The writers' room, and how to break it

Handsworth grad gets career boost

At a time when many young people are planning to leave Vancouver, Nessa Aref is hoping to stay.

In addition to being a director and producer, Aref is a writer. And for many writers, Vancouver is a city to move away from.

“I don’t know of any writers that were hired from Vancouver,” she says. “We just don’t make things. We are the service provider for people who want to make things.”

Day to day, Aref works in film. But she dreams of quitting her day job and focusing all her energy on her career: working in film.

That can be a challenge in Vancouver, she says.

“You can get started [in Vancouver],” she says. “But there’s no middle ground, and that’s the hard part. There’s no stepping stone.”

But Aref, a Handsworth Secondary grad, is hopeful she may have found some solid footing.

From Sept. 4 to 8, Aref was one of five writers picked to participate in Break the Room – a writer’s boot camp designed to give a greater voice to people of colour and the LGBTQ2+ community.

Launched by writer/director Paul Feig’s digital production company Powderkeg in 2018, Break the Room has so far yielded  East of La Brea.

Created by writer and producer Sameer Gardezi, the six-episode digital series attempted to offer authentic portraits of Muslim American women who are largely unrepresented in pop culture.

After a variety of projects that ranged from working on the set of Kim Possible to scripting the upcoming modern noir Human Resources, Break the Room was an ideal opportunity for Aref to take the next step in her career.

After finding out she’d been selected by email, Aref and fellow scribes Kashif Pasta, Lawrence Lam, Shyam Valera, Omari Newton, set about turning a two page-outline into a six-episode series over just five days.

With ideas bouncing between them and a wall full of flash cards, Aref felt like she was back at Handsworth.

A shy child, Aref was drawn more to literature than to theatre.

“I picked my purses based on how big a book I could fit into the purse,” she remembers.

But in high school her friends were drawn to theatre and Aref, naturally, was drawn to her friends.

“All my friends were in the Handsworth theatre program – which included their lunch periods – and I didn’t want to be left out.”

Soon enough, she was bitten by the theatre bug.

“A very experimental and strange but very collaborative theatre bug,” she clarifies.

Theatre at Handsworth was a bit off-centre, Aref recalls.

“We weren’t exactly doing Grease,” she laughs.

In her last year of school the theatre teacher invited interested students to craft a stage play with a cast of hundreds.

“We got really used to thinking outside the box, creating 30 speaking roles,” she says. “That was my first writing room.”

She loved watching the words she’d written down go through the evolutionary process.

Sometimes the actor would say the words just like Aref had written them. Other times the inflection, syntax, or the words themselves would be altered and something new would be created.

“Both are just lovely,” she says.

While some writers recoil at the prospect of their words being changed (Harlan Ellison memorably demanded: Where were you when the page was blank?) but Aref sees the writer as one spoke on a wheel.

“The writer’s just the floor plan,” she says.

And the best place to draft that floor plan, she says, is in a room full of writers.

“It just allows you to expand you mind a little farther . . . because you have all those other brains with you,” she says.

A writer’s room is also great for figuring out which ideas you shouldn’t pursue.

“You get to really test everything out,” she says. “You’ll see what does and doesn’t stick faster than you would by writing it yourself, finishing a script and then maybe having a whole production done.”

At the end of five days, Aref and her cohorts had taken a two-page outline, crafted characters, emotional arcs, and story outlines for six episodes.

Whatever happens with the show, which Aref isn’t yet permitted to talk about, it was an important experience.

“Something like Break the Room gives us a sense of legitimacy as writers,” she says.

In terms of film and TV, Vancouver is still “sort of a blank canvas.” There’s an opportunity for the city to be a film hub distinct from Los Angeles, she says.

A lot of aspiring Vancouver writers take off for Los Angeles, she notes. But she hopes Break the Room changes that career trajectory.

Aref has the same feeling about Vancouver as she did about theatre when she was back at Handsworth.

“I hope that I get stay here.”