Playwright and Dramatists Guild Council member Chisa Hutchinson sat down with DG Communications Manager Sarah Rebell to chat about her newly launched Signpost Fellowship and what mentorship means to her. Applications for the Signpost Fellowship are open now through Friday, March 31. Learn more by visiting Chisa’s website.
Sarah Rebell: What was the impetus for the Signpost Fellowship?
Chisa Hutchinson: Ever since graduating from college, any time I get a notice of an opportunity from an alumni posting board or from the scholarship program that I went through, the opportunities are usually for math and science people. And I’m like, “Well, what are the rest of us supposed to do? How do we proceed? What are the steps that we need to take in order to get the experience that we need to be active in our field?” I feel like we don’t value art enough to create opportunities for people to actually pursue it. So, I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll just create one.”
Sarah Rebell: After so many years of feeling that way, what led you to take the plunge and launch the fellowship?
Chisa Hutchinson: It helps to be in a position where I’m constantly searching for funding. I do a lot of begging for other causes. I’m on the board for Keen Company and always doing fundraising stuff for them. And my friend does Bike MS, and I’m always fundraising for that every year. I feel like I’m always asking people for money, but I was like, “I’m actually making money now. I can do something about this myself.” It’s not that I don’t need money from other people, because other people are offering money now and that’s great. But really, I just wanted to do something to pay it forward. Because I feel like I had a lot of folks who gave me advice or spoke my name into a room with decision makers. It wasn’t called a fellowship, but they still mentored me. Like Lynn Nottage, David Henry Hwang, Tina Howe, Melinda Lopez. And Diana Son, who, first of all, is signed up as a mentor for the fellowship, which I’m really excited about, because she’s such a badass. She taught my masterclass when I was at NYU in grad school. As part of the curriculum there, they make you do an internship. I wanted to follow a playwright around—a living, breathing playwright who I respect. And I remember Diana Son in our class talking about Lynn [Nottage], and how Lynn is one of her besties, who lives two blocks away from her in Brooklyn. And I said, “Do you think Lynn would be interested in having an assistant for a semester?” She said, “I’ll connect you two.” And she did. Nobody was going to just present any opportunities. So, I was like, “Alright, I’ll just fucking ask for what I need.” So, I want to make it a little bit easier. And I want to pay it forward because those folks were definitely there for me.
Sarah Rebell: I love what you just said about asking for what you need. At the Guild, we encourage writers to ask for what they need. Can you talk a little bit about your vision for the nuts and bolts of this fellowship? What is the financial model?
Chisa Hutchinson: The mentor is volunteering their time, which is cool. So, all the money goes to the fellow. Right now, it’s just $2,500, but I’m hoping that it’s enough that they don’t have to, for example, take on a second job to pay their rent. It’s a little something to buy them some time to actually do a little work. They can use it however they want. If they’ve got an outrageous medical bill that they need to pay, they can use it to pay that. If they want to use it to pay some actors, because they want to hear their play read out loud, they can do that. I don’t want to put restrictions on their use of the money because everybody’s situation is different.
My five-year plan is to fund the fellowship myself and/or raise more funds. Hopefully in five years’ time, the people that we have selected as fellows will have leveraged the connections that they make through the program into the beginnings of a career, or at least show some promise, or at least be happy with where they are, and that they will spread the word. I’m hoping that it works well enough, and that we do enough justice to the fellows that we ultimately wind up choosing, that the mentorship that they receive and the connections that they make, and the advice that they get will lead them someplace really exciting. And someplace that’ll make other people, maybe other funders, sit up and go, “Look at what they’re doing over there. I think I want to throw some support behind that.” That would be great because then we could offer $5,000 or $10,000 fellowships.
Sarah Rebell: What has the response to the fellowship been so far? You have a really impressive list of mentors who have signed on.
Chisa Hutchinson: Our mentor list is sick. I love my friends, my colleagues, my peers, my tribe. I think that says a lot about who they are and about that impulse to pay it forward. I feel like a lot of us have probably had that experience of someone somewhere pointing us in the right direction. I think that’s where that impulse comes from. I’m so glad that they thought enough of my initiative to get behind it.
Sarah Rebell: How many fellows are you expecting to have at this point?
Chisa Hutchinson: Just one. It’s the first year; I’m going to take it slow. We’ll do one fellowship. We’re going to put all our eggs in that basket and we’re going to try to do that right. That’s how I’m feeling right now. If we can just successfully walk one fellow through the entire process of application, interview, mentorship, crafting their play and then pairing them up with a career advisor so that they can have at least one opportunity, one place, one company, one producer they can submit their work to, that would be great.
Sarah Rebell: How are you planning to approach the selection process, in terms of which mentor will get matched with the fellow?
Chisa Hutchinson: They choose their mentor. I’ve linked to each mentor’s website, or at least their bio, so you can see roughly what the trajectory of their career has been so far. If you already know of the work of a mentor, even better. But the fellows get to choose their mentors. It’s going to be six months of whatever makes sense between the mentor and the mentee. The writers get to sort of build their own program, really think about what they need and talk with the mentor about it. So, if they’ve got a particular goal, like, “I’ve only got half a draft of this pilot that I’ve been working on and I’m figuring out how to finish it.” That’s a doable goal. If it’s “I have this idea for a musical, but I don’t know any composers.” Maybe that’s a thing that the mentor can help with. Or if it’s just “I don’t know what a production process is like, and you have a production coming up. I would love to be able to sit in on your process, from auditions to production meetings to rehearsals.” So, it’s really up to them.
Sarah Rebell: There are so many different, equally amazing directions that this fellowship could take. What are you looking for that will help you narrow the focus in the applicant pool? Is there anything that candidates should keep in mind as they prepare their application?
Chisa Hutchinson: A fresh voice. I think a voice that isn’t out there trying to mimic someone else’s voice, but is just being its own genuine self, that really probably would be the biggest asset you could have. And a sense of what they might be able to get out of this fellowship. I know that sounds like a weird thing to ask of a candidate because you don’t know what you don’t know. But, I mean, if they’ve got a specific goal, then it would be easier to find a mentor for them because then they’re not going to be selecting randomly, they’re not going to be throwing darts in the dark. A little bit of strategy on their part would be helpful. So, a fresh voice and strategy. Those are strengths in the application process.
Sarah Rebell: This is a fellowship that is specifically for writers who identify as people of color, and your mentors are professional writers of color.
Chisa Hutchinson: Yes.
Sarah Rebell: What is the significance to you of that aspect of the fellowship?
Chisa Hutchinson: There are just certain challenges that writers of color have to deal with that other writers do not. And it would be easier, I think, for someone who’s been through it to be able to speak to someone who’s about to go through it. To just be like, “This is a thing that can happen. Here’s how you can deal with it. Here’s how you can hold on to your sanity while you deal with it.” Part of the reason why I made this opportunity specifically for writers of color is that we have a harder time entering the business. So, I’m trying to create a little equity with this opportunity, but then also make it easier for writers of color who have experienced certain challenges to warn their mentees. Or at least let their mentees know, “This is common. You’re not alone. And here’s how you deal with it, or, you know what, you don’t have to deal with it.” I think that’s just as valuable to hear, especially if it’s coming from a personal colleague who’s been through it.
Sarah Rebell: It’s interesting that the mentors, for the most part, seem to be successful working professional writers, whom, if I had to label, I would say are mid-career, in the sense that they’re not so far removed from their experience of when they were first starting out. So, they can still relate to and remember those struggles. How conscious of a choice was that for you?
Chisa Hutchinson: I think folks who are doing that straddle right now, folks who are not quite getting lifetime achievement awards but who are definitely already doing things, and being paid, and being sought out, and taking meetings, and are out there still active in the field. Because their experience is so dynamic right now, they haven’t peaked, they’re still in the struggle, they’re still active, whatever advice that they have to offer will probably be more relevant than somebody who’s been at it for 50 years. It’s hard to say that without sounding ageist. But it’s not about age so much as it is relatability and about where you are in life in this particular moment. I think that it’s easier for somebody who is just starting out to be encouraged by seeing someone who’s just three steps ahead, and being like, “Oh, if I just take those three steps, then I can get there.”
Sarah Rebell: You’re bringing up a really important point that I don’t think we talk about enough. When we encourage people to find role models or mentors, sometimes the person who is the most famous or the most produced might not be able to be the most relatable mentor, especially for a person who is just starting out.
Chisa Hutchinson: Yeah. Like, Shonda Rhimes, she’s Mount Olympus for me right now.
Sarah Rebell: What are you hoping that the mentors, who are on their own journeys of learning and growing in the industry, what might they be able to get out of participating in this initiative?
Chisa Hutchinson: I can definitely say that being an informal mentor for folks really does give me perspective, and doing that has actually opened my eyes to certain things that I don’t have to put up with. Writers who are just starting out come in with a different set of expectations. I’ve watched how mentees go about, for example, using social media to their advantage. Like, as a Gen Xer, it wouldn’t naturally occur to me to do a TikTok about my play. You know what I mean? That’s not in my wheelhouse. That is not a tool that I really comfortably used.
Sarah Rebell: You’ve touched on this a little bit, but what does mentorship mean to you? How do you think that we can ensure it is an act of inclusivity instead of an act of gatekeeping?
Chisa Hutchinson: Dramatic writing in particular is not like becoming a doctor. It’s not like, “Okay, if I’m a biology major in college, and then I go to medical school, and then I do my residency, now poof, I’m a doctor.” There’s no real path for us like that. It’s a little more haphazard, a little more slapdash, a little more catch as catch can. I think I want a mentor because there are people out there who are so freakin’ talented, who have things to say with their work, who are out there writing really beautiful things that nobody reads or no one sees. Because they don’t know the right people. That is infuriating. So, mentorship for me is really a way to try to open a door for somebody and say, “Come on in.” It shouldn’t feel like an icky, favoritistic, nepotistic, incestuous thing. I really want to give folks access however I can. Whatever button I can push, whatever lever I can pull, to open the door for someone else.
Sarah Rebell: What do you hope that others in the field can learn from your fellowship about how to be a mentor or how to support writers, especially writers of color, in this business?
Chisa Hutchinson: When I described this idea to my friend, she was like, “I could use something like that as a woman.” All of these people who’ve volunteered to be mentors, or who are offering to throw their weight behind this initiative, they are people whose careers I admire and who, frankly, I’m a little bit jealous of. But they are allies. That has made it so much easier for me to put aside my little ego, because the more successful you are, the more advice you can offer to someone else to help them be successful like that. So, if you’re reading about this initiative, and you’re like, “I wish I could start something that,” you can. You probably know really cool people who will get behind it. If I can do it, literally anyone can do it. Anybody with a little bit of money and a heart can do something like this, and for any group. If you wish there were one like this for women, start one. If you wish there were one for disabled writers, start one. You start your own shit, that’s cool.
If you’re struggling to connect with writers of color, please check out whoever we wind up choosing for this year’s fellowship, next year’s fellowship. Watch this space. For the folks who are like, “I don’t know their work. I don’t know any Black or Latinx or Asian writers.” Guess what? There are programs out there doing the legwork for you, reading the samples and evaluating them, doing mentorships and all that. So, you don’t even have to do that legwork. You can just look at our programs and see the quality of work that’s being put out because it will be phenomenal.