Storytelling plays such an integral role in our society. It lifts our spirits, informs our existence, and represents the diverse nature of the very world in which we live. The best stories highlight our differences, enabling us to find common ground even in the most unlikely of times. However, when unique perspectives are challenged and inevitably silenced, we lose the wealth brought on by worthy storytellers. This is an opinion with which award-winning storyteller Evette Vargas agrees. In our interview, the tenured writer, director, and producer candidly shared her personal experiences facing barriers to inclusion.
As a proud Latina navigating an impressive career in fashion design, advertising, and later, content creation for some of entertainment’s most notable studios, Vargas often found it difficult to reconcile with the way the business looked behind the scenes. After finding success with the Emmy-nominated digital web series, Dark Profit, starring Henry Rollins, Vargas was invited to join the Writers Guild of America. It was at the west coast division where she found the Latinx Writers Committee and recognized how much things needed to change.
“I started attending those meetings and when I heard of all of the stories of how difficult it was for Latinx people in the business to get hired and to sell their projects, that’s when I actually began to realize that I wasn’t alone,” revealed Vargas. Not only did the spaces she’d spent years making her home show an alarming lack of diversity, but they routinely presented obstacles for diverse individuals looking to advance their careers. “That was pivotal for me,” she explained. “That’s when I became an activist in the business for inclusion.”
For Vargas, diversity and inclusion were very personal issues before she ever made it to Hollywood. Having been “plucked” out of the colorful borough of the Bronx, NY and faced with a new life in the white suburbs of New Jersey at an early age, she relayed some unsettling stories of discrimination. Until the day she graduated from high school, Vargas states that hers was the only Latinx family in their entire county, initially causing waves amongst some of its White residents.
“Internally, they had neighborhood meetings,” she said. “‘What are we going to do about the Puerto Ricans moving in?’” But Vargas admitted that her family’s tradition of sharing lively stories over home-cooked Puerto Rican dishes was what eventually won over the neighborhood. “There was just so much storytelling that was shared at the dinner table. That was basically our thing.” Each night they invited fresh faces into their home, the infusion of this new flavor in the community helped blur the lines separating them from their neighbors. “That was attractive to some people. My family still has very good friends until this day from that house,” she explained.
Thinking through her early experiences of traversing divides with the power of a tongue, watching her father’s sense of humor win over even the most prejudiced individuals, Vargas knew exactly what the fix in Hollywood should be. “Hire us,” she said, speaking of marginalized creative professionals. “Mentor us to success, really be there to support,” she continued. “Then, when we’re ready, when we’ve mastered the skill set, bump us up. Put us into positions of power so that now we can hire others, elevate others, bring them along with us to climb that ladder so that we can have a seat at the table.”
Vargas admitted that her seat at the table came from the many opportunities she had to hone her craft and strengthen her skills. From the initial move that brought a better education and a new view of the world, to the many resources made available to her through alumni networks and Television Academy recognition, she realized that much of a writer’s success leaned on opened doors and a preparedness for facing the closed ones. It was then, she says, that The Writers Room 5050 was born.
Marketed as an inclusion revolution, The Writers Room 5050 is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization offering mentorship for experienced storytellers, writers, directors, and producers hoping to find next-level success in television, streaming, and film. In 2019, having spent over a decade mentoring countless industry hopefuls, Vargas organized a writers room setting for five diverse screenwriters wanting to break into television. Once named as a New York Times “Artist to Watch,” Vargas used her expertise to coach her mentees through a weeks-long script writing experience that culminated in an official table read of their mock episode of the A&E series, Killing Eve.
“The writers had incredible breakthroughs. But what I didn’t anticipate was hearing from all 20 actors who participated in the table read, citing how impressed they were with the level of writing and how the writer’s unique point-of-views brought a freshness to a series they revered. Both the writers and actors encouraged me to utilize my format for mentoring storytellers wanting to break into television,” stated Vargas in a previous interview with Shoutout LA. Elevating the idea, she founded The Writers Room 5050 to prioritize instruction and opportunity creation for underrepresented storytellers.
With its cornerstone labs – Pitching the TV Series, Writing the TV Pilot, and Running the Room – The Writers Room 5050 program offers BIPOC storytellers, veterans, those identifying as LGBTQIA+, creatives with disabilities, professionals of a certain age, and men who count themselves as woke allies a chance to level the playing field. “There’s been so many wins,” Vargas proudly declared. The first spots in the labs sold out within three weeks. Then, once industry vets caught wind of the strides Vargas’ students were making, they began contacting her for alumni referrals. At the time of our conversation, 12 graduates had secured writing jobs, 10 lab-pitched projects had been backed by producers, and many more writers had moved on with a significant increase in their knowledge, sometimes advancing to prestigious writing programs, giving them an added edge in their careers. “I really do believe we’re changing the face and game of the industry,” pronounced Vargas.
Voted “Most Likely to be the Next Clubhouse Icon” as part of the platform’s Clubee Awards, Vargas has become an active member of the ‘new Hollywood’ community. Hosting a weekly room of the same name, she inspires industry professionals and mentees to think outside the box when imagining what the entertainment world should look like.
“We’re at a crossroads,” began Vargas of the place where the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us. “This is a reset. This is a very particular and opportune moment for those who have been marginalized to take advantage of,” she said. “We need to be ready. Our scripts have to be ready. Our pitches have to be ready. We ourselves have to be ready for the opportunity that stands before us at this particular moment so that you can just knock down those doors.”
To help kickstart this process of preparation, Vargas offered some strategies she’s employed to find success. First, you need to know how to pitch yourself. “Pitching is critical to any storyteller’s success,” she said. As part of your presentation, to give the buyer every reason to say yes, start with a team. “Especially for television,” she added. “It is really rare when a writer outright sells a show alone.” Packaging the project with a showrunner, producer, actor, or director attached always helps. Lastly, pay close attention to Intellectual Property that travels. Vargas states, “it’s hard to sell anything that isn’t based on something else,” so sci-fi, action, thriller, and even horror scripts that aren’t too experimental with universal stories please studio execs with global mindsets. “Where it can get tricky is comedy,” she concluded. “What’s funny here in the U.S. may not be funny in China.”
Currently, Vargas is developing a drama series for the independent studio, Entertainment One and was recently hired to write a feature film for Reyes & King Productions. “I’m also in prep to direct a proof of concept short for a one-hour series that I developed,” Vargas revealed, which she says she’ll be utilizing to sell and garner directing work after submitting to different festivals. Keeping up with her company and pitching shows on the side, Vargas remains busy with coloring in the industry she loves.