Do the Write Thing Mixer 2: Where Community and Creativity Meet
During a loose and lively conversation held at the Aster in Hollywood, veteran producers and writers Zoanne Clack and Gloria Calderón Kellett regaled a room full of guests with their stories about how they broke into the entertainment industry, sometimes with the help of others who served as their mentors.
It was the second in a series of creative mixers presented by Hollywood, Health & Society on Aug. 3 that centers around creatives from the BIPOC community (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and the challenges they face in getting ahead in the industry.
Calderón Kellett is an award-winning writer, playwright, director, producer and actress. She was the executive producer, co-creator, co-showrunner and director of the Netflix reboot One Day at a Time, and the creator, showrunner and one of the co-stars of With Love on Amazon. Earlier in her career, she was a writer and producer on shows that included Devious Maids and How I Met Your Mother, and is now an executive producer of The Horror of Dolores Roach.
Clack is executive producer for the ABC series Grey’s Anatomy, which the network renewed for a 20th season, and is executive producer and showrunner of its spinoff show Station 19. She attended Northwestern University, UT Southwestern Medical School, and Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, and worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Calderón Kellett and Clack both broke in to the entertainment business in roundabout ways. After earning her M.D., Clack practiced emergency medicine in Atlanta and did project work abroad for the CDC in the city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the Pacific nation of Palau. But even after getting her master's degree in public health at the Rollins School, Clack felt that being a doctor wasn't enough.
A lifelong dream of being a writer had always bubbled below the surface, and she took some classes. Deciding to use her medical background to pursue a career in entertainment writing, she moved to Los Angeles with a lone spec script she had written. That eventually landed her a staff writing job on the CBS show Presidio Med in 2001 with the help of show co-creator Lydia Woodward, who became an early mentor. In addition to Woodward, Clack counts Hollywood producing juggernauts Yvette Lee Bowser (who was in attendance at the mixer) and Shonda Rhimes as other strong mentors in her life.
"I feel like it's about authenticity, speaking your truth, and just putting yourself out there," Clack said. "And that's what I did. I just started writing my stories."
Calderón Kellett grew up watching sitcoms by Norman Lear, with their diverse characters and storylines that tackled difficult social issues. Thinking that Hollywood was eager to hear from people like her she moved to Los Angeles, where she graduated from Loyola Marymount University in 1997 with a degree in theater arts. (She also earned a master's degree in theater from the University of London.)
Attempts at acting gigs followed (Clack also briefly tried her hand at acting), but every audition call Calderón Kellett went on was for the "part of a gang member's chola girlfriend who hid evidence of a gun from the police."
"I didn't know anybody in Hollywood," she said. The key to cracking the system, she finally realized, was that she needed to be in the room with the men (mostly white) who were doing the writing. "I bought this story that I wasn’t good enough to be [in the writers rooms]," she said. "But when I got into these rooms finally, [I realized] that I was just as good, if not better."
She found a mentor in Pamela Fryman, a legendary sitcom director working on the CBS show How I Met Your Mother who helped Calderón Kellett get a staff writing job on the show.
Of course, Lear played a huge role in mentoring Calderón Kellett by giving her the chance to co-create a reboot of Lear's sitcom One Day at a Time that focused on the lives of a Cuban-American family. Later, at the urging of Fryman, who directed a dozen of the show's episodes, Calderón Kellett stepped into the role as a director herself.
It’s clear that both Clack and Calderón Kellett are now paying it forward. Each have taken on the role of advisor, mentor and friend to, respectively, Emily Culver, a writer on Station 19; and Fawzia Mitzi, a writer and director whose feature film debut The Queen of My Dreams will be shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"Gloria has just sort of emulated not only the kind of mentorship and friendship that's [needed] in the industry, but also in the world," Mitzi said.
Culver and Clack met on Grey's Anatomy, where Culver was a member of the production staff and a story editor. And even though Clack is now her boss on Station 19, Culver said the showrunner regularly takes the time to just sit around and find out how Culver is doing, and offer some old-school help and encouragement.
Calderón Kellett has done extensive outreach to beginners, posting 11 free instructive sessions on YouTube on topics ranging from TV Writing 101 to how to be a showrunner.
Calderón Kellett's play, One of the Good Ones, will premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse in March 2024. Clack is working on a memoir and her "self-brand," and said her five-year plan was to travel the world with her kids—and get paid while doing it. A co-chair of the HH&S advisory board, Clack through the years has been focused on promoting public health issues through the media.
At one point during the conversation, Calderón Kellett said the issue of diversity and representation in Hollywood has improved but it remains a struggle.
"I love the conversation around mentorship," she said, "but I also feel like there's a pressure that this generation feels that if they don't have a mentor, they can't do it. I didn't have a mentor for five years." She cautioned those in the audience seeking their big break in Hollywood that it doesn't always pay to wait for a mentor to appear.
"Sometimes you just have to be your own mentor," she said.