Rachel Lewis is an actress, writer, and comedian who recently got her first television staff writing job on the live action comedy kids show “Odd Squad”, which premieres September 2014 on PBS. Rachel grew up in Montana, graduated from the University of Wisconsin for Theater, and immediately moved to Chicago where she trained at Second City and IO, which she says is where she got her chops as both a comedian and a writer. She adds, “In Chicago they train you that if you want to be in shows, you have to write them yourself!” I met with Rachel for some coffee in West Hollywood where we chatted about her transition from improv to writing and how she used creating her own content to push her career to the next level.
“I always have two bits of advice”, Rachel says. “One is to do what YOU think you should be doing, because everybody’s path is so different. There’s no one set way to get where you want to be.” Doing the work that you’re passionate about and allowing that work to carve your own path is the key to opening up the doors for what YOU like to do and the career YOU want to have. When Rachel first moved to LA, she received some advice that has been her motto ever since: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” She adds, “Have laser focus on what you’re working on, and don’t pay attention to what other people are doing because it’s never going to work the same way for you.”
What’s her second bit of advice? “Saying yes to as much as you can”, she chimes in enthusiastically. “I know it’s annoying because sometimes you end up on a project you don’t necessarily love, but pretty much everything I’ve said yes to has lead to something good.” Work begets work; especially in the beginning. There is always something to gain from an experience – even if the results of the project itself are less than spectacular – whether it’s a new connection, or a valuable piece of information.
I was curious to know more about Rachel’s writing process. “As a writer, I strongly suggest having a writing partner. But at the same time, it’s hard to find your perfect match. You get held accountable for things and you give each other deadlines.” Rachel met her writing partner, Alex Fox, while they were both performing together at Second City in Chicago. They coincidentally moved to Los Angeles three months apart and continued performing improv together after making the move. The pair organically evolved into a writing partnership once they started writing a sketch show together for them to perform in.
They usually begin their process with a rough outline and eventually either talk or act out their scripts to see how the material sounds. They then send each other drafts and freely make changes which Rachel says requires a lot of trust and collaboration. Since both she and Alex come from an improv environment, she says they are used to collaboration and also having to trust their improv partners while in a scene. They are never too attached to a specific idea or where the scene should go – whether they’re improvising on-stage or at their computers writing together – which Rachel says is the key to allowing them to make changes freely and really evolve the material to the next level.
After putting up a sketch show at the Comedy Central Stage, they decided to start writing and performing in web videos together, and writing a web series as well, The Jon and Eddie Show. In Rachel’s opinion, there are two routes when it comes to making content for the web. She explains, “The first route is the YouTube star route. Alex and I understand that world, but it’s not us. It’s pumping out content on a regular basis, and getting the views, and that’s one route to go. We just wanted to create really good content so people could just see what we were doing, and hopefully let that take us to the next step as oppose to just letting that be it.” For them, it was more about having a video portfolio of their work, and letting that take them to the next level.
After making the Jon and Eddie show they made some contacts and were able to sell their next web series, “The Craft Store”. They sold three episodes, and it was the first time they were given a budget to work with. They hired a director and produced and acted in the web series themselves. “For ‘Craft Store’, we had a budget, but we still had to work within parameters and so we focused on making it look really good like it could be on TV instead of making it look like a random video.” They figured giving it a TV look would separate them from the crowd and make for a stronger piece for their portfolio. “Our lit rep still sends out Craft Store to introduce people to us besides our writing samples because it’s a really cool world to see. And you get to meet us because we’re in it too, so it just gives them a good taste of who we are, and then they can also read our writing samples too.”
After the web series came out, they were able to get some pitch meetings on their own for other shows before they had literary representation. “No one really wants to rep you until something’s happening, and we were almost able to sell a show at Cartoon Network. That helped us solidify our rep for show packaging and writing.” That’s when they really made the shift mentally from being performers to being professional writers as well. With their lit representation in place, the two girls got to work. “An original pilot is the first thing to start with, and since we’re sketch writers we also wanted to have a late night packet. And so we basically started turning things out so that were ready. Then we started going on meetings based on our packets, and that’s how we got our PBS job.”
“You start off with general meetings, and then you move on to meetings with show runners. But with PBS we were lucky, because since it’s a kid show it has a really playful vibe, and they wanted comedy writers.” For “Odd Squad”, the writer’s room was intimate, consisting of the Head Writer/Creator, another staff writer aside from herself and Alex, an Educational Consultant, a Writer’s Assistant, and another Creator based in New York. “Network shows usually have 8 or 9 writers. This was very hands-on.” She worked full-time as a writer on the show for 2 ½ months until the writer’s room in Los Angeles wrapped.
Rachel says she learned the importance of outlining, and also felt very prepared for the group experience of being in a writer’s room coming from a writing partnership already. “You can really make something better in a writer’s room. You can see how much better it gets with a group of people.” The most important thing she says was not being afraid to say your ideas. “Sometimes it’s crazy being in a tiny room writing all day”, Rachel says, but it was an experience she’ll never forget, and a valuable learning experience. I’m very excited to see where her creative projects will take her next. Be sure to check out “Odd Squad” when it premieres on PBS in September 2014.