Writer’s Corner is a place to get to know outstanding writers, talk about the craft of writing, career advice, share horror stories and find out more about compelling films, television shows, plays, etc. There’s so much great content out there being made by female creators, we should all be keeping an eye on these women.
Today we are featuring Jorjeana Marie
With rural roots and a city awakening, Jorjeana Marie is a born storyteller and lover of variety. Whether it’s writing at Disney on “Mickey & the Roadster Racers”, working as a produced NYC playwright, or as an author and award-winning narrator of fiction and non-fiction lit. Her book “Improv for Writers” (2019-Penguin Random House) and feature article in the recent issue of Writer’s Digest “The Comedy Issue” and “Writer’s Workbook” utilize her years of teaching young people creativity and she has narrated over 200 books spanning mystery, sci-fi, romance, children’s lit, YA, inspirational, historical fiction and thriller.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I started out in theatre, writing and performing and sweeping stages of all sizes in New York City – and as a comic who started touring with my stand-up. I wrote full-length plays, one-acts, one woman shows and my own stand-up comedy material…oh and lots of poetry. I haven’t written any poetry outside of NYC. It’s a very inspiring, creativity-inducing place and I find I don’t write the same way now. I think I’m less gritty here in LA with all this beautiful sunshine. But maybe that’s okay to have less grit when writing for kids. Amiright?
What do you like best about writing children’s television? How did you get your start in that particular format?
I love writing for kids. This was something I can’t believe I didn’t think of doing earlier. All those years of shlepping from city to city to tell jokes and I could have been in cartoons? Are you kidding? No offense to the audiences around the nation, but writing gags and giggling while doing it suits me better than “you know what I hate about ashtrays?” When I found my voice as a comic, it was a pretty kid friendly act and I was often working ‘clean’ anyway, but there aren’t a lot of (any?) kids comedy clubs calling me out for a tour, so writing for them was a smooth transition.
I taught kids for years improvisation, so it’s been a very natural extension to be writing with them in mind because we were making up stories and crawling around making animal sounds under the chairs together for years. I had led and pushed them to try things most adults would freak out about doing in front of others. “But I don’t know what an eagle sounds like!” But children have a fearlessness, a trust and a playfulness adults don’t have. Sadly, that often disappears. I think tapping into that or hanging onto that playfulness and trust is essential.
I wrote plays for kids and worked in children’s theatre and taught and directed them. So, when I wrote a spec for animation it wasn’t the first time writing for kids, but it was the first time I was taking it somewhere in a career sense. I did the thing you’re never supposed to do. I wrote a spec for a show I wanted to write on. But the thing is, I never expected to actually write on the show, I was just playing, trying. Throwing spaghetti at the wall. I’m part of a great writing group and we put up work every several weeks with professional actors reading the material and I had to put something up. An animated spec for Disney was it that week. Now I did have some help getting it to a story editor there and was expecting some notes back, but it was timing. It just so happened that they were looking for a story like the one I had written. I don’t think I have ever, ever been so lucky in my whole life. I’ve spent a lot of time getting comedy gigs for myself in the middle of nowhere and driving for some pittance of pay, this was a real ‘break’ for me. After years of working, improvising, joke and story-telling, I felt I had reached a major milestone.
To top it off, a few weeks later, I remembered a really important moment from my childhood that I had forgotten as an adult. I was eight years old, standing on the dirt road that led to the farm, when I had looked up at the sky and thought “I want to write for Disney.”
I had wanted that and it had happened. And now anything feels possible. When this dream from childhood came true, I became convinced there is something bigger, a grander scheme, The Force, a higher power, something… and I am so grateful for the chance I have been given. So incredibly grateful. I thought I wanted to voice cartoons (and I do that too) but when this door opened, it was as if it was the door I felt truly meant to walk through all my life. No matter where I go from here, I’ll know I had a dream as a child, and it came true as an adult and I can’t explain that feeling. And I don’t know that any other accomplishment will be as magical as that. Maybe a Broadway show opening…umm, I better get to work.
I understand you’re also a playwright. Can you tell us about how the process of writing a play and getting it produced compares to the process of writing an animated show on Disney?
Yes. Writing a play is sort of the opposite from my experience writing on television-at least in terms of collaboration. I mean, writing is still writing. I use an outline for both. I use cards or some semblance of paper shuffling for both. But when I write a play, that idea comes from me, from my observing of life, from history, from imagination. Later I work with directors, producers, actors, lighting, costumes to see the vision come to life. In animation, I begin with the story editor or show creator either tossing out ideas or being assigned one and then getting notes. Then maybe more notes. It’s more collaborative in the beginning.
In theatre, there is a saying: “The playwright is God”. It just means, the writer is the person who came up with the idea and is the source of all in this “world” and you have to talk to the playwright to even change a line – at least once you’re in rehearsals. Once the show is in performances there is no changing of lines usually. Except one of my plays was running in the weeks around September 11, 2001 and of course, we were dark. But once the city started to get back up on it’s feet, I had several lines I wanted to change. They just were no longer right in the “world” I had created or the real world anymore. So, I made the changes. But in rehearsal, we made several line changes as the actors and director came to me about a few things. They were really great about it, there was a real respect in the material. Maybe even more than I probably deserved at that young age. I got a little spoiled. Because in animation, there are often many changes after you’ve handed in your script. And you don’t even know about it. It goes to the storyboard artist at some point and these artists are tremendously talented and can be credited in making things funnier, more clear, etc. So, writing for animation is more collaborative throughout and being a playwright is a bit being a king or queen in a castle for a while. Your rules are the rules of the land. Until a theatre company decides to mount it-then all hands on deck!! But they are mounting it because the script is near-perfect. A dramaturg can be involved too, helping shape the material, but there are not many people changing lines or meaning. I’m gonna say, there’s a bit more power writing plays – in terms of keeping your vision the way you want it, but it’s simply not as fun as creating cartoons. Theater can be absurd, yes, but it’s taken very seriously in most aspects. Cartoons are cartoons are cartoons. Yes, they are crafted with care by some pretty wonderful people, but they are, at the root, very very “funn”. Two ns. And writing them is joyful for me. I tend to live in the world I’m writing in and plant myself there. As if I were acting in it. And living inside a cartoon is a wild ride.
You’re also a novelist. As writers we’re often told to stick with one genre, one format, one style. We hardly ever listen and end up writing what we want. Can you talk about what inspired you to write fiction and non-fiction? Do you have a preference over plays, novels, screenplays etc? Why?
I do have trouble staying put, sitting still. I always have. Formal dinners sometimes make me feel uncomfortable. I want to get up and move around, mingle, talk to different people and get into meaningful conversations. Sometimes that’s harder when you’re stationary. Like that song lyric: ‘I was born under a wandering star…’ I don’t know why anyone tries to ever tell writers to do anything. We’re all just going to hopefully do what’s best for each of us. (Just like you said-I love that). I was like this as an actress too, films, voice-over, sketches. Goodness, if I stuck to just doing one thing, I think I would still be hustling a side job. And I did enough strange side jobs for all of us. How I string together all these seemingly different things is simple. I’m a storyteller. And my non-fiction book “Improv for Writers” coming out this year is based on games used to come up with stories, characters, settings, so it fits the bill in terms of what I have always been doing. Teaching and telling stories.
What inspired me to write this non-fiction book was when I got asked to teach a workshop while I was standing around gabbing at Comic Con one year. And off the cuff, in true improv style, I said how about a workshop for writers where they don’t have to get up and cluck like a chicken, but they also can learn what improv is all about and come up with ideas for the page right then and there. So, we did that at Scriptwriter’s Network and a few other places. And then the book came after. And when it was Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House who offered a publishing deal, I nearly lost my mind. I mean, I kinda did. I’m still looking around on the floor for it. Where did it go?
I did things a little backwards, I got contracts and interest whipped up and then went off to meet different agents. I think they would agree I was much more interesting with some paperwork in hand. As an actor, I was always so reliant on my agent. I thought they would open all doors for me and do the heavy lifting. And they are important of course, but I worked harder without reps. And I was already hustling getting my own gigs and writing my own projects. I think I worked harder because people weren’t handing out roles to this girl they couldn’t figure out how to cast. So I started doing the work. And I don’t plan to stop. Even if they do start handing me roles. I was a writer long before I stood on stage, so the game has always been for me, how do I do more than one thing. Not everyone is cut out for multiple personality career. I think I was built for it. But I sometimes think, if I just stuck to playwriting, or only stand-up or kept my dream to be Stephen King typing away in a cabin for decades, what would my life look like? Probably less rainbows, more bloodshed and less cartoon clouds to lay on. It would have been a mess. This current mess of many hyphens is a better mess for me.
I also have narrated over two hundred novels, mostly children’s and YA, but I still feel this fits into my world. I love telling stories of all kinds and that they are mostly for kids and teens works again for me.
My children’s books have had their inspiration come about in realizing some of the gaps we have in children’s literature and wanting to fill that, especially girls/STEM stories, but mostly, those children’s story ideas don’t leave me alone. They just sort of show up and shout “Write about me!” “No!! Silly, write about ME!!”. “Hey!! YOU! I’m over here!!”
I don’t have a preference over any of the forms. What I love is FINISHING anything. I’ve got gads of stories, as most of us do, in horde of beginnings, middles and ends. But when I just get to the end of a first draft at least, I feel a real sense of being a real writer. I did that. I made that. I got through it. Now… let’s go back in there in a few days and toss out the bodies and smelly things.
How did you get into teaching? What have you learned about writing and yourself in the process of teaching others?
I got into teaching when a friend of mine invited me up to Amherst to go to a performing arts school on Career Day and talk to the teens about what it’s like to be a professional stand-up comedian. I was never the same after that. There was such genuine interest in the subject and I found I could talk about it rather easily and was so earnest in wanting them to get to where they wanted to go with acting, comedy, writing, etc. that it was a natural fit. When the students got together and asked me to teach a small group of them after that, I was floored. I’d made enough of an impact to get teens organized. Do you know what that means? Teens. Organized. So I put together a course called Crash Course in Comedy and we began. Then I started taking improv seriously and soon after began teaching that. Then I realized than improv has the power to change the world – dun dun dun! And I could talk all day about improv and do improv while sleepwalking (not recommended actually) so I still teach wherever I get invited to. I have helped a few schools open and grow, but I have less interest in being an organizer myself. I’ll leave opening schools to the strongly inspired, because it is really hard work, and well, I live as my mother has always said: “In a dream world” so mostly I just want to get back to storytelling, so I teach in between projects when I can. But I do LOVE it. I realized I was passionate about improvisation and about seeing the light turn on and in playing a part in revealing unbridled ideas and igniting inspiration.
I also love teaching because I found out after the first year of ten years teaching, the saying is true, if you want to know a subject inside and out, teach it. Kids ask a lot of questions and teens don’t do anything unless you seem like you know what you’re doing and adults don’t budge unless you’re a full-blown expert, so you just sort of have to become one to get anyone to do anything. Ever. Fortunately, I chose a subject that is highly valuable – actors can’t really get by these days without doing it – even if they don’t want to. Because when you show up on set, when you’re the person who can go with the flow, make things up that actually stem from the character and the world they are in and aren’t just willy nilly weird things to say, but are funny, and work and stay in the final cut and become the saying that is remembered, you become a commodity. When an entire page of script changes are thrown at you, and you don’t blink, but learn them as if they were the original, people fight to hire you. That’s the power of the principles of improvisation.
What I’m excited about and my purpose with the book is offering up the tools that have made this very thing possible for thousands of years for actors – offer that up for writers too. At least a version. The book is never meant to be in lieu of, but rather, a step towards trying out an improv class one day if there’s real interest, but beyond that, it’s the chance to peek inside this very powerful toolbox and clang around for a while and start coming up with idea after idea as if your mind were a spigot that won’t shut off. And it’s there for everyone to experiment with. The democratization of goofiness.
The other thing I learned about through teaching was how critical we are of ourselves and others. And how judgmental. And doing improv in a supportive, positive environment (this is key) over time erodes self-criticism and judgement of others. I’m drawn in and so grateful for Brené Brown’s research. In Daring Greatly she wrote: “One reason that I’m confident that shame exists in schools is simply because 85 percent of the men and women we interviewed for the shame research could recall a school incident from their childhood that was so shaming that it changed how they thought of themselves as learners. What makes this even more haunting is that approximately half of those recollections were what I refer to as creativity scars. The research participants could point to a specific incident where they were told or shown that they weren’t good writers, artists, musicians, dancers, or something creative. This helps explain why the gremlins are so powerful when it comes to creativity and innovation.”
It backs up what I have known and seen as a teacher of children and it is a big part of why I am so passionate about everyone having a chance to learn and implement the foundations of improv not only in their creative endeavors, but in their day to day. Simple rules like listening, adding something, agreeing, these make every connection we have better and in such a simple way, including our connections with ourselves. We can be so hard on our own work, but when we practice these rules consistently and create constantly, there just is no longer time to stop ourselves, tear down others’ work. We’re too busy building the coolest sandcastle ever.
What’s your favorite project you’ve written that has yet to be published or produced?
I have a couple of historical projects about the early female film pioneers of Hollywood. Did you know that over fifty percent of the stories written at the start of Hollywood’s film rise were written by women? I get antsy just thinking about them. In fact, I need to get back to them, they are telling me some good stories. Can’t make this stuff up!
What are you working on now?
I’m also writing on several animated shows, the only one I can mention is “Mickey and The Roadster Racers”, but I look forward to talking about the others soon too! It’s too much fun not too, so I’m duct-taping my mouth with pink polka dot tape to keep from spilling the beans. Mfffthhhwarrt!
Where can we support your work?
*removes tape* Awww, thanks! I’m at:
- The book is available pre-sale at: https://www.amazon.com/Improv-Writers-Novelists-Screenwriters-Generate/dp/0399582037
- You can hear samples of narration of some bestselling Young Adult and kid’s stories on my site or on audible.
- Twitter: @jorjeanamarie
- Facebook: Jorjeana Marie
- Insta: jorjeanaisjojo