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Help on the First Rung/Short Takes

Andrea Klunder and Vera Brooks of Chicago ScriptWorks are getting struggling screenwriters off the ground.

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Help on the First Rung

Vera Brooks's life as a screenwriter started the way she says most do, inspired not by greatness but by jaw-dropping mediocrity. "I saw a movie"--she won't say which one--"and thought to myself, 'Wow. This movie actually got made. I can write something better than that!'" That was 1998; by '99, Brooks, a buyer for an electronics firm, had knocked out a draft of a full-length feature script. The next year she took Sam Weller's eight-week evening script-writing class at Columbia College, joined a half-dozen other students in a monthly writers group, and started wondering how to get some exposure for their work. When she heard about the weekly event Fifth Night at Manhattan's Nuyorican Cafe--where producers packed the audience and celebrity actors read aspiring screenwriters' scripts, many of which were then picked up for production--she thought she had the answer. Last March, with the help of public relations pro Anne Charles and actors Andrea Klunder and Mindy Kyle, she launched Chicago ScriptWorks.

"There hasn't been anything like it in Chicago since Cinestory left a few years ago," Brooks says. (Cinestory, which now operates out of Idyllwild, California, and is about to move to Austin, Texas, was headquartered in Chicago from 1995 to 2001 and conducted script readings in partnership with Second City.) Anyone with a screenplay and some pocket change can submit: ScriptWorks charges $15 to read full-length scripts of up to 120 pages, $7 for shorts (up to 60 pages). Each script is read by two of the partners; rejects get comments by e-mail within eight weeks. Selected scripts are assigned a director by Brooks and company, who also conduct auditions (casting is by Coffee Table Casting, run by Klunder), find a performance space, hold rehearsals, promote the event, and host a reception. Aside from the meager onetime charge to authors, the organization's only source of income has been a suggested $5 donation at the door. For the three readings ScriptWorks has held since March, Brooks covered most of the expenses with her own plastic.

"I don't want you to think I have a lot of money. I don't," she says. "But if you believe in something and you're not going in over your head, you do what you have to." She hopes to set ScriptWorks up as a nonprofit organization sometime in the next year so it can qualify for grants. Until then it's an activity of her own company, Roatan Film Production, whose only other products so far are two short videos made from scripts Brooks wrote. The company name is an homage to her parents, who came to Chicago 45 years ago from Honduras. They eventually settled in the Austin neighborhood, found employment as a cook and a postal worker, and raised Brooks, her twin sister, and two brothers in a two-flat shared with an uncle and his family, taking the kids to church and imparting a love for movies, which the family watched together on TV. A kid who liked to write, Brooks thought she'd do something "practical" like architecture and ground her way through night school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, graduating in '92 as a political science major. Three months later her younger brother was killed in a gang shooting just a few doors from her parents' home. Though her feature-length script is called "Brother's Keeper," she says it's not something she'll dramatize. "There's enough people writing stories about gangbangers and their demise. Not that that's not reality, but there are other stories about African-Americans that can be told."

Scripts for the first three readings came from the ready pool of Brooks's writers group, but outside scripts have begun to dribble in. One of those, Eric Diekhans's romantic comedy "Anywhere's Better Than Here," will be read by a cast of 11 this Saturday at 7 PM at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, 716 W. Addison (see www.roatanfilms.com for more info). Brooks says attendance has been strong and response favorable at previous events (at the Cornservatory and other locations), though she's still looking to get the word out to industry people, film students, and theater audiences. She'd also like to find a permanent home for the events and wonders if there's anyone out there "with a nice space that seats about 60 they'd like to donate." Two more readings are scheduled this fall; the plan is to do at least six a year. Right now, Brooks says, ScriptWorks is a place for writers to network, see their characters come to life, and learn what they need to do to fine-tune their scripts, but she'd also like it to be a catalyst for selling some of those scripts and getting them produced in Chicago. "They read 200 scripts at Fifth Night," she says, "and 40 of them have been produced." She's hoping celebrities (especially those with Chicago roots) will come to read and listen, as they did at the Nuyorican. As for Fifth Night? It's been on "hiatus" since April 2002, when it ran out of money.

Short Takes

Crick or treat: Collaboraction artistic director Anthony Moseley says the troupe will get six-figure compensation that includes a rent-free space for their Sketchbook Festival in November in exchange for designing, building, and staffing two haunted houses (one for kids, one for adults) in a warehouse at 1840 N. Marcey in Lincoln Park. Moseley has hired 82 actors for the three-week run, which begins October 8, and says the half-hour interactive adult haunted house tour fits well with Collaboraction's goal of pulling new people into theater. The Haunting on Marcey Street will also offer vendors, games, and food. Most of the actors will get $4 an hour.... Intuit has traded its innovative annual collectors' sale for a professional event that'll bring in 35 dealers from all over the country. The Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art runs this Saturday and Sunday at 847 W. Jackson.... Talk, talk, talk: the free conference "Hull-House Theatre and Dance" takes place Friday and Saturday at Chicago Circle Center (750 S. Halsted) on the UIC campus; "The Role of Boards in the Arts," a Roadworks Productions-sponsored panel, starts at 10 AM Sunday in the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division; Terry McCabe, Rachel Shteir, and others face off Saturday at "Dramaturgs vs. Directors," starting at 2 PM at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago.... Chicagoplays, the program book launched by the League of Chicago Theatres just last year, now serves 70 theaters and has a circulation of 150,000. Meanwhile, the league's Hot Tix service is offering e-mail updates on available shows; Internet sales are on the agenda for the annual meeting next month.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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