AWG launches initiative to give writers their ‘First Break’

Chris Corbett and Catherine Kelleher.

Once upon a time, a young writer looking to cut their teeth might have started out in an entry-level role on a series like A Country Practice, McLeod’s Daughters or All Saints.

Those long-running dramas provided a training ground for aspiring scribes, offering long-term employment in large teams where they could build skills and networks.

Today, with the exception of flagship serials Home & Away and Neighbours, long-running drama has all but disappeared from our screens (and as is well documented, Neighbours‘ future is uncertain). With it, the traditional training opportunities for new writers and directors have been reduced; the trend towards higher budget, shorter-run premium drama means there is often less capacity for producers and broadcasters to take a risk on a new face.

Over the past five years, the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG) has observed the demand for competent note-takers and script co-ordinators has often exceeded supply, while at the same time, aspiring writers with limited networks are unsure as to how to get a foot in the door.

“There is no formal tertiary training for note-takers and script coordinators,” AWG professional development manager Susie Hamilton tells IF.

“It’s the sort of thing that people learn on the job. The problem is, how do you get that job without first gaining the skills? And when you do get the chance to be a note-taker in a writers’ room, how do you know what’s expected of you and how to deliver what is required?”

To redress the conundrum, with the support of Screen NSW, AWG has opened applications today for First Break – a three-day workshop program that will cover note-taking, script coordinating and the basics of a writers’ room.

While only open to NSW residents at this time, the guild hopes to roll the program out across Australia over the next year.

First Break builds upon previous note-taker and script coordinating workshops run by the AWG, while also combining them with “vital training in writers’ room etiquette and process”. First Break is designed to be practical, and lead to paid work.

“The role of the note-taker is a crucial one in a writers’ room. Creating a perfect set of notes requires a specific set of skills, and nailing it requires a completely different approach from screenwriting,” says Hamilton.

“The first workshop will guide participants in how to create detailed and accurate notes. The second workshop will explain what a script coordinator does and how they operate within a production office. Finally, they will learn the etiquette, expectations and hierarchy of a writers’ room. This is a vital element of First Break, ensuring that participants are well placed to take full advantage of the opportunity to work in a writers’ room and to build on it.”

The program will be facilitated by Chris Corbett (Halifax: Retribution, My Life is Murder, Newton’s Law, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) and SBS development executive Catherine Kelleher, who has worked as a script coordinator, producers assistant and note-taker on series such as The Letdown, Glitch, A Place to Call Home, The Heights, The Secret She Keeps and Little J & Big Cuz.

Following the successful completion of these three workshops, each writer will be added to the AWG’s Pathways website on the new ‘First Break’ tab.

The cohort will then be promoted to industry using the AWG’s databases including its 9,700 subscribers to the AWG newsletter, the 500+ registered users of the Pathways portal (producers, directors, writers and industry professionals) and the 1,000 subscribers to the Pathways Newsletter.

The need for programs like First Break seems highlighted as Neighbours‘ future hangs in doubt.

Neighbours is jokingly referred to as Neighbours University for a reason,” Hamilton says.

“It’s been a place where, for decades, emerging talent have been able to learn necessary skills and hone their talent. 

“If we lose Neighbours from our screens, there will be even fewer opportunities for new writers and that will be to the detriment of the Australian film and TV industry now and well into the future. 

“The AWG is constantly evolving its approach to developing professional development opportunities for writers. The industry landscape is changing, and we are adapting our offering to complement it. The idea behind First Break was to fill that ‘training ground’ gap left by the absence of long-running series.”

Applications close for First Break at 5pm, March 25, with the successful 12 applicants to be announced May 4. First Break will be held via Zoom over the first three Saturdays in June 2022 and applicants must be able to attend each of the workshops on the set dates. Apply here.