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Women Screenwriters Over 40 Find Their Champion In Meryl Streep and The Writers Lab

March 12, 2020
3 min read time

Are you a 40+ female with a script you’re dying to develop? Then The Writers Lab is for you. Presented by co-founders Elizabeth Kaiden and Nitza Wilon, along with founder Kyle Stokes, The Lab evolved from a discussion about what’s it’s like to be a woman of a certain age writing scripts.

It took a year to “cook,” according to Wilon, which included bringing the idea to the New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT), who they eventually partnered with to bring The Lab to life. However, the idea really found its legs once actress Meryl Streep got on board to fund the new initiative.

As for why they targeted Streep, Wilon says it was her appearance at the 2015 Oscar® Awards ceremony, where Streep spoke about gender equality. “We thought she would be a good person to bring in to raise awareness about The Lab,” says Wilon. “So, we all helped out with writing a letter to her, and she said yes.”

Now entering its sixth year, The Writers Lab is the only one of its kind in the world devoted exclusively to script development for women writers over the age of 40. As for choosing the number 40, Wilon says, “It seems arbitrary, but every day I do research on the impact of 40s on women and their work. And the 40s is kind of this cutoff line in women’s work as well as in parenting. A lot of women parent heavily until 40, and then they start to revisit their work at 40, so the age of 40 has carried a lot of weight with women for a long time. It resonates in many areas.”

She adds, “It carries a powerful resonance being 40. Childbearing, child rearing, and reentering the workforce. I think 40 carries a stigma despite the fantastic aging in Hollywood. Let’s not throw all the 40+ women out.”

Wilon also says that there is a difference when it comes to approaching and writing a script at 40+, compared to someone who might be in their 20s or 30s.

“Women of a certain age tell stories that can only be told at that age. They write with a deeper understanding of character development, along with the big question of a writer: Who am I?” says Wilon. “Why do I write? [40+ women] pose those types of questions. For us, that’s how you get a good script. It’s not necessarily knowing technique, but knowing what the beating heart of the story is, and how is their beating heart connected to the story? Women over 40 are much more in tune and keyed into what makes their heart beat; what makes them passionate, what means something to them, and they are often able to convey that through their screenplays.”

Each year, 12 writers are selected to participate in The Writers Lab where they get to spend four days at a retreat outside New York City. The Lab allows them to work on their screenplays and their craft in one-on-one sessions with mentors, as well as gain valuable tools and information in panels and workshops to achieve success for their projects and their careers.

The core of The Lab are the mentor one-on-ones. The Lab hosts eight mentors and 12 writers, with each writer being assigned two different mentors. “They sit down and discuss their scripts. The mentors come prepared to the labs and go back and forth in two, in-depth meetings about the script, going into what’s working and what’s not working, gradually,” says Wilon.

The other element of the retreat is the peer groups. The 12 writers are put into three or four groups where they bond and work with each other on their scripts. Wilon says the peer groups are one way of receiving feedback and also building community. “Because that’s one of the most important parts of The Lab: building community among the writers and the mentors, as well as meeting the previous year’s alums, which occurs after The Lab. They work on the craft, on community, and they also learn industry know-how. They have access to panels and discussions, and talk about what it’s like to be a female screenwriter, and what it’s like to be a screenwriter in today’s industry that includes streaming and episodic and all the content.”

As for what they’re looking for in a script and from whom, Wilon says that while scripts are chosen through a blind process, they will take “anything” from any female writer 40 and over.

“If you’re a first-time writer and you’ve drafted and you have a deep connection to your story, we will see that. And if you’re a seasoned writer who’s never gained traction or maybe you have and you lost it, and it’s coming back to you in your tenth script, we will take that, too. We are open,” she says. “We welcome any genre. We are looking for a rich world and an immediate connection to your character. [The writer shows they] know the wants and the needs of the character, and tell that story with clarity, challenges and obstacles. We are looking for someone who knows the craft and who has put their heart and mind deeply into it. You know it when you smell it.”

After the retreat, the writers are also given a deadline to finish their scripts. “One year after The Lab, we invite each of the 12 writers to send their revised scripts and we give them notes. We’re able to tell them in post-lab follow-up whether they’re on the right track,” says Wilon. The writers are also encouraged to stay connected via Facebook to work together on their scripts and to further cement their community, which is an important part of The Lab. Each year, there is an alumni event in the spring that include writers from past sessions.

“We try to be very current with our approach on how we help these women plan their career. Craft, career, community,” says Wilon. “We help these women become better writers. It’s a lot of fun.”

For more information on NYWIFT The Writers Lab and submission deadlines, visit their website.

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