Oonagh Kearney received a bursary to attend the Athena IRIS Screenwriting Lab in New York. Read more about her experience on the programme. In November 2016, I came across an opportunity online looking for feature film scripts featuring strong female characters. The inaugural Athena IRIS Screenwriting Lab was designed for female writers who had not yet had a feature-length fictional script produced. Screenplays had to include one or more strong female characters in leadership roles at the centre of the story, and be feature-length narratives.
This new initiative was a partnership between the Athena Film Festival and the IRIS Screenwriting Lab in New York. I had heard about IRIS a year before. Set up by Kyle Ann Stokes, Nitza Wilon and Elizabeth Kaiden, IRIS began as a collective of women in film seeking to develop, produce and promote narrative films written and directed by women, generating a balance in storytelling and vision, and ultimately empowering the female voice on a global scale. By challenging the paradigm and building a network of support, IRIS encourages female filmmakers to gain control of their artistic destinies. Sponsored by Meryl Streep, the first IRIS Screenwriting Lab in 2015 was dedicated to developing narrative feature screenplays written by American women over forty. I was neither forty nor a U.S. citizen at this time, but simply knowing this initiative existed, filled me with a positive feeling.
Fast forward to a year later: I’ve completed a third draft of my feature film script Prosperpina and submit it to the Irish Film Board for development funding. I come across a tweet by Melissa Silverstein (of Women and Hollywood) promoting the inaugural Athena/IRIS Screening Lab. I scan the criteria and realize it is geared towards international female applicants of any age working on their first feature film script. I submit Proserpina. A few weeks later, I learn it is one of eight scripts (selected from a hundred and twelve) shortlisted for four places on the lab. I’m invited to submit a personal statement explaining why I want to attend. Two weeks later, I receive an email telling me I’ve been selected. I’m excited on several levels: firstly for the development of my story and the opportunity to be mentored by the dynamic IRIS team and professional filmmakers/ professors in New York; secondly to meet and work with the three other selected screenwriters (and their stories); and thirdly to be part of the Athena Film Festival, a celebration of women and leadership, dedicated to the female voice in film.
After learning of my selection, I get in touch with Emer McAvin at Screen Training Ireland and make a bursary application. STI require more information about the Lab and the IRIS team responds quickly to provide this: in essence, the Lab is structured as an intense two-day immersion in female-led stories. The IRIS team puts us (the four screenwriters) in touch via email and we are given each others’ personal statements to read. This serves as a powerful and moving introduction to each writer. It gives me a sense of who these women are, why they write, and what they want to achieve as screenwriters. I value our diversity: a working class African-American Harvard graduate based in LA, a Tribeca Film Festival award-winning queer filmmaker from Colorado, an Indian-American Brooklyn based singer and screenwriter – and me. A week later, I learn my STI application has been successful and I confirm my attendance at the Lab. The IRIS team sends us our four screenplays to read. Each script is compelling and impressive in different ways, and I am genuinely excited to meet the writers. Equally, I look forward to receiving their perspectives on my script – particularly as an Irish writer seeking to tell a story that translates to other cultures.
Before I travel to the U.S., the IRIS team confirms details of the program and the names of our four mentors: Hilary Brougher (screenwriter and director The Sticky Fingers of Time and Stephanie Daley; Film Professor, Columbia University), hinho Lee (screenwriter The Chaser, While the Women Are Sleeping; Arts Professor, NYU Tisch School of the Arts), Afia Nathaniel (screenwriter, producer and director Dukhtar; Lecturer, Princeton University) and Susanna Styron (filmmaker Shadrach, 9/12: From Chaos to Community; Professor, Princeton, and NYU). The Lab commences on the morning of Thursday February 9th at 9:30am. The night before there is a snow alert. I’m staying close to Columbia University so it’s easy to get there despite heavy snowfall. On my walk through Morningside Park, I see a fire-engine red bird fluttering about. It’s unlike any bird I’ve seen before. It seems a bit exotic for a massive metropolis like New York, yet it also seems at home in this white wonderland. I continue on my way. The directions provided in advance are clear and upon arrival at Barnard College, blue signs direct me to the Sulzberger Parlour, our hub for the next two days.
From the moment I enter the room, two things jump out at me. The first is the wallpaper. It is beautiful: a delicate mint green brought to life by several exotic birds of various hues. I immediately recognize the red bird from outside, immortalized on these walls. The connection makes me smile. The second thing I notice are several large portraits in gold frames. This aspect of the room reminds me of the Aula Max at University College Cork or the Long Room in Trinity College Dublin – with one major, notable difference – instead of paintings and busts of men, this room is adorned with portraits of women. I look around and see the faces of six real-life women of diverse skin and eye color, each curious and happy to see me. I feel in my gut the Lab is going to be good. I have entered a centre of learning that champions women – where we are not an exception, where we are the norm. I then notice one man on the wall and later that day, cheekily ask, “So who’s the bearded lady?” I approach the portrait and discover Frederick Barnard, the longbearded tenth president of Columbia University. A professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, Barnard strove to have educational privileges extended by the university to women as well as to men. Barnard College for women, established immediately after his death, was named in his honour.
So here I am: in this beautiful room in Barnard, a private women’s liberal arts college in New York City, founded by Annie Nathan Meyer in 1889 as a response to Columbia University’s refusal to admit women into their
institution. It is one of the oldest women’s colleges in the world, and the only women’s college in New York City today. Somehow, I have ended up here, surrounded by intelligent and curious female faces. I feel good, if a bit jittery and excited, as I often do when something new is about to start. Before I can reach the breakfast stand, Nitza and Elizabeth are hugging me and taking off my coat. They have a million questions. I feel very Irish. Then I pause and realize I know myself well enough to enjoy the talky quality of this New York welcome. I experience a surge of energy. I feel at home. Nitza and Elizabeth have thought through how to make good use of our time: breakfast and lunch are provided in the room. There is ample tea, coffee, fruit and snacks throughout the day to keep us tanked with energy as we immerse in our story worlds.
The first day begins with general introductions and peer-to-peer mentorship. They want to know about my life, my influences, my family and my lived experiences. I find myself opening up to these two Jewish women who, with warmth and compassion, are uncannily talented at asking pointed and penetrating questions. Their objective is clear. Good screenwriting comes from our deepest self. So lets get to know each other – fast. I find myself saying things that aren’t unknown to me, but nonetheless surprise me. We each talk briefly but intensely, and introduce our stories. We then focus on one script (we do this for each script over the two days) and present a key question that came up when reading it. The writer asks and answers questions, and takes notes.
At lunch, we meet our mentors. This is very interesting, particularly in relation to the two senior female mentors, Hilary and Susanna. They talk about their careers and I become acutely aware of how hard they have struggled to get where they are. The obstacles vary from direct misogyny to the competing needs of family and career. Despite the fact that several doors have remained closed to them, there is a distinct lack of bitterness. These are successful, smart and funny New Yorkers who made the most of what they could. I admire them. I also feel their pain. This feeling is familiar to me, having attended several events in Ireland and the UK concerning the representation of women in film, and across the arts and society in general. Their pain is not a weight but a glow stick in the dark. My generation owes it to them, to ourselves, and to the generation ahead, to change things.
After lunch we begin the one-on-one sessions. I can’t emphasize enough how useful these sessions are. I have taken part in several development courses and programs over the years (The Script Factory’s “She Writes”, UK Skillset’s “Guiding Lights”, Creative England’s ‘Triangle’ Scheme, Berlin Talent Campus, the Puglia Experience, plus STI script courses with Dara Marks, Beth Serlin and Bobette Buster). These have all been valuable in different ways. What distinguishes this Lab is the provision of focused and detailed feedback on my script, delivered by four experienced film mentors, via four intensive one-on-one sessions (between ninety minutes and two hours long), over two days. The mentors are generous, insightful and encouraging. They begin with general questions and comments. They offer feedback that opens up story possibilities rather than shuts them down. They are highly skilled in giving script feedback, and in talking about structure, theme, story, character and metaphor, as it relates to script. I feel like they are sharing every possible insight they have. One might think that four sessions over two days might prove overwhelming – on the contrary I find it insightful and stimulating, particularly when consensus emerges.
As well as taking notes by hand, I request and receive permission to record these one-on-one sessions. As a result, I have this resource as I embark on my next draft. The peer-to-peer mentorship is also great. As fellow writers, we are predictably less vocal and critical – but we do ask each other hard questions. These sessions are guided and moderated by Nitza and Elizabeth. At the end of our second day, we all sit together for a final session and share our thoughts and insights. The outcome is positive – as writers, we all want to remain in touch, and all four of our mentors commit to reading our next drafts. This is a great spur to deliver a new draft over the coming weeks. Following the lab, I stay on for the Athena Film Festival where I experience two days of screenings and talks about women in film. The diversity in attendance is inspiring. New York is of course a melting pot, but it is amazing to hear from so many female filmmakers – from young graduates to experienced directors like Patricia Riggen.
Like many writers, I’m full of doubt and hope and anger and joy, but in general, I don’t lack confidence about what I’m trying to do. Nonetheless, this Lab increased my confidence; not in a general way as a writer-director, but in a very specific way, by validating the strength, power and meaning of the story I want to tell. Ireland needs diverse and female-led stories told from diverse and female points of view. This won’t happen unless the Irish film industry commits to developing this talent. To do this, we need to recognize that current developmental models, however good their intentions, exclude voices. The history of Irish film testifies to this.
Attending the Athena/IRIS has been extremely important. I am grateful to the team at Screen Training Ireland for recognizing its worth and for supporting my trip to New York – thank you!