In Script to Screen course at Brown, aspiring filmmakers pair up with regional actors

Taught by Laura Colella, a writer and director, the course gave eight undergraduates a rare opportunity to bring their own screenwriting to life in collaboration with professional actors.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Throughout her time at Brown, Stephanie Stiles has taken courses in acting, directing, screenwriting and cinematography. But until recently, the rising senior and aspiring television writer never had a formal opportunity to tie all that knowledge together.

“I’ve picked up so many valuable filmmaking skills throughout my time at Brown, but I never had the resources to write, direct and produce my own films,” Stiles said. “I wanted to take a course that gave me the tools to oversee a filming project from start to finish, that pushed me to execute my creative vision, and that gave me a deadline.”

In Spring 2023, she found that course — Script to Screen: Scene Work.

Taught once a year by Assistant Professor of the Practice Laura Colella, a Providence-based writer and director, the course gives eight undergraduate students a rare opportunity to bring their own screenwriting to life in collaboration with professional actors. Throughout the semester, students work with Colella and other lauded artists to transform their rough-draft scripts into finished scenes, all of them featuring professional actors, many from Rhode Island and the surrounding region, hired with funding from Brown Arts Institute.

“Making films is not easy, and oftentimes it is very expensive,” Stiles said. “This class gave me an opportunity to work with paid actors I wouldn’t have been able to hire on my own — the kinds of actors who are so good that they end up improving the scene with their perspectives on the script and the production.”

Colella said the literary arts course aims to serve as a two-way bridge, not only introducing screenwriting students to the possibility of directing their own work but also allowing them to investigate how acting, directing and workshopping material with actors can inform their writing. Colella guides students as they direct one another, then outside actors selected by the students from a pool of submitted self-tapes, as they workshop, rehearse and film their scenes. 

Colella said the course is mutually beneficial: the hired actors often take the students’ writing and directing work to new levels, and the actors themselves are compensated for their time and report having fun collaborating with students. 

To prepare them for the scene work, Colella said students kicked off the semester by taking part in an acting workshop with Joan Darling, one of the first women to direct a Hollywood studio feature film and several seminal television shows. Darling has since become a dedicated mentor in the film industry, having led workshops at the Sundance Institute’s directing and screenwriting labs for more than 25 years.

“Joan is a pioneer,” Colella said. “She directed shows like ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ including an Emmy-nominated episode, ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,’ ‘M*A*S*H’ and many others. She has been a mentor to me and has so much wisdom to impart, which the students greatly appreciated.”

Filmmaking with a collaborative spirit

Students came into the course with a mix of film backgrounds. Some who had little to no experience on either side of the camera opted to join an introductory video-editing tutorial at the start of the semester. Others, like senior Luka Callicotte, have been involved in film and acting for some time: Callicotte, who uses they/them pronouns, grew up in New York City racking up multiple film and stage acting credits and working on creative video projects that combined original poetry and nature imagery. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time learning to work with the camera and learning how to work with actors,” Callicotte said. “But I struggled to get out there, get a crew together and film something that is story-based, and that’s why this class interested me.”

I struggled to get out there, get a crew together and film something that is story-based... that’s why this class interested me.

Luka Callicotte Class of 2023
Luka Callicotte acting in front of a camera

In advance of the spring course, Callicotte crafted a scene in which a college-age woman, having come out to her mother as gay as a young teen with disastrous results, steps into a bar and discovers her estranged mom on a date with another woman. The ensuing conversation between the mother and daughter, Callicotte said, is meant to examine how family relationships often improve or devolve in a non-linear way.

“I was partly inspired by a friend whose mother kicked them out of the house when they were a teenager” after coming out as queer, Callicotte said. “They didn’t come back together until my friend was 26, and now they’re inseparable. I wanted to show that queer stories have a bunch of different journeys.”

Callicotte said their script improved dramatically throughout the semester thanks to multiple rounds of feedback — first from Colella and fellow students who rehearsed and performed Callicotte’s scene in class in the winter, and then from Becky Bass and Janine Robinson, two hired actors who filmed the scene with Callicotte in the spring and “asked amazing questions about the characters that I hadn’t even thought about,” they said.

“The three of us met before filming the scene, and Luka was really open to feedback,” recalled Bass, a Providence-based musician and actor who graduated from Brown in 2013. “We threw out our ideas, and Luka incorporated them into a revised draft. Then, when we went to film the scene, they said, ‘You know the characters, you know the story, so just tell the story, even if you go off script a little bit.’ Luka had that special openness and collaborative spirit that so many have at Brown."

Learning together

Stiles’ scene also focused on the unique relationship between women from different generations of the same family. Her scene, she said, follows a Mexican-born grandmother and her American-born granddaughter as the pair start to clean a house and then become separated — exposing the very different ways in which they see the world.

“The granddaughter has undiagnosed ADHD and gets hyper-fixated on a dying plant,” Stiles said. “She leaves the house to take care of the plant, and while she’s gone, the grandmother falls and gets hurt.”

Stiles, who has Mexican ancestry and grew up cleaning houses with her grandmother in Southeastern Massachusetts, drew partly from her own experiences to write the scene. But she also took inspiration from a hot topic in the news: the vastly different way in which Generation Z views and confronts mental illnesses compared to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Stiles said that in Mexican culture, older people tend not to share information about their mental health in public, believing the subject to be taboo. People her age, by contrast, speak openly about their mental illnesses, their medications and their journeys in talk therapy.

Choosing from a pool of regional actors who had sent taped monologues to Colella, Stiles cast Sylvia Ann Soares as the grandmother and Lorraine Guerra as the granddaughter.

“It was a little intimidating, because it was my first time directing, and both Sylvia and Lorraine are so experienced,” Stiles said. “But they were incredibly gracious and helpful.”

The admiration was mutual. Soares, who in 1995 earned a degree from Brown at age 54 and has multiple off-Broadway, Hollywood and local acting credits to her name, said Stiles was “quietly focused, very warm and full of humor.” And more importantly, Soares said, the student was “very well prepared” as she filmed and directed the scene, demonstrating a solid command of various production skills.

“Even as someone with many decades of experience, even as a member of the Actors’ Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA, I’m always learning,” said Soares, a regular in Rites and Reason Theatre productions at Brown. “So when I see that someone who is far younger than me is utilizing their intellect and their talent and is focused on learning productive and efficient methods, I see them as an equal partner, because we’re both learning. Working with Stephanie was a great experience — we were both learning together.”

Both Stiles and Callicotte said the course boosted their confidence in screenwriting and filmmaking. Callicotte has brought more self-assurance and new ideas to other film projects they’re involved in, including a mockumentary-style pilot focused on the fictional heiress of a cream-cheese empire. And Stiles became so attached to receiving honest feedback on her work that she’s considering seeking it out again in Colella’s Fall 2023 course, Advanced Screenwriting, to further hone her skills.

“Feedback is so important — it isn’t people telling you something’s bad, it’s people trying to make a good thing better,” Stiles said. “Now I love getting feedback, because I want to make my work as good as it can be. I want to go into filming a scene believing it has something important and original to say. I want to think, ‘What I’m making is worth making.’”