Fast Forward Friday with Stephanie Yuhas

stephanie-yuhas-photo-by-rachel-trocheFor this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed writer-filmmaker-performer-producer-activist Stephanie Yuhas. She creates and develops scripted original series for Cinevore Studios. Her debut book  American Goulash was published by BookTrope in November 2014 and won the PNWA Nancy Pearl Award in 2015. She is also the co-founder of Project Twenty1, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that runs programs for emerging filmmakers. For more information about Stephanie, click here.

Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.

I’m the co-owner of Cinevore Studios, a Philadelphia/NYC company that creates smart comedy and science fiction with my production/life partner Matt Conant. We’re actively pitching original content to networks and partner studios so I’ve been gathering a lot of data about current mandates to find a match. We’re shopping two half-hour comedies – a series about a band of misfits in a high-IQ society, Standard Deviation, and a quirky female-driven sitcom with puppets, Work in Progress. We’re also shopping a handful of animated properties, including a very witty cut-paper sketch series, Victorian Cutout Theatre, a wacky adventure series about a chicken traveling through an interdimensional trade route, Marco Pollo; and a couple of late-night animated series.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

For a long time, our bread and butter was commercial work – industrials, commercials, live events, non-profit mission videos through our umbrella Crystalline Studios. Whenever we had spare time/change, we would write and produce narrative web series, short films and short online stories –  ok, blogs but I hate that word because it implies that we write 100-word click bait articles. I’m too loquacious and hippy-dippy to write those. 

We assumed that all creative people secretly paid for their lives through corporate work and that one would ever support our narrative work at Cinevore – after all, who cares about funny stories from some nerds in Pennsylvania? We’re not famous. We’re not even that good looking. Solid B-. But after several of our original animated series were optioned, we won a bunch of awards, a publisher gave me book deal, and a bunch of our videos went viral and got sponsorships, I finally got some confidence.

Previously, I was afraid to tell people that I was primarily a writer. Somehow, if you have a $100,000 camera in front of you and a name-brand client behind you, folks take you seriously. Tell anyone you’re a writer/producer on the internet and most people assume that’s code for “unemployed.” But for a decade, I’ve been over-employed.

I didn’t realize the difference between being “busy” vs. working towards a major, concrete career goal until Luanne Brown, my good friend and former manager for Booktrope, gifted me some career coaching from PBS’s John Jacobson. He looked at everything I had done and said, “You would make a fantastic life coach or a fantastic TV series creator.” I replied, “But I’m not a life coach!” He replied, “Then why are you acting like one? You either need to start charging people at least $250/hr. for your life and creative coaching. Or you can stop giving away your creative juice and become the creator/showrunner you are destined to be.” A few of my industry friends and mentors echoed his sentiments. Somehow, the combination of prolific people in the industry giving me “permission” to pursue my own goals, combined with the threat of forever being “the helpful-but-trod-upon Gal Friday” was a wakeup call. I’ve been cookin’ with bacon grease ever since.

Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?

Tina Fey (30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City). They all said, “Hey! I have a project! And talent to back it up, b*tches!” I might be paraphrasing here. But these folks had the balls to beat down closed doors so they could make millions of people laugh. I tend to gravitate towards funny and/or innovative creators who seem to be authentic individuals, and they all remind me of people I know in real life. Maybe it’s a Philly/East Coast thing. They reassure me that you don’t have to be born in the womb of Hollywood and be a blond bombshell heiress with a sex tape to make it. Not to disparage any golden goddesses who like to get freaky; you do you, girl. But I dared to be born poor, with no industry connections and brown hair. It’s nice to know that’s it’s not just all nepotism, and there is room for people who have talent, drive and a couple of trusted friends to vouch for them/pull them up when something is just out of reach.

I also have to mention Aziz Ansari, Matt Groening, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Nia Vardalos, Mindy Kaling, Carol Burnett, Julie Klausner, Amy Schumer, Jenji Kohan, Gene Roddenberry, The Wachowskis and The Coen Brothers. I have no idea if all of them are/were nice people. I’m sure someone who reads this will go out of their way to tell me that I’m not allowed to like someone because they are too thin/too fat, too feminist/not feminist enough or make out with goats in their spare time. Humans are imperfect, and I think it’s really dangerous and unfair to hold our heroes to unrealistic standards and then vilify them for not meeting those standards. How many people have you seen on social media write the words, “I hate [insert celebrity name]”? When exactly did that celebrity stop being a human being?

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?

I’m always inspired because I make it my business to surround myself with intelligent, hilarious and inspirational people. I put any spare time and money I have towards travel, so I can experience new cultures, landscapes and ideas. I have never experienced writer’s block, but only because I *have to* write everyday. It’s truly a part of my mental health regiment. Actually, I’m writing this aboard the Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas, on the way to Belize. Ahoy!

The problem is, creating the work is not enough for me. I create work to entertain and enlighten. It’s knowing we’ve touched someone – getting the laugh or the gasp or anything. Even hate – at least the person felt something. Otherwise, the work feels like screaming a secret into the void. You think it would be enough to just have it exist, but to me, it serves no purpose. I have to share. Once the art is shared, I can feel euphoria. And to avoid the growing problem of approval addiction – aka “being thirsty”,  I take in feedback only from my trusted colleagues, partners and friends. And then take what I’ve learned to the next project, be it another episode or season of the same project or even a completely different project or company. To me, the message is more important than the medium, which is why I haven’t restricted myself to a specific format.

It’s the cycle of “Creating, Sharing and Learning” that keeps me going. I think this is why I enjoy team writing so much – the energy exchange is much more immediate on collaborative projects when everyone is invested. It’s why I keep going between “I” and “we” in this interview; the work is what it is because it came from the writers’ room. And then it was touched by dozens, if not hundreds of other artists in production and post.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

We are capacity building at the non-profit I co-founded, Project Twenty1. It’s a 501(c)3 on an E.P.I.C. mission to Educate, Promote, Inspire and Connect creatives through film and animation programs. Our community is large enough that we need to hire full-time staff, expand our board of directors, and find a larger studio space to accommodate the needs of our community, volunteers and program managers.

I also just finished my directorial debut on Vessel, a science fiction short I wrote starring an entirely female cast. It’s really a proof-of-concept for a much larger project, but since sci-fi involving a lot of crowds and destroyed cities is prohibitively expensive, I wanted to test the water with a short before I decided if the project has enough legs to become something much larger. So far, we’ve played six festivals and won an award, so fingers crossed that we can find the right partner to scale the project. This seems to be our year of scaling, which is both exciting and terrifying.

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

I have always considered myself a storyteller first and foremost. The fact that multiple companies are now seeking us out for our writing work, as opposed to strictly for our production work, is an example that I’m on the right track.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

I would be writing a successful primetime series that I created on a major network right now. As opposed to a couple of years from now, ha ha! This is the industry I plan to continue to work in and I will knock down whatever barriers I need to in order to get there.

Q: What has been your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

There has definitely been a financial obstacle. As a first-generation American born to economically disadvantaged Transylvanian immigrants, I did not have the privilege of being able to live in New York City or Los Angeles and “intern for free” for several years, which is still pretty much industry standard. Luckily, that encouraged my entrepreneurial nature and forced me to fly my own freaky flag.

I’ve also been suspicious that some people are taken aback at my tenacity, since I’m a doughy female with Resting Smiley Face. While I have the privilege of being able to speak to pretty much anyone I want without them feeling threatened, it also means that it’s harder for me to have serious conversations about business and financial matters. It’s really exhausting to constantly have to prove myself while my male counterparts can simply show up and people respect their authority. I’m not imagining this; as someone who is married to their production partner but has a different last name, I can literally track the financials. He and I have the same credentials but he’s been offered honorariums to speak while I am expected to volunteer. One of our clients kept failing to CC me in an email chain because he assumed I was the secretary and not the director of a project. When I can, I try to make these teachable moments instead of reasons to become angry. It’s human nature to make snap judgments about people. Heck, talk to any casting agent – it’s their business to identify which people make us feel safe, which make us lusty  and which make us crap our pants. So in this life, people mostly “cast me” as the caterer, which is flattering in a way because I do not have the skills to light a sterno without burning down an entire building. So I just keep swimming, even though I might have to expend a little more energy getting to the place I want to be.

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

As I said, travel. Ironically, it’s the time I spend away from screens that best helps me focus on the work I really want to do on screens. I tend to pack my time at home with projects, so I sometimes need a moment alone with my thoughts. “Oh, but stay at home and think!” you say. At home, I have a thousand little fires. The bathroom grout needs scrubbing. My Gmail has 236 unread messages. How is the bathroom grout dirty again? I just scrubbed it! There’s always something else I can be doing, so I often feel guilty for focusing on my creative self.

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

Guilt and people-pleasing. I’m trying to focus more on being “respected” rather than just being “liked.”

Q: What is your favorite piece of art?

I’m an art collector, so this is a difficult question. I’m probably supposed to say something poignant about a piece of art that has been covered in my Art History book. But to be perfectly honest, a lot of that stuff makes me really angry. We tend to promote art created by penniless artists that is now owned by multi-millionaires: art that is a status symbol more than work that moves us. But I keep all of my favorite art in my house. A watercolor of yellow seahorses by Bob Dix. A limited-edition manatee skeleton print by Lauren Etkins. A surrealist acrylic on canvas fish by Adam Cusack. Oh, man, Liesje Kraai’s super cool space manatee print! All of these pieces of art were created by my friends, especially for me. If an artist loves you, they will create work with you in mind. I feel extremely loved! Also, upon further reflection, they all contain a marine motif, so I might be biased.

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

My original answer was “the thousands of people it took to create the technology that allows us to carry a vast network of the world’s information in our pocket.” My husband thought that was a boring answer and told me I need to pick someone. As I said before, I tend to feel uncomfortable answering questions like this because people are imperfect and I recognize that almost all great innovation comes as a sum of knowledge, not from one person.

I took a few days with this question and finally picked Gene Roddenberry because his writing inspired real-life scientists and engineers to create the technology from his dreams. Also, he’s one of the few science fiction writers who envisioned a utopian future and society, which is so rare in a genre filled with apocalyptic forecasts. If he ate live baby kittens or something, please don’t hold it against me for liking him.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

My work. Where I create comedy or science fiction, my mission is to make people think. I’m not a scientist, doctor, engineer or [insert actually important job title here]. But if my work helps inspire someone else to think, to make change, or to innovate, then my work has a life of my own. I like to trail-blaze, so I’d like to be known for being the person who was brave enough to champion a project that created a butterfly effect for goodness that outlives me – and people in my family tend to live into their 100s, so this is a lofty goal!

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?

Motivated

Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

I am rarely all alone with a couple of hours to myself. Oh, but when I am …I  immediately eat mac and cheese with salsa out of the pot while watching musicals. Glee, The Wizard of Oz, The Little Mermaid, Moulin Rouge, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I like to sing along, so I would be mortified to watch those movies with anyone else.

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

Oh, gosh, I would hand myself a binder of color-coded notes, lessons and things to watch out for! But my number 1 comment would be “CHIN UP! Have confidence. Some people have tall poppy syndrome –  the desire to cut down anybody trying to stand above the crowd – look it up! and it’s their problem, not yours.”

I’m going to break into my old-world Nagymama’s voice here but I was raised to “Keep my head down or else…

… people vill think you are stuck up and no von vill marry you.”

… The revenge! People vill tink you are rich and burn you in your sleep.”

… you’ll get freckles, and den no von vill luff you.”

 So 15 years ago, I did not make eye contact with anyone. I was convinced that something horrible would happen to me if I fought for myself and that people would judge me if I said, “No” or spent $12 at Hair Cuttery –  seriously. A family member yelled at me for spending it, even though I was the breadwinner at the time. And yes, I didn’t go out in the sun. Ever since I broke those habits – and told people who have a problem with my position as a “tall poppy” to kiss my beautiful, freckled butt – I’ve been happier, healthier  and way more productive.

Q: Where would you most like to live?

In a perfect world? Somewhere safe, with opportunities in my industry, within walking distance of a healthy coral reef. To be honest, I really dig Cozumel –  yes, it’s in Mexico and totally safe and Costa Rica –  Pura Vida! but currently only 15% of my workload is based on remote writing opportunities, so I am not in a position to make the move. I’m aware that we need to spend a lot of time in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia for our careers, but I’m not crazy about the amount of crime we’ve experienced in those towns. Industry folks have been courting us to move to Toronto, Pittsburg and Atlanta, among others, so we have to see what makes sense in our future.

I know for sure my answer is “on Earth.” You’d think this would be obvious, but I freaked out when my husband signed us up to volunteer to be the first couple on Mars. Very lovely and highly romantic idea, but I have people to see and stuff to do on this planet!

Q: What is your idea of success?

I will know I’m successful when I see merchandise from a project I’ve created bootlegged in some shore town and when I’m comfortable enough financially to not be bothered by it. I have a Shelf of Atrocities in my house where I collect bootlegs from my favorite franchises. My favorite has to be the Predator Bart Simpson we picked up in Cancun. Man, did I haggle for that thing!

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

Freedom. Freedom to choose who is in your life, your career, where you live, where you travel, heck, even the food you eat. Not everyone has those freedoms so I am so grateful to be able to enjoy them.

Q: Final Thoughts?

I already talked too much. If you like what I have to say, please visit Cinevore.com and  subscribe to our YouTube. Tell your friends who are Directors of Development to come see me. I’m serious. And if you like self-deprecating comedy, check out my book  American Goulash, available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Thanks for your time!

 

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