How to redress the balance, if you don’t see yourself on-screen…
A personal plea from Jay Harley.
Hi. My name is Jay. I am an LGBTQIA+ multiple box-ticker. I want to speak to all of you, who tick boxes on the grounds of your ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability or economic background. I want to try to speak to you about oppression and the negative experiences you will face in trying to tell your own story. I want to give you a message of hope and inspiration, without erasing your own negative experiences. I want to encourage you to empower yourselves.
Despite the current media landscape constantly talking about diversity, and certain schemes putting diverse voices in front of the camera, there’s still a scarcity of writers like you in the mainstream. It can be incredibly disheartening when you turn on the TV or go to the movies and find story after story about people who are not like you – white, cishet, able-bodied, privileged people running around having adventures. Occasionally they will have a box-ticking buddy, and you are supposed to be grateful for that. Often the outcomes for characters like you are pretty grim. Where are the stories about box-ticking heroes, box-ticker romance, the box-ticking hilarious comedy? They are few and far between.
We need you to make a difference. We need you to own your stories and to tell them. For all the new avenues available to you; new studios and streaming services and ways of producing stories, there are the same old gatekeepers. The same kinds of people continue in commissioning and production roles and, as much as they want stories about people like you, they don’t know how to find you.
Do not wait to be found. That is supremely unlikely to happen. You’re going to have to do some heavy-lifting at this point. Get yourself out there however you can. There are recognised schemes, but they funnel-away thousands of writers and very few scripts are turned into rare opportunities to actually enter ‘the system’. Your best chance of getting into the system, will almost definitely start a long way outside of it.
I’m not saying this is going to be easy, but I am saying it’s vitally important. There is loads of information for free, online about telling stories through scripts. If you’re working three jobs or have difficulty leaving the house to get to a library computer, there will be additional obstacles in your way – so ask what you can do? Do you need to learn the way ‘the system’ wants you to write and format a script? Or can you cultivate your own writer voice another way? The best, the most-repeated advice is to just get writing. Don’t worry about what you should be doing. Think about what you could be doing. Five minutes a day, the odd half hour here and there working on your craft and getting your story told might be all the practice you can get. So write, then rewrite and you will improve.
Then what? It’s time to get your story ‘out there’. This might mean entering established competitions and schemes and trying to find an agent. But it might not. It might mean finding a local group or an online group of likeminded people who pass round scripts or hold readings. You might be lucky enough to be in a group of people who are a bit like you – who will be inspired by the stories you have to tell. A script-reading at your local community centre may not feel like it compares to an industry-recognised event – but it is a stepping-stone. You will gain valuable experience. You are developing your craft and making yourself visible.
If there is nothing going on in your area, can you start something? You might end up being the node in your community that bridges the gap to more official networks. As a producer I’ve often searched for diverse writing groups in local areas – can you start a Facebook group? Can you find a lovely venue that will host you for free? Making yourself visible is labour intensive, but it will help you and others round you to tell your stories – and might just connect you with a writer community that will help you for years. You may even end up being the beacon of hope for others like you – you could be seen by the industry.
If your efforts are small, local, short-lived, do not lose hope. If you want to make it in Hollywood, perhaps you have a one in a million chance – that’s a lot of opportunities to be disappointed. However, if your goals are to tell your story, to put yourself out there, to give yourself voice where opportunities are lacking – these are achievable goals. You might perform poems, tell true stories or sing songs. You might put on plays or host script-readings. All of these things are achievements in their own right. Find the joy of the journey. Creating the work, developing your own talent and distributing that work are all equally valid expressions of yourself. Love the process, take pleasure in taking yourself seriously, calling yourself a writer, because you are.
I wish so much that things were easier for all of you and maybe one day they actually will be. Without buying-into the mythology of the struggling artist, you deserve to be proud of overcoming the obstacles you face every day. It is easy to become despondent and wonder why you should bother when no one is making work about people like you – but you also know, that’s why you have to try. And then shout about it, be proud and shout loud. Get out there and encourage other people. As soon as you are a developed talent, the industry will be clamouring to get hold of you – perhaps to hit their diversity targets, but just maybe because they recognise the unique beauty of your voice and want to amplify your story.
I wish you all the luck and joy in the world. Be strong, box-tickers.
Jay Harley is a proud member of the Script Angel family, and now works as a Screenwriting Coach. They have formerly worked in TV, radio and film, factual, drama and comedy and have been a script editor for ten years. They are also proudly trans and queer, and they love talking about diversity and representation, especially on Twitter: @MxJayHarley