AS AUTHOR OF HER LIFE STORY, Laura Jacqmin chose to pen an eclectic journey. The Cleveland native’s writing career ― spanning theatre, television, video games, and most recently film ― launched as a student playwright in Thespian Troupe 815. There, the Shaker Heights High School alum says she learned essential lessons that still serve her today.

“I had a truly singular high school Thespian experience,” Jacqmin said. “My program featured both a playwriting class  which I took three years running  and a yearly student-written, student-directed short play festival. I had plays in the festival every year and learned how to write for production as well as direct. The festival asked you to be your own producer, skills that would prove immensely valuable down the line.”

After using her theatre skills to earn a B.A. at Yale University and MFA in playwriting at Ohio University, Jacqmin first moved to Chicago, immersing herself in the city’s thriving independent theatre scene. In 2016, she settled full time in Los Angeles, where she works primarily as a writer for screen projects, such as TV’s Grace and Frankie and Get Shorty, as well as video games The Walking Dead and Minecraft. Joining Jacqmin’s list of plays that includes ResidenceJanuary Joiner, and Ski Dubai, the yet-to-be-released We Broke Up marks her feature film debut.

As Jacqmin’s career progressed, she wanted to use her platform to amplify voices that haven’t yet received similar recognition. Seven years ago, she helped found The Kilroys, a cohort of New York and Los Angeles-based playwrights, directors, and producers working to achieve gender parity in American theatre. The group raises awareness about unproduced and underproduced scripts by women, trans, and nonbinary authors.

Jacqmin’s latest project is the upcoming Netflix adaptation of the long-running manga series One Piece, for which she serves as writer and co-executive producer with showrunners Steve Maeda and Matt Owens. She says reimagining the popular Japanese comic series is “a very tricky needle to thread, to take 20-some years of a tonally intricate, action-packed, much-beloved manga series and turn it into a live-action television show that appeals to a broad swath of audiences. But we’re really excited about the scripts we wrote and hopeful that COVID-19 lets us proceed soon.”

Writer Laura Jacqmin, director Jeff Rosenberg, and producer John Hermann on set for We Broke Up.
Writer Laura Jacqmin, director Jeff Rosenberg, and producer John Hermann on set for We Broke Up. Photo by Andrew Casey.

In what ways has playwriting prepared you to write video games?
I work exclusively in what are called branching narrative games, which means the story changes depending on the player’s choices. It’s like writing and solving puzzles at the same time ― very challenging, but very engaging. You can’t just take the story in a singular direction. You have to make every choice valid and every choice interesting (no dead-ends allowed), whether it’s a simple dialogue choice or a binary decision point (for example, run or fight).

Like in playwriting, so much of the storytelling lives in the dialogue and character work. Your characters have to be living, breathing human beings that the player wants to spend time with or enjoys struggling against. Unlike theatre, you have to constantly consider player agency: What is the player doing in any given moment? What might they want to do? How can you ensure the player is active and not passive? Very complex stuff, but I’ve been a game developer going on six years now, so I must love it.

How was writing your first feature film, We Broke Up, different from writing a play?
Theatre and screenwriting are both inherently collaborative, but the collaboration started early for We Broke Up. My co-writer and director is Jeff Rosenberg, a fellow alum of Shaker Heights High School. Our senior project was producing each other’s short plays in our dusty basement black box, so we were building on an existing relationship. Early in the process, we would pass scenes back and forth and change things for the sake of change ― not a very efficient way of doing things.

In 2019, once we had financing secured and it looked like the movie was a go, we spent two intensive weeks in my office after hours and on weekends, working side by side on a big revision. That way, we could talk through scene work together and adjust as we went. Because we both have so much more experience now than when we first started and understand scene structure (and everything else) so much better, it was infinitely easier to hammer out the production draft while also figuring out how to implement notes from our producers and financiers.

We just finished postproduction, which encompasses many, many rounds of editing (showing to trusted friends in between cuts to gather feedback), color grading (improving the look of the film by adjusting contrast, saturation, etc.), sound mixing, and ADR (rerecording some dialogue to improve clarity) ― all from a distance. Now we’re starting to submit to film festivals, with the full knowledge that the festival circuit will look very, very different in the age of COVID-19. We shot in February 2020 after nearly eight years in development and wrapped just days before Governor Newsom shut down California, so we’re thrilled to have a completed film despite this insane year.

What was it like adapting Get Shorty!, a novel turned film, into a television series?
My showrunner, Davey Holmes, took the central premise ― a tough guy decides he wants to be a movie producer ― and outfitted it with new characters, a new setting, and a different protagonist. Our story was completely different ― it had to be to become an engine that powered dozens of episodes. Chili Palmer has been replaced with Miles Daly, played by Chris O’Dowd, and Gene Hackman’s iconic hack producer became Rick Moreweather, played by Ray Romano. Really, as writers, it was about setting a certain tone and then staying consistent. Elmore Leonard’s original novel has so much fun with these quirky, specific renderings of low-level gangsters, making them human and flawed. It was our job to make sure we did the same.

Talk about your work with The Kilroys. What can young Thespians do to support the group’s mission?
Founded in 2013, The Kilroys are a collective of playwrights, directors, and producers taking radical actions toward gender parity in American theatre. We mobilize others in the field and leverage our own power to support one another. One significant way we’ve achieved this is through publication of The List, a yearly collection of unproduced (or underproduced) plays by women, trans, and nonbinary writers. Each year, The List has adjusted focus to better help writers. A few years ago, every writer on the list was BIPOC; this year, it’s a living document of productions canceled by COVID-19.

One way to support The Kilroys’ mission is to work outside of the box that is sometimes presented by high school theatre programs and urge your teachers to expand the types of plays they present for study. Are you being taught “classics,” or contemporary plays that represent the full breadth and depth of experience in this country? Are you reading works by women and BIPOC playwrights? Are you studying scenes and monologues from plays that are representative of your ethnicity and gender identity? These plays are out there ― find them. Ask your teachers to buy copies of the monologue books The Kilroys have published through Playscripts, and learn those playwrights’ names and work.

How did your Thespian experience pave the way for your multifaceted career?
It taught me about the moral responsibility of storytelling. My junior year, I wrote a play about a kidnapped girl and the two cowboys holding her for ransom. In it, the girl and one of her captors danced. She stole his gun; she shot him; she escaped. The week we were supposed to open, a freshman girl was shot and killed on her way to school. Later, we’d learn she’d been stalked by an acquaintance, and that our community had missed ― or ignored or blamed her for ― the signs that something was deeply wrong. Her best friend’s brother was one of the actors in my play. He was, as it happened, the actor whose character was supposed to be shot.

We made the decision to cancel the play. It was the first time I realized that what I put up onstage wasn’t just a fantasy. That art had a connection to real life ― a responsibility to say something, to mean something, to do something. That everyone seeing my play would bring their very personal experiences to the theatre: their own trauma, their own triggers, their own hopes and dreams. And that artists need to take care of [the audience], regardless of the story they’re telling. This applies in every medium ― especially in TV and features, where you’re curating and controlling so many more elements of the audience’s emotional journey.

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