, the insight these workshops will provide will be valuable to both the writers and the CBS team and we look forward to seeing the talents that come through our program flourish, while they work on our showcase and beyond!
Malia Langen is Coordinator, CBS Comedy Development and manages the writing staff of the annual CBS Diversity Sketch Showcase. She is proud to have helped numerous writers obtain representation and secure work following their involvement in the showcase and enjoys mentoring writers through the showcase process and beyond.