This week’s interview is with screenwriter and playwright Annah Feinberg. A jack-of-all-trades in the writing world, Annah wrote and directed the short film GRETCH & TIM, co-wrote the second season of a web series called ROGER, THE CHICKEN, and currently works in television, having script coordinated and assisted on shows like I LOVE DICK, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, FLAKED, DAMIEN and VEEP. That doesn’t even include the numerous plays she’s written as well as her newest endeavor, cartooning. For a deeper look into her artistic life, check out Annah’s website here.
In this interview, Annah breaks down what it’s like to move from NY to LA, the winding path of writing success, and how to seize and make opportunities for yourself.'It takes a lot of time to build a career.' -Annah Feinberg #screenwriting Click To Tweet
Let’s start at the beginning. What did you go to school for?
I went to college at the University of Illinois for theater, and in college, wanted to be a theater director. I acted in high school. I was a major theater kid and very serious about it. Towards the end of high school, I decided I wanted to be a theater director.
I directed a lot of plays in basements in college. My best friend in college was trying to be a playwright. We were the only two people in the theater studies program as freshmen; there were a bunch of actors and designers, and there was a director and playwright. So I directed all of her plays. I was very into new play development, and I interned at a bunch of theaters in Chicago, which led me to dramaturgy towards the end of college.
Every pivot I’ve made, it’s like I jump in full force.
When did you start writing?
I always wrote. But my friend was the playwright, and I was the director, so I shaped my nascent artistic identity around that. I never really identified as a writer until a few years ago, but I’ve always cared about writers and writing. I cared deeply about new plays. I read a million plays. I was very theater focused. We didn’t have cable growing up. I was never a big TV kid. It was theater all the way.
I moved to NY to pursue dramaturgy, which is a weird thing to do that I don’t recommend. When I moved to New York, I worked in literary offices in nonprofit theaters and went to grad school for dramaturgy.
When did you write your first play?
Towards the end of my first year in NY, a few people that I had interned with at Manhattan Theater Club put up a play of mine at Ars Nova’s ANT Fest. I was working in literary offices in New York for a bunch of different companies — tiny ragtag groups and giant institutions. I got very disillusioned very quickly with that. I was working two full-time jobs and going to grad school full-time, which was obviously an insane thing to do, and I don’t know how I functioned as a human in society at all. I mean, I didn’t really. There were panic attacks.
When did you start to get into television?
About halfway through dramaturgy grad school. I started writing more. I had a play produced during grad school that I had written before grad school. And that, combined with a playwriting class I took as a requirement for dramaturgy grad school kind of sealed the deal. For the first time, someone (the goddess/playwright/actor Leslie Ayvazian) told me I could be a writer. It weirdly had never occurred to me, even though I had only ever cared about writers and writing. It seemed like such a risky prospect, even though probably in my heart of hearts that’s what I wanted to do the whole time. I had always done it.
Basically, I realized midway through dramaturgy school that I was drawn to dramaturgy because it’s part-way between directing, producing and writing. I wanted to do all three of those things and dramaturgy was the compromise. The logic was flawed, but…youth, I guess.
So I decided I was going to start pursuing television and film in the middle of theater grad school. Then while I was finishing up my thesis, I worked at ICM in the theater literary department for an agent who had built her career transitioning playwrights into TV. That was the bridge, I guess. For the first time, I was able to see the bigger picture of the industry.
What kind of television drew you in?
ENLIGHTENED was the show that made me want to write for television. I like strange, dark comedy/dramedy.
Is that what you prefer to write?
Yes. I’ve written horror comedy, and I’ve written angsty, feelingsy dramedy. That’s kind of the range so far. Now, I’m starting to write for animation. I’m all over the place.
When did you make GRETCH &TIM?
When I moved to Los Angeles, I met with every friend of a friend from New York because I knew very few people out here. And one of them was an actor/producer Megan Messmer, who was looking to make stuff for her to be in. So I wrote GRETCH & TIM for her to star in, and she produced it.
It stemmed from a play that I had started writing and never finished called WE MUST MEMORIZE THIS BOOK. I had done a reading of it in New York in which I improvised a ukulele duet with a man I had met five minutes prior. The film is nothing like the play. The play was much weirder and made no sense.
You also wrote on the second season on a web series called ROGER, THE CHICKEN.
That was in New York. A couple friends of mine from college, actually, who are also in the theater world, wrote it, created it together, and brought me on in the second season.
What was that experience like?
It was low budget with a Kickstarter and friends trying to write together. That was the first time I had tried to write comedy with a capital ‘C’ I guess; I learned so much from it. My training is in having conversations about story and developing scripts, so being in a collaborative environment with artists I knew and loved is always dreamy.
I feel like writers collaborate more in television. Features feels more solo. Have you dived into features?
You’ve done everything!
I just want to do all the things. It’s a blessing and a curse because I’m a straight up ambivert. I really like being by people, but I really like being by myself. I love writing in my own little hole where I don’t talk to a single person all day, and I love putting on a show with lots of people. Half and half. Or, the spaghetti-at-the-wall method.
When you transitioned out here, did you transfer to ICM?
No, I knew I didn’t want to be an agent. But that year was a big education. And it was not my happiest year, but I still recommend it to people. There is no other way to learn the language of the industry. I read all the pilots, and I read as much as I possibly could to understand the ecosystem. When I moved out here, it was one of the things people had a reference for in the TV world. They weren’t particularly interested in ANT Fest or ukulele improv readings of bizarro twin plays.
Everyone knows ICM.
Right. Everyone does their agency year here. Everything else I had done had a lot more status in the tiny world of theater that I was in while in New York, but it meant close to nothing when I moved here. It was like starting over. But being an agency assistant actually made sense to people.
How did you transition into being a writers’ assistant?
The first year I was out here, I worked for Julia Louis-Dreyfus as her assistant on the third season of VEEP. And then she tried to get me writers’ assistant position on that show, but it didn’t work out. An agent’s assistant, who I had met, put me up for my first writers’ assistant position on DAMIEN.
Would you say you worked really hard at networking? Or do you reach out to people?
The word networking makes my blood boil, but, also, I secretly love networking mixers. Not gonna lie. It’s kind of a masochistic enjoyment of mine because you always meet one friend there.
Yes! That’s so true.
I went to a lot of industry networking events when I first moved here. I don’t know how I heard of them. I’d always meet one person there. They always kind of hated being there just like I did. Some of those people have become close friends of mine. If you make one actual connection at one of those things that becomes an actual relationship, it’s worth it. Also, wine helps.
When I moved out here, every friend or colleague of mine from New York had one person to introduce me to out here. And that’s how it started. From there, you have coffee with people, and they introduce you to three more people. You just have a million coffee dates. Some of those friends-of-friends of mine are now my closest friends here. And in some ways, it was overtly for networking purposes, but also I didn’t know anyone here – I needed friends. There is also a community of ex-pat theater people out here.
Aren’t you part of a theater organization in LA?
Yep! The Kilroys! I helped co-found that when I first moved out here.
You take a lot of initiative.
I do. I’m hungry. It always seems to happen kind of by accident. There’s always less intent behind it than it seems like hindsight.
What are you working towards now?
I want to staff. I want to make more stuff on my own, and eventually create shows and direct my own work. I want to do all the things. It’s a huge leap between writers’ assistant and that. I have a lot of work to do.
I had a manager for a year, and we parted ways, very mutually. It was a wonderful lesson. I feel like every writer has that first rep – they’re the first people that want you, and you’re like “yeah let’s do this.” And then they just want you to write horror movies, and you don’t really do that. Or, I don’t. Someone does! Just not me!
I think it can hinder you if you sign with people too early, which might have been one of my problems with my first manager. Not necessarily that I wasn’t ready, but I didn’t have enough momentum already going for me to get them excited. It’s all about enthusiasm. If they’re not enthused, then you’re not enthused, and everything dies.
The best stories I’ve heard about people ending up with great reps, that are a perfect fit for them, involved them waiting as long as possible. It’s so much easier said than done because it feels like “they are going to be the key to all of my success.” But I don’t think that’s true.
Would you say your assistant experience has been invaluable?
Everything you ever do, no matter if that’s working at McDonald’s or being writers’ assistant is invaluable. The writers’ assistant thing is tricky because in order for that to lead to being staffed, it has to be a room in which, first of all, the show gets picked up again, and also a group of people who want to mentor young writers and need your specific thing – whether it’s what your identity is or what your work is or however you become valuable to them. That’s just as many factors of chance as you getting staffed without doing that. So it’s hard to place causality on any of that. It’s not as linear as the narratives make it seem like it is. When you’re going through it, it feels so much windier. You’re moving forward, but also sideways, and also slowly.
What have you written that you’re most excited about?
I always hate the thing I wrote right after I wrote it. Right now, I’m most excited about cartooning. I started it recently. It happened on a whim. I feel more in control over that right now than anything else. Right now I’m working on a pitch surrounding my cartoons.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers – people who want to do what you’re doing?
It takes a lot of time to build a career. More time than I thought. There’s always a few narratives of people who seem to magically become successful. But there are always counter examples. You have to build up a lot of work. If you do the work, write your face off and your heart out, eventually it happens in the way it happens. But that consistency without reward is really difficult. It’s not sexy or cute or fun.'Consistency without reward is really difficult. It’s not sexy or cute or fun.' -Annah Feinberg #screenwriting Click To Tweet
I think I moved out here with inflated assumptions about how easy it would be, or how quickly it would happen. It’s really small steps – applying for everything, meeting as many people as you can, and putting out as much work as you can. Period. And then maybe eventually someone likes you and wants to hire you. Everyone I know who has hit has hit really quickly… but after years of working their asses off. It’s a lot of years. Like, years. It’s not like you write two scripts and then it happens. Sometimes it happens that way. It’s completely out of anyone’s control.
I’m not condoning lowering expectations, but I’m condoning lowering expectations in terms of how long it will take. It does feel like things, for me, have happened steadily. More and more people know who I am. I just hit that moment where I hear other people say, “Oh, I was just talking to this person about your work.” That just started happening. It has a life of its own eventually, but it takes time to snowball on itself.
To check out more about screenwriter and playwright Annah Feinberg, take a look at her website here.
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