“Write What You Love And What Scares You” Stacy Osei-Kuffour Discusses Writing On Emmy-Nominated ‘Pen15’
There is no shortage of TV shows dealing with the awkwardness and changes involved with being a teenager. Pen15 (that’s a number at the end, not letters) was created by Casual actress Maya Erskine who plays the eponymous role of Maya and Anna Konkle (Rosewood, Maron). Note, these accomplished actresses, now well past their teen years, played the leading roles of seventh graders in their Hulu hit, braces, zits, and ill-fitting bras included. They drew from their own life experiences to shape the TV show.
Fly in a Chicago-born playwright called Stacy Osei-Kuffour, who co-wrote the Emmy-nominated episode titled “Anna Ishii-Peters”, and TV writing sparks fly.
Stacy Osei-Kuffour is more known for bringing untold stories to the stage screen that challenge our political, societal, and stereotypical views of the black experience than teen comedy. That didn’t stop her from diving deep into her emotional well to bring truth and humanity to Anna and Maya’s stories.
Creative Screenwriting Magazine spoke with Stacy, while her writers’ room was taking a break, to discuss working on Pen15, produced by Awesomeness TV. “What drew me to the show is that I was definitely not very cool, especially at seventh grade, and being a girl. You’re trying to find where to fit in, you want to be cool and want to be beautiful.” Osei-Kuffour own life paralleled the on-screen experiences of Anna and Maya in this respect.
Researching the era (Pen15 is set in 2000) was an interesting exercise because the entire writing trio lived through it. It was a matter of looking at old photos or listening to the music of the time to bring back memories.
To address their feelings of awkwardness and friendship, Anna and Maya taught Stacy (or was it vice-versa) “didn’t need me to be cool to write for their show. They saw me for who I was.” A powerful message for teenagers taking their steps into adulthood. “I wanted to tell that story through Anna and Maya about when you find your person and everything comes to life after that,” declared Osei-Kuffour.
The TV writer pointed out that the experiences of Anna and Maya having a sleepover in the Emmy-nominated episode while pretending to be sisters by wear matching clothes were not her own. However, Stacy could relate to the emotional core of Pen15’s main characters.
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine pitched the concept of the episode to Stacy first. “They pitched the idea of a sleepover and what that does to a friendship that goes adrift. Anna, Maya and I collaborated on the jealousy that happens when Maya’s parents seem to like Anna more, the battles that happen when Maya wants to play while Anna wants to help Maya’s mom wash the dishes.” The turbulence in shattered friendships is something that we might face during our transitional years.
They explored the granular details of these tiny events that become big things causing Maya to become annoyed with Anna and wanting her to go home during their sleepover. “Anna, Maya and I talked about the best and funniest ways to look at the bigger picture through these tiny things. The seeds of these ideas were mine,” said Stacy. Because the seventh and eighth grades were such a huge part of my life, it was easy for Stacy to lend her voice and tone to the characters.
Osei-Kuffour could have gone overboard with Maya’s parents showing favoritism toward Anna, but she kept everything contained and real. “That’s the adolescent experience. That is the day to day life at the time.” There is no Instagram or Snapchat to post pictures of your ‘best friend forever’ helping your mother do the dishes to vent your anger. There is no comments section so your friends can console you or berate the perpetrator. The feelings of alienation and isolation are internalized and amplified. Maya is left to her own devices to express her anger. So she plays out and “acts like a baby.”
“Maya’s mother is brushing Anna’s hair and not hers. Does this mean that she doesn’t love her anymore? We’ve all been there and it’s the tiniest things that trigger our insecurities and that’s what makes us human,” declared the TV writer. Even Anna’s parents facing filing for divorce did not assuage Maya’s hostility.
Pen15 did not have a conventional TV writers’ room. It was a lean, mean, writing machine steered by Konkle, Erskine, and Osei-Kuffour. The episode “Anna Ishii-Peters” was effectively written by committee.
Aside from the emotional rollercoaster that defines adolescence, Pen15 taps into cross-cultural relationships. Maya Erskine’s father is American and her mother is Japanese, as is the case in the TV show. Stacy had to reconstruct the practical elements of being Japanese-American vicariously through Maya. However, Stacy’s father was born in Ghana, so she could tap into what it felt like being a multi-cultural child. “I knew what it was like being a first-generation American kid, have friends come over and not understand your culture, especially if your friends are white,” she recalled.
There were a few films that inspired Stacy during the writing of her episode. “Movies like The Craft or Eighth Grade were made during the filming of PEN15, which similarly explored the awkwardness and ‘uncomfortability’ of thirteen-year-olds, served as inspiration. My journals and music helped me during the process. I have a playlist on Spotify called Eighth Grade to capture the mood of my experiences at the time. It helped me order the thoughts in my mind.”
Everyday life spurs Stacy’s creative muse. Anything has the potential to be a story. “Seeing a couple fight in the street, going to the grocery store, or a woman holding a baby. I grew reading V.C. Andrews who writes weird, dark, romantic type thriller novels.” Andrews influenced Stacy’s plays, but not so much Pen15. “I’m drawn to friendships, a bit of romance and a little horror. Those kinds of themes find their way into my writing.”
Stacy Osei-Kuffour loved television since she was a kid. Her obsession with the teen romance show Felicity inspired her to apply to the film and TV program at NYU to develop her writing voice. “I love storytelling and to be inspired by other artists, TV shows and movies. From a very young age, I was obsessed with characters and story. When I moved to Los Angeles about three years ago, playwrights like myself were hand-picked and staffed as writers on TV shows.”
In offering her advice to other TV writers, she said, “write what you love and what scares you. Believe in yourself and never give up. That’s really tough for many writers because we’re so self-deprecating and insecure. Stay true to your writing voice. I’m a very dark writer and tried to fit into a mold. Stay true to who you are.” When Stacy first announced her intention to move to Los Angeles to he east coast friends, many discouraged her and dismissed the idea as silly. Fortunately, Osei-Kuffour paid them no mind. Kuffour
Stacy is currently producing The Morning Show for Apple TV, starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston.
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