Anna Emerson and Lizzie Bates took their script New Habits to the New York Television Festival with Rocliffe.
The Script: New Habits
Synopsis: When Sister Adie decides she’s quitting the convent, Jules helps her get to grips with life as a single woman in the big city.
Meet Anna Emerson
How did it feel to be shortlisted for Rocliffe?
To be recognised and taken seriously as a writer by top industry professionals is a real joy and an honour. We've been doing comedy for seven years now, but this is the first TV script we've attempted so it's exciting to feel that we have actually learned some useful things along the way.
What are you most looking forward to about attending the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum event in New York?
Seeing our work performed would be very exciting. We usually write and perform all our own material (as sketch trio The Boom Jennies with Catriona Knox), so to have actors reading our lines in front of an audience would be both strange and thrilling (and a bit nerve-wracking). I'd also really appreciate the opportunity to meet industry professionals and get their views on our script - it's always exciting to be able to learn from people who know what they're talking about.
When did you get involved in writing comedy?
Lizzie and I first started performing bits of comedy together at our local youth theatre when we were 15 or 16. I was terribly shy, but as soon as someone laughed at one of my jokes, I was hooked. It's since leaving university that we've really focused on it though - we took our first sketch show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, where we performed in a damp, odorous basement, miles from anywhere, at midday. The next year, we were in a cave, later a Portacabin and by our seventh Edinburgh Fringe venture last year we'd graduated to a room in the Students' Union. It's fair to say it hasn't been a glamourous ride. But it has been very good fun.
What inspired you to write comedy for the screen?
The sitcom idea we submitted for the competition is the first piece of TV screenwriting we've attempted - I think that's because we felt we needed to build up our skills through live sketch shows and radio writing first. But there are certain things that will only work on TV and we could really see these characters being very physically funny, and imagine lots of visually entertaining scenes.
Which part of the writing process do you find most difficult and which come most easily?
Getting started is hardest. We always write together, huddled around one laptop, and we usually lose the first hour to tea-brewing, snack-fetching and catching up. It can also be difficult to really nail down a character so that they feel like a real person, especially when you keep coming up with lines you think are hilarious - but that these characters simply wouldn't say. On the other hand, ideas come quite easily, and I think we're good at problem solving together. If one of us comes up with the outline of a joke but doesn't know how to make it work, the other one usually does. And if they don't, it's probably because it's a rubbish joke.
"Be fuelled by curiosity, not fear”
For years, Lizzie and I had been meaning to enter writing competitions together, but never quite got around to it – perhaps because we didn't believe we stood a chance of winning.
So when we found out we were going to the New York TV Festival (NYTVF) with BAFTA and Rocliffe to have our sitcom script performed by professional actors, with feedback from comedy legend Greg Daniels, I felt like I'd stepped into someone else's life. And in a way I had – a much more confident person who suddenly felt like they could achieve anything they set their mind to. Thank you BAFTA Rocliffe for that feeling, I'm doing all I can to keep hold of it.
The week in New York was packed with incredible opportunities from start to finish. BAFTA organised meetings for us with top directors, writers and producers; we attended talks and panel sessions with key figures from across the US comedy industry; we pitched factual and reality show ideas to executives from Channel 4, National Geographic and Gannett; we learned important-if-odd-sounding US expressions like 'dramady' and 'sizzle reel'; and we met and made friends with some fantastic up-and-coming writers, directors and producers who were attending the festival too.
In his brilliant keynote, Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz said of writing, "Be fuelled by curiosity, not fear," which struck me as a pretty good maxim for most situations. Whether it’s meeting new people at a networking event and being interested in them rather than intimidated – which can lead you down some exciting and unexpected conversational avenues – or exploring new ideas, characters and plots without worrying about making a hash of it, a spirit of inquisitiveness will carry you much further than the harsh grip of anxiety. Perhaps that's obvious, but as someone who’s often heavily hindered by worry, I found it really helpful to be reminded of it.
Another soundbite which stuck with me was one of the panelists telling us that "activity begets opportunity". It's easy to get hung up on one script which you love and which you believe is your big ticket to success, but you've just got to keep making more work, because in the end you never know which project will get you noticed – or by who.
As Lizzie and I sat nervously waiting for our showcase to start on the Wednesday evening, we heard Greg Daniels' voice behind us saying, "Hey, you guys are in The Boom Jennies, aren't you?"
We swung around immediately, unwilling to believe that these words had just been spoken by the creator of Parks and Recreation. How could he possibly be aware that we were part of a longstanding but little known British sketch trio?
"I think I've seen some of your stuff," he continued.
"Really?!" we replied dizzily, still suspecting this master of comedy to be enacting some sort of ill-judged practical joke.
But it wasn't a joke – he really had heard of us. And suddenly six years of performing sketch comedy to handfuls of people above dodgy bars and in filthy pub basements, of traipsing home in the rain at midnight with another 9am start looming, of gambling away thousands of pounds on the great Scottish fruit machine that is the Edinburgh Fringe, all seemed worth it.
He hasn't offered us our own US sketch show yet (in fact, he couldn't actually remember what he'd seen of our work, or where), but I think what that experience shows is that if you keep making work and putting it out there, you just don’t know who it could reach.
So, as so many of the NYTVF speakers told us, push yourself on every front: be a prolific writer, create a great portfolio of work, film things, stage rehearsed readings, and don’t be afraid to tell people about everything you're doing – producers and agents on both sides of the Atlantic are always looking for new talent. Eventually, the right project will reach the right person at the right time and you'll get your first commission.