Written By September|October 2012 : Page 32

Speaking Their Language 32 • WG A W W R i TTE n By Written by Lisa Portraits by Rosen TOM KELLER Lizzy Weiss signs on for Switched at Birth. witched At Birth has all the requisite features of a teen drama: feisty female leads, Bieber-cute boys, romantic triangles, cliffhangers, extra moms. Okay, that last element is new. The show’s two lead girls learn that the hospital switched them; their families become entwined as a result. That’s not the only unusual angle. In a first on any television series, several of the show’s characters are deaf. (They’re played by deaf and hard-of-hearing actors.) Deaf culture is so integral to the show it’s practically a character in itself, giving all those teenage tropes a fresh perspective—and ABC Family a hit. When Switched first aired in the summer of 2011, its 3.1 million audience broke the network’s ratings record for a series premiere. Not bad for an afterthought. Creator and executive producer Lizzy Weiss heard a story on This American Life about two women who learned, in their 50s, that they had been switched at birth. She recalls, “I was pregnant and I knew I was having a girl, so I was very hooked into mother-daughter stuff at that point. I was going to be in a hospital delivering a baby a few months later, so I was particularly fascinated. I instantly thought, That’s a great new way of telling a family drama. ” Then she met up with an unpleasant reality—shows with teen pro-tagonists are dying on the vine. She tried the CW, but they only wanted teen shows that came from a known property. “My agent said, ‘Your only shot is ABC Family.’” Weiss was unhappy about the odds. “But I went in. By then I was eight months pregnant.” She walked out think-ing it was all over. “The executive, Brooke Bowman, didn’t ask any questions. I’d pitched her twice before; she never bought anything from me.” The third time must have charmed her; four hours later Bowman bought the pitch. When Weiss learned how much cable paid, she was dismayed once more. “I was at a point in my career where I was just really down.” Weiss had started in TV a dozen years earlier, working on the MTV show Undressed. She landed the surfing film Blue Crush off of a spec script, which began a run of film work. “Then the landscape changed in fea-tures. I shifted to TV and wrote [and sold] 12 pilots, which was great, but back then I didn’t have kids, so my life was my job.” None made it to air. “To spend all that time alone every day, always pitching on stuff, to only get one project a year and then not have it go, it does feel like you’re yelling and no one’s hearing you.” Despite the gloomy prospects, Weiss was too attached to the Switched idea to let it go. She wrote the pilot almost a year before it was due, in a café with her six-week-old baby by her side. “I just nursed her and wrote it. I loved it and wanted to get it out of my system.” se P te M ber | o C t ober 20 12 S

Speaking Their Language

Lisa Rosen

Lizzy Weiss signs on for Switched at Birth.<br /> <br /> Switched At Birth has all the requisite features of a teen drama: feisty female leads, Bieber-cute boys, romantic triangles, cliffhangers, extra moms. Okay, that last element is new. The show’s two lead girls learn that the hospital switched them; their families become entwined as a result.<br /> <br /> That’s not the only unusual angle. In a first on any television series, several of the show’s characters are deaf. (They’re played by deaf and hardof- hearing actors.) Deaf culture is so integral to the show it’s practically a character in itself, giving all those teenage tropes a fresh perspective—and ABC Family a hit. When Switched first aired in the summer of 2011, its 3.1 million audience broke the network’s ratings record for a series premiere.<br /> <br /> Not bad for an afterthought.<br /> <br /> Creator and executive producer Lizzy Weiss heard a story on This American Life about two women who learned, in their 50s, that they had been switched at birth. She recalls, “I was pregnant and I knew I was having a girl, so I was very hooked into mother-daughter stuff at that point. I was going to be in a hospital delivering a baby a few months later, so I was particularly fascinated. I instantly thought, That’s a great new way of telling a family drama.” <br /> <br /> Then she met up with an unpleasant reality—shows with teen protagonists are dying on the vine. She tried the CW, but they only wanted teen shows that came from a known property. “My agent said, ‘Your only shot is ABC Family.’” Weiss was unhappy about the odds. “But I went in. By then I was eight months pregnant.” She walked out thinking it was all over. “The executive, Brooke Bowman, didn’t ask any questions. I’d pitched her twice before; she never bought anything from me.” The third time must have charmed her; four hours later Bowman bought the pitch.<br /> <br /> When Weiss learned how much cable paid, she was dismayed once more. “I was at a point in my career where I was just really down.” Weiss had started in TV a dozen years earlier, working on the MTV show Undressed. She landed the surfing film Blue Crush off of a spec script, which began a run of film work. “Then the landscape changed in features.I shifted to TV and wrote [and sold] 12 pilots, which was great, but back then I didn’t have kids, so my life was my job.” None made it to air. “To spend all that time alone every day, always pitching on stuff, to only get one project a year and then not have it go, it does feel like you’re yelling and no one’s hearing you.” <br /> <br /> Despite the gloomy prospects, Weiss was too attached to the Switched idea to let it go. She wrote the pilot almost a year before it was due, in a café with her six-week-old baby by her side. “I just nursed her and wrote it. I loved it and wanted to get it out of my system.”<br /> <br /> Lizzy Weiss visited Marlton, a public school for the deaf in Los Angeles, questioning the students with the help of an interpreter. They were incredulous. “‘You mean every week, the main character is going to be deaf?’ I just remember driving home thinking, I want this to get on the air so badly, so those kids can see themselves on TV.”<br /> <br /> Switched at Work <br /> <br /> She made the two Switched girls and their families as different as possible. Regina Vasquez is a single mother raising Daphne, a basketball star. John and Kathryn Kennish’s daughter, Bay, is a snarky teen with a gift for art. The Kennishes are white and very rich. Regina is half Puerto Rican, and her family lives on the seedy side of town—until the Kennishes invite them to move into the guesthouse.<br /> <br /> ABC Family had liked Weiss’ outline but wanted something more to differentiate the girls and raise the stakes. Out of the blue, she remembered a college class she had taken on theater of the deaf. “It was one of my favorite classes at Duke,” she recounts. “I said, ‘What if one of the girls is deaf?’” The network loved the idea.“It’s hard to imagine one of the bigger networks being okay with a deaf character. ABC Family is willing to take chances.” <br /> <br /> Researching deaf culture reminded her of learning about the surfing world of Blue Crush. “Each community is protective of their own lingo and way of being.” She visited Marlton, a public school for the deaf in Los Angeles, questioning the students with the help of an interpreter. “I’d already come up with a lot of the story, but I wanted specificity,” she says. When she told the class the show’s premise, they were incredulous. “‘You mean every week, the main character is going to be deaf?’ I just remember driving home thinking, I want this to get on the air so badly, so those kids can see themselves on TV.”<br /> <br /> Daphne has been deaf since contracting meningitis at age three. She wears hearing aids and speaks and signs at the same time. Her best friend, Emmett, who’s also deaf, signs without speaking. While writing the pilot, Weiss decided that any scenes between deaf characters would use ASL only, mirroring real life. ABC Family was fine with those scenes being captioned, Weiss says. “I was so excited to do that.” <br /> <br /> The network invited actress Marlee Matlin to watch the pilot even before it was picked up, to get her feedback. “I sat with her while she watched it,” says Weiss. “She said, ‘I’d love to be part of the show, and Sean Berdy [who plays Emmett] is amazing.’”<br /> <br /> Weiss offered her the role of Emmett’s mother Melody. (She had originally given Emmett two dads, but they were cut out of the pilot for time.) “Marlee has been such an incredible advocate for us,” Weiss notes. “She talks about how Children of a Lesser God was, of course, a huge breakthrough 20 years ago, but then things stopped. She says we’ve taken the ball and moved it forward.” <br /> <br /> Weiss points out that many aspects of the deaf experience are uniquely suited to a show about teenagers: “Not being accepted, seeing the world from a different point of view. That’s also what made our show popular—every kid feels different, and deafness is a metaphor.”<br /> <br /> Signs of the Times <br /> <br /> When she brought the writers on, she told them not to be nervous about writing for deaf characters. “I said, ‘Do your research, learn it all, and let it go; you’re writing for 16-year-olds.’” But a few storytelling conventions had to be ditched. “It took us all a couple months to stop pitching scenes where Daphne takes a phone call,” James Stoteraux notes. “It’s amazing how many plot points turn on somebody overhearing something.We don’t have that crutch. Daphne doesn’t overhear.” <br /> <br /> He and his writing partner Chad Fiveash, both co-executive producers, turned the convention on its side in one of their episodes. Bay felt bad that Daphne couldn’t eavesdrop on a conversation their parents were having in another room, “So Bay interrupted them and said, ‘We’re just going to come in here and listen because it’s not fair for her,’” says Stoteraux. “That came out of a throw-up-your-hands moment. It was also very Bay.”<br /> <br /> Communication is a prominent theme on the show. At any given time, characters are speaking, signing, needing interpreters, or some combination therein. Mixing the signing and speaking worlds often heightens the story in unexpected ways, as when a private fight between Bay and Emmett had to be interpreted by Daphne, who was mad at both of them.<br /> <br /> “We’ve used signing for everything,” Weiss says. “Exclusion, intimacy, a way to connect or disconnect.” The writers took some lessons and an ASL master is on set. (The crew organized their own lessons as well; on set the Pas sign ready.) “When I’m writing scenes with ASL, I often look up the signs and think about how they might influence a scene” with people who aren’t fluent, Weiss notes. “There’s a moment where Kathryn asks Melody the sign for divorce and realizes it’s the opposite of the sign for dating, and she finds that sad. The hand motion, of two figures moving away from each other instead of together, expresses something powerfully without words.” On a lighter note, when the writers learned that the signs for virgin and vegetable are often mixed up by hearing people, it became a running joke between Bay and Emmett after the two started dating.<br /> <br /> ASL also created a real-life dilemma. Constance Marie, the actress who plays Regina, developed cumulative motion injury from signing. She’s had to give her hands a six-month break in the hopes of repairing the damage. The writers tackled the problem head-on by giving Regina the condition, making her inability to sign with daughter Daphne a source of tension.<br /> <br /> Moms Rule <br /> <br /> A visit to the show’s Santa Clarita offices coincides with the announcement that Switched has been nominated for a Television Critics Award for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming. The writers room erupts into joyful chaos.<br /> (The show wins the award a month later as well as an Imagen Award tonight for best primetime program honoring positive portrayals of Latinos in film and TV.) Then they settle in to review episode five of the third cycle of the first season. Yes, it confuses them too. Twenty-two episodes have aired so far, in two “cycles.” This third section of eight episodes premieres September 3.<br /> <br /> For the first time, an episode has come up short. A few writers pitch additional scenes to Weiss. It’s a light workday near the end of the season, so she gives them all the greenlight to write the scenes and will pick the ones she uses later.<br /> <br /> The writers walk down the hill to lunch with the cast and crew. Afterward, they hold a table read for the season finale on a set that serves as a study hall, church meeting room, and Cuban restaurant. It’s Weiss’ episode; she takes notes for a rewrite she’ll do that night.<br /> <br /> Back in her office, she sits surrounded by posters from her movies, family pictures, Banksy-esque street art used for Bay’s character, and a shooting target from her visit to Kansas City, Missouri, where the show is set. “My friend from Duke took me for the Red State tour,” she explains. “We ate barbeque, we shot guns.” She’s got good aim, all head and heart holes.<br /> <br /> After all those years of pilots that didn’t go, this process has been freakishly smooth, especially since she knew none of her staff beforehand.Even non-writing executive producer Paul Stupin (Dawson’s Creek) was an arranged match by the network. “He’s made this a great marriage,” Weiss says. “I’m not on set from crew to last call.We tone beforehand; if there’s an important scene that’s emotional, about exactly hitting a beat, I do run down. Aside from that, the writers cover their own episodes, and because I have two little kids and don’t want to miss out on them altogether, I have breakfast and dinner with them.” She usually leaves the office by six and works at home after putting the kids to bed.“Paul’s been incredibly supportive of that. If someone needs to be on set late at night, he’s there.”<br /> <br /> Weiss told her writers during their interviews that late nights Would be rare. “We have a fun room, but we don’t have one of those rooms where nothing happens ’til seven o’clock at night,” she says, estimating they’ve had one late night per cycle.<br /> <br /> “I want to put in my contract that I only work for women and/or moms,” Stoteraux declares. “They have everything organized.” Fiveash agrees, adding, “Our first day here, Lizzy sat down and said, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking for episodes,’ and laid out this amazing roadmap. It all got shot, almost to the letter. We’ve been on so many shows where, day one, someone gets their pilot picked up, and the creator says, ‘I don’t know, what do you think we should do?’” <br /> <br /> “Moms get shit done because we’ve got more shit to do,” says co-executive producer Joy Gregory (Swingtown). All but one of the writers have children and/or stepchildren. “We battle a lot about who has it harder, the ones with toddlers or teenagers,” Weiss jokes.<br /> <br /> Consulting producer Anne Kenney (Beautiful People) has two of the latter. “I feel like I have a little Petri dish at home,” she notes. “I would have written the show differently before I had kids. In my romantic girl head I think, Oh, I want the boy to do this, or say that, and then I think about my teenage son and I think, He would NEVER do or say that.” Then again, the bulk of the audience is girls, so a bit of dreaminess does get thrown in. “The longing thing, that’s Jane Austen, it’s the Brontes, so we love doing that stuff too.”<br /> <br /> The show’s deaf advisor told Chad Fiveash and James Stoteraux that, contrary to what one might expect, deaf proms are incredibly loud; speakers are aimed into the floor so the dancers can feel the vibrations better.“Everybody’s looking for the new spin. Switched at Birth has that in spades,” Fiveash says.<br /> <br /> Gregory has always enjoyed coming-of-age stories.“My own coming-of-age happened in so many stages throughout my 20s and arguably into my 30s,” she notes wryly. “It’s such a repeating theme, about women finding their voices, that I’m attracted to telling again and again.” <br /> <br /> Fiveash and Stoteraux worked in genre (Legend of the Seeker) but found their niche in teen dramas like One Tree Hill. “We like writing girls more than guys,” Fiveash says. They’ve written four prom episodes over the years. “Suddenly, we’re on a show with a deaf prom,” says Stoteraux.The show’s deaf advisor told them that, contrary to what one might expect, deaf proms are incredibly loud; speakers are aimed into the floor so the dancers can feel the vibrations better. “Everybody’s looking for the new spin.Switched at Birth has that in spades,” Fiveash says.<br /> <br /> The first week, Weiss asked everyone to bring in pictures of themselves in high school and posted them on a bulletin board in the writers’ room. Says story editor Henry Robles, “They remind ourselves of our mindset then—the awkwardness, the raging hormones, everything.”<br /> <br /> Robles was eager to make the move from procedurals (Cold Case, Traveler) to character-driven shows. “The outcomes are endless because the situations are endless.” At the same time, Switched eludes “Hallmark sentiment,” he adds.“Characters don’t always say exactly what’s on their mind. We definitely strive to push past the easy solution, to come up with the more genuine response.” <br /> <br /> When Robles first started writing, “I told myself I don’t want to write on any show where I have to do lawyers or Latinos, because that’s my background. I’m Mexican-American, I practiced law for six years, and I didn’t want to write within my box.” But he’s been happy to be the go-to guy for a plotline involving a lawsuit against the hospital. And thanks to the round-robin method of assigning episodes, he landed “Las Dos Fridas,” in which Bay’s grandmother expresses bigoted views about her granddaughter’s newly discovered lineage.<br /> “It could have been a very sensitive issue,” he says. “I’m glad that I got to write it, because I would have been both envious and nervous if someone else did it.”<br /> <br /> Executive producer Becky Hartman Edwards, Weiss’ second in command, started out on sketch comedies like In Living Color and then moved to sitcoms before finding her way to dramas. When she first heard about Switched, she was dubious. “I’m not the ABC Family demographic, so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a show that was geared to what in my perception was a younger audience,” she explains. (It’s worth noting that the writers, all in their 30s and 40s, are so experienced that Robles, the most junior member, has worked on five other shows.)<br /> <br /> Reading the pilot changed Hartman Edwards’ mind. “I didn’t know where it was going, it wasn’t clichéd, it wasn’t trite—some of the things you can associate with bad teen Dramas—and I got very excited by it.” She felt a special affinity for the prickly Bay. “There’s an inner snarky teen that I can draw upon pretty easily,” Hartman Edwards admits.“I love her way of dealing with her pain and her issues. The comedy writer in me also enjoys that she gets some of the funniest lines.”<br /> <br /> Room Temperature <br /> <br /> Since this was Weiss’ first pilot to go, it’s her first time running a writers’ room and only her second time even in a room. “I just did what felt right, in terms of leading a room where everyone feels heard,” she says. As a result, Hartman Edwards contends, “This is one of the most generous, ego-free rooms I’ve ever worked in.” <br /> <br /> Weiss had assembled writers she liked regardless of background.“Our sample [script] was set in the Middle Ages,” Stoteraux says. “I don’t know many creators who’d read anything so vastly different from their pilot and say, ‘Okay, I want to hire those guys.’ It gives a diversity to our room that isn’t just gender or race; people have such great different perspectives.”<br /> <br /> Kenney breaks down their collaborative process. “We do clouds, general ideas for each storyline, just ballparking it.Then we do strips, beating out each story separately. Then we do the blend, which is sticking them on the board. We use magnetic tiles. They’re fantastic—this hybrid between cards and whiteboard. A lot of changing happens at the blend.” Along the way, they keep in mind what makes every story Switch-y—what hooks it to the show’s core. “That’s something from the network that we’ve internalized,” Weiss says.<br /> <br /> Hartman Edwards runs the room when Weiss is out. “I try to be fair and honest,” she says. “If there’s a direction I led the room in that Lizzy didn’t like, I take responsibility for it; if there’s a pitch I overruled that she liked, I try to give the people credit because I’ve been in too many rooms where that didn’t happen.” <br /> <br /> Says Robles, “Becky is obsessed about stopping everything and saying, ‘I’m not sure what the characters are supposed to be feeling in this scene.’ And she’s always right. A lot of times we disassemble a story that’s not working because even though the plot is tracking, their emotional journeys aren’t.” <br /> <br /> The writers head off with an eight- to 10-page outline for an hour-long drama. “I like to keep it lean and clean, so you Can see the story,” says Weiss, adding that the outline is never set in stone.“I encourage everyone to take chances and explore. People feel ownership of the scripts because they write them.”<br /> <br /> That freedom is welcome. “I’ve definitely been on shows where every turn was dictated to me,” says Gregory. “It’s a pretty lifeless experience to write that way. This one has the ideal balance. We’ve all road-tested the shape of the story, but in terms of injecting the life and the voices of the characters, that’s up to the writer.” After a draft comes in, Weiss gives notes, hands it back, and then does one more pass on the final.<br /> <br /> When it’s time for her to write, Weiss immerses herself in the characters.“I would call it writing from the inside,” she says. “If someone tells me to write a funny line, I can’t do that, because it’s outside. I wish I had that skill.I write almost the way actors act: I try to become Bay. That’s why I like dialogue that’s not too written and that feels natural.” <br /> <br /> As essential as deaf culture is to the show, “We’re telling the truth of the characters and not pandering or trying to be an after-school special,” Weiss insists. “Deaf teens are exactly the same as hearing teens. They get in fights and lie and do stupid things, and they’re also smart and funny and interesting.”<br /> <br /> The characters aren’t saints, but their existence on television still sets them up as role models. Soon after the show premiered, Fiveash received an email from an old friend, Abigail. She and her daughter had been at a birthday party in rural Georgia, and talk turned to the high price of satellite service. Another mother mentioned she was paying $80 for one show that she watches with her six-year-old daughter Cree, who’s deaf. Abigail’s email continued:<br /> <br /> “Well, we were all curious what is the ONE show worth $80 a month, and she starts crying!! She has actual tears running down her cheeks and she says, ‘Well, there’s this new show on and I let Cree watch parts of it. There’s this beautiful teenage girl signing AND talking, just like Cree does, and when Cree saw it for the first time, she just lit up and said it was like her! And ever since, she has quit being ashamed to sign and talk...It’s called Switched at Birth.’”<br /> <br /> Fiveash sent the email around the office. “It’s great to be working on a hit show,” he says. “But it doesn’t get any better than this.”

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