Sundance 2020: ISA’s Table Read My Screenplay Event
By Kristy Strouse • February 05, 2020
At Sundance 2020, I was able to attend the International Screenwriters’ Association’s Table Read My Screenplay event, which allowed the winner of the contest, M Rowan Meyer to watch as his script for a pilot, Cloistered, was read on stage. It was directed by the ISA’s Jerren Lauder, and I was able to see the shift in dynamic from rehearsals, the read, to celebrating afterward. It was a fun atmosphere with plenty of people in attendance, enjoying the performance of the actors as they went through the script.
Before it began, I was able to talk to Rowan about the contest, his writing process, and inspirations for the script:
This is Kristy Strouse with Film Inquiry. Congratulations! So, tell us a little bit about your winning script!
M Rowan Meyer: Thank you! So, Cloistered is a half-hour, dark comedy pilot. This is just the first episode. The logline is: a priest, a nun, and an ex communicant explore identity within the confines of their Catholic faith. So, it pretty much centers around the three characters. There’s this priest with a very dark past. There’s a nun with a very dark secret, and there’s a young man who was in the seminary but was excommunicated after he was caught having an affair with another seminar student. These three storylines are told, independently of each other, until the end where they all combine, in I think, a fun way.
Where did the idea come from?
M Rowan Meyer: It’s a fun story. So, my fiancé is an actor, but he is also a music director at a Catholic Church. He was asked by a colleague to do the music at a retreat in Long Island. And he was like “Sure, absolutely, can I ask what it is for?” And it was a retreat for gay priests. They like have this kind of have this yearly thing where they get together and sing show tunes.
M Rowan Meyer: Totally amazing! I don’t know exactly what they get up to there, but I think it’s mostly like singing and just hanging out with people they identify with. So, he did the showtunes for them all the music, just chatted. And he told me about this when he got home, and I was like this is…this is just blowing my mind – this is gold. That really has nothing to do with the pilot itself, but I wanted to explore queerness within the Catholic Church, which is also what the title means. Cloistered is a Catholic term but like closeted-cloistered.
So, from that seed of an idea, what was the writing process like for you?
M Rowan Meyer: It went through my usual process, which is, I write five to ten pages and then I put it away for about a year.
M Rowan Meyer: I lose steam and I let it percolate. And then it tells me what it wants to be written.
It talks to you a little bit.
M Rowan Meyer: It does, [laughs] that sounds really pretentious but it’s like “take me out of your drawer!”
I get it, see where it takes you, sit on the idea for a time. You change, things evolve.
M Rowan Meyer: Exactly. and it kind of just works its way through your mind. Then I wrote the rest of it very quickly, like over a few weeks.
Were there lots of revisions?
M Rowan Meyer: Not really. I work with another screenwriter and we send each other pages of what we’re working on, so I had feedback from someone who I really trust. There were definitely tweaks, but pretty much just kind of came out the way it is now.
You said that’s your usual way, so it’s common for you to get feedback. Do you think that’s an important part of the screenwriting process?
M Rowan Meyer: Having fresh eyes? Yes! Of people whose work you trust or have a different perspective especially- very important. I have written a few things where I didn’t get any feedback, and I read them now and I’m like “someone needs to read this.” [laughs] “Tell me why this isn’t working.” So yes, but, I think you should limit how many eyes see it because there is a thing as too much input. But yeah, having a gaggle- a tribe of other writers is great.
I agree. So, how long have you been writing?
M Rowan Meyer: I’ve been writing all my life, but in terms of the TV format, about 4 to 4 ½ years.
Have you had other productions?
M Rowan Meyer: Yes, I’m in post-production for my first pilot called Patient. It’s also a dark comedy. We are almost a picture lock we’re hoping to have it ready for screening and for film festivals in the spring.
Awesome- Congratulations! Tell us a bit about that.
M Rowan Meyer: Yeah, absolutely, so Patient is sort about the world of standardized patients. Which, a standardized patient is someone who works at a teaching hospital who pretends to be sick to help train medical students.
I did not know that, I’m learning so much from this interview.
M Rowan Meyer: [laughs] It’s true, It is a real job that I tried to get after I graduated from grad school, but they wouldn’t hire me so I wrote the pilot instead.
So, you really pull a lot from experience.
M Rowan Meyer: [laughs] Yes, I guess so. Apparently!
Do you often apply to competitions, and how did you first hear about this one?
M Rowan Meyer: I have applied to many competitions over the past four years ever since I started submitting Patient.
Did that win a contest? Did that help get it to production?
M Rowan Meyer: Certain contests helped to fund it because it actually won several awards so that helps with the production of it. But, no, it wasn’t made by someone else. I produced it myself with my small team of directors and editors and such. This particular contest: Table Read My Screenplay has been on my radar for a while. Patient was a semi-finalist in one of their iterations. My animated pilot placed third place in the New Orleans' version of it. And then this one, I’m here with now.
What’s the experience been like?
M Rowan Meyer: Wonderful. They’ve taken such good care of me. I’m such a wallflower, usually. But the way that they’ve organized everything with the festival, parties, and screenings has really taken off all the pressure.
That’s great! Is it surreal to win?
M Rowan Meyer: Yes, great word for it, it’s always surreal when you win. I was on the beach in Florida. My partner and I had just taken a quick vacation after his Broadway show closed. I was just taking a picture of the ocean and it popped up in my email and it was a lovely surprise.
Perfect moment for it! You are also an actor too, right?
M Rowan Meyer: Yes, actually I have my MFA in acting. So I was, and I still am an actor, though I was really pursuing it earlier after graduation. Now, I’m more on the writing and producing side. I acted in Patient, I played the lead role, and don’t want to do that again.
Too many hats?
M Rowan Meyer: It was. I was wearing a lot of hats. I was the writer, actor, producer, costume designer, caterer, driver. It was a little too much. I didn’t direct and I’m not doing any of the editing or sound stuff so thank goodness for that.
Any goals going forward, different formats you are interested in writing? Features?
M Rowan Meyer: Yes, absolutely. This is probably my bread and butter at the moment. Especially, comedy, I love comedy. But I do have a short film that I’m in pre-production for, which is not one. It’s like a sci-fi character study that I’m hoping to direct in the spring. I’ve written a play that gets produced, quite often throughout the United States too. Which is kind of cool. And I’m currently working on an hour-long drama pilot and full-length play.
So, not a lot. [laughs]
M Rowan Meyer: No not at all. It really… it is just a hobby. [laughs]
Amazing, truly. It sounds like you’re doing a lot and that’s always inspiring to hear. Any advice that you would give to other writers out there contemplating contests like this?
M Rowan Meyer: Yeah, I mean, competitions are a funny thing. They can provide you with a lot of feedback, a lot of validation sometimes. They can get expensive at the same time with application fees etc. I would say, if you’ve written something that you love, that you’re proud of submit it to a couple things and see what happens. Maybe they tell you things to work on or maybe you win, or you do very well and that will propel you towards other things.
Better to try.
M Rowan Meyer: Yeah, absolutely, try! It is a very vulnerable thing. Absolutely. At least you can kind of disappear behind the page in anonymity a little bit, but it’s still absolutely vulnerable.
Any writers or pieces of work in particular that inspire you? Even anything recently?
M Rowan Meyer: Some shows that have recently are Succession, and Fleabag. Because who doesn’t love Fleabag.
M Rowan Meyer: Also, The Morning Show I just finished which was wonderful. I really like a lot of HBO shows, I was a big fan of Girls. So, primarily comedy but I do have some dramas that are itching to get out right now. And they are pretty dark, darker than my comedy for sure.
Well, I look forward to seeing what you do next! Thanks for talking to me and congratulations again!
As the table read continued the cast didn’t relent on giving full and animated performances, making the audience raucous with laughter. I would occasionally look over at Rowan who seemed to be fully immersed, and his reactions were reason enough to be there as pride and enjoyment made their way across his face.
It was an overwhelmingly warm environment, and as I walked around talking to others, it was clear how contagious that feeling was. One attendee, Nick, said:
“It was my first time seeing a table read. It is definitely dark, but my circle…my sense of humor. I enjoyed it immensely.”
Natasha went on to specify her thoughts:
“It was something that people can definitely relate to. It’s very current and I would watch it if it aired. I love the connection between religion and being yourself. Having that connection with somebody but being afraid to be yourself at your job…a lot of people feel that way. It was really enjoyable, fun, and funny.”
One of the actresses who did the table read, Ivana Lis, reflected on it afterward:
“It was so much fun! I loved working with everyone. I feel like the script has so many layers that I wish we had more time with it! All the characters had so much going for them. It is really funny, but also has great moments of intimacy that I hope we captured.”
Check out my quick video of the rehearsal beforehand and some celebrating afterward.
We’d like to thank M Rowan Meyer for taking the time to talk about his work and for the International Screenwriters’ Association for letting us attend.
For more information check out their website.
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