In summer 2019, I was co-writing a made-for-TV thriller in my apartment in Greenpoint, bartending in the East Village, and freelance post-production coordinating at an ad agency on Wall Street. Occasionally, I’d audition for an Off (or Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway play), losing a part of my soul with every “thank you so much”, uttered between clenched teeth as I exited rehearsal room 4D.542 at Ripley Grier Studios.
On the subway from jobs and auditions, I’d log onto social media, scrolling past the posts of the creative women I admired and instead, pausing on photos shared from the one person who always made me feel small — a bully from school I hadn’t seen in years.
I’d scroll through her feed, rereading her captions multiple times for no explicable reason. After a month of doing this, she started haunting my dreams. In sleep, I’d confront her about her actions in our youth, why she’d been so cruel to me, why she picked me to ostracize, but I’d get no answer — only a laugh, a smack in the face, or, most jarringly, a kiss. I’d wake up sweating.
Then, the producers of the TV movie gig called to tell my writing partner and I that our ending, where the teenage protagonist gives up her baby for adoption in order to go to college, was “too depressing” for overseas audiences. (I’d originally pitched an abortion as the happy ending, which was dismissed before I could finish the sentence.) Our heroine would have to keep the baby — end of discussion.
I had to admit, it was darkly funny, like the article celebrating that in 2019, box office hits directed by women reached record highs at a whomping 10 percent. But it was also the season of PEN15 and Fleabag Series 2 — shows that did not bounce between comedy and drama, but played both simultaneously, like chords, by leaning into the wounds of their leading women/creators until they bled fresh. Their humor came from a reclamation: not of power, but of sharing the strangest fears and secrets they were no longer afraid of speaking out loud.
So, while blowing off the ending re-write, I started scribbling notes about my weird, embarrassing, hard-to-explain obsession with my old bully. As my notes became a draft, I realized this story was episodic in nature. Brooke, my lead, couldn’t just confront the queen that haunted her right away. She was going to have to face more trauma from puberty first: the friend she’d abandoned, the bully’s sidekick, the mean crush, the teacher whose approval she craved. All these shadow figures had to be reckoned with — these unexplored archetypes that kept whispering to me from my own past while I stared into the pixels of my bully’s face on-screen.
I kept each episode under 10 pages and in one location because I knew I wanted to shoot it fast, without having to fundraise and before I got too scared and backed out. I decided to use the money I made from ruining my teenage protagonist’s life in the TV thriller to save my mid-20s heroine’s life in what would become Following Hannah Stone. It was a worthwhile sacrifice.
Because of the fire I’d lit under my own nervous ass, we shot four out of five episodes Jan-March of 2020, before the pandemic shut the world down. It was only then, while editing in lockdown, that I realized I hadn’t checked my bully’s social media profiles in weeks.
As I watched Brooke (played with depth by my dear friend Simone Grossman) give into her unstoppable pursuit of Hannah, I felt the knots in my shoulders loosen.
Through Simone’s careful, specific performance, Brooke’s obsession became endearing. It was so uncontrollable, as base an instinct as sexual desire. Only then did I understand what I was trying to tell myself: how close contempt is to love, hurt is to longing, and how feeling pummeled by life in New York in summer 2019 had, of course, pulled me back to my days of feeling beaten down by my Hannah Stone, making the memories worse and worse each time I revisited them.
Time + social media x anxiety = a painful concoction of feelings. When Brooke shows up on Hannah’s doorstep in the finale, she discovers that as life got harder, her projections on the Hannah in her phone took hold. And if she wants to move on, she’s going to have to do the letting go.
Crafting Following Hannah Stone on the page was therapeutic, but making it was empowering.
For me, writing helps ease the pain and gives me perspective, but directing and producing my work, articulating it, and collaborating with people I admire is where I rediscover my sense of joy.
The same boundless joy I found as a kid devising plays with neighbors on the lawn of our apartment complex. The adults were invited to revel in our brilliance — but no notes allowed.
I’d forgotten, until FHS, that when I make from that place, the “kid on the front lawn” place, an exorcism occurs — and when the show is over, I’m free to move on to the next unturned (Hannah) stone in my heart.
My hope and belief is that every young woman creator should take an idea from a shame-ridden, creepy, tender, dark place, and follow it down the rabbit hole into production. It doesn’t have to cost much, it doesn’t have to be fancy. But pulling a story from the dregs of your brain and heart, twisting it around, then committing to thrusting it onto a small screen, black box theater, or corner of your block before doubt rushes in to stop you is, to me, one of the most stunning things to behold.
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