Karla Williams: Changing the industry one episode at a time

Karla Williams // Image provided by Williams

Karla Williams // Image provided by Williams

Storytelling has always been a passion for award-winning playwright and screenwriter Karla Williams, so it was no surprise when she decided to drop acting and focus more on writing. Qweens founder, Elizabeth Oloidi speaks with Williams about her work as a black female playwright, the latest project for her production company Ms. Mono Productions, ‘Celibate,’ a web-series set to be released in late February 2019, and the state of diversity in the film and theatre industries.

Elizabeth Oloidi: So how did Ms. Mono Productions come to be?

Karla Williams: Rebecca Coley is the director I worked with on my short film “Pretty Bitch, and I enjoyed working with her, I felt that I could trust her with my work. I trusted her so much I wasn't on set for “Pretty Bitch.” I’ve been in situations before where I've given a script to a director, in theatre, and I came and watched the performance, and it didn't feel like my work at all. Last year, a friend of mine, Sharlene-Monique, got in contact with us to make a music video. So, I was like if I'm going to make it I want to make it with Rebecca. So, then we were talking and had similar ideas of what we wanted to create for the screen, which is female-centred stories. I was like, “we should have a company!” It was a joke during at first, but then the idea never went away. So, I spoke to her again and was like, “What do you actually think about setting up a company?” and she was like “Yeah, potentially.” Then we spoke about what we would want the company to be, we both felt that it was the right thing to do and because we were shooting the music video it made sense to set it up then so we could release the video officially as part of our first project.

EO: The concept of celibacy, in a lot of movies and TV shows, is shown as the perfect image of a Christian girl staying pure until marriage. We either don't talk about it or make fun of it. Why did you want to explore that in ‘Celibate’?

KW: It’s based on experience. I was celibate, and I dated a guy who loved sex. I was born and raised in the church, my dad was a pastor, I have quite a lot of friends who were also celibate, and we talk about it a lot. But, we don't talk about it in this holier-than-thou way, we're quite real about the situation.

EO: Why did you decide to switch the genders?

KW: I decided to switch the genders because I've never seen a realistic portrayal of what it's like to be celibate in the 21st century, ever. The story about a man who loves sex is one we see that all the time, so I wanted to flip it and make it a woman. A woman who really enjoys sex, but is also funny and intelligent and witty and nuanced and is strong, but also has the capacity for vulnerability. I wanted to make her a real person. I tried to tell the story of a guy who is very considered about sex, his emotions and exploring the part that faith played in making this decision.

EO: Why not go with a drama?

KW: Well, when I’m talking to my friends about being celibate we usually laughing, it’s funny, and I felt if it was a drama it could potentially get heavy-handed and I feel you could do more with comedy as well, and I generally find sex jokes funny that's also why I made it a comedy (laughs).

EO: What's your favourite part of ‘Celibate?’

KW: Olivia, the lead. It took me a while to connect to her because on the surface we're polar-opposites but I found a way to connect with her, and I really like her. I think she's really funny and intelligent and witty, and just a great person. We've cast an actress, Tanyia Moore, to play her. When I see Tanyia perform Olivia I see the character I created; it's just fantastic to watch her.

EO: What's the casting process like for you?

KW: I don't mind castings because I am quite an instinctual person, so I generally work on how their performance makes me feel. If they give a performance and I'm like “oh my gosh that's my character,” great. However, I am also aware that doesn't happen a lot, so I wait to be hit with “that's the character.” I don't mind castings, and I quite like meeting actors and hearing my work with different people reading it.

EO: How did you find your Olivia?

KW: We cast Olivia with a self-tape, of all the tapes sent in, Tanyia's felt most like the character. She played her with layers, and she played her as a rounded character despite only having three pages of the script. So, for me, that's what stood out. She grasped her with just three pages in a way I don't think any of the other actresses were able to.

EO: Your company is inspiring because there aren’t many production companies owned by black women. What do you hope your work says to the conversation of diversity, intersectionality and being a creative of colour?

KW: I hope my work shows that black people and black women are as diverse as any other group, we're not one thing. There’s a multitude of stories within the black community, and I want to tell them. We’re more than the stereotype, and I want to tell stories about our people that are diverse but can equally connect with bigger audiences, that's the goal with my work. If I can connect with a story about a white girl in Liverpool, then why can't anyone else relate to a story about a black girl in Wembley?

EO: Do you see a change in celebrating diversity and having more representation, or do you think the industry has a lot more work to do?

KW: They have a lot more work to do. I feel because more people are talking about diversity, it’s becoming more of a ‘tick box’ exercise. There isn’t a true understanding of the benefits of diversity and inclusion. It's just 'ok cool, we'll get a black actor to play that role, and our job is done.' I think there's a long way to go. We need more people of colour, more women who are writers, producers, directors, executive-producers, commissioners, who are the ones in positions of power. Diversity isn't a topic for; it's life. They understand it, and they can make decisions that will then have an impact on-screen, but also behind-the-scenes. The power is still in the same and hands, and that needs to change.

EO: But how do we get there? How do we foster this change within our community that says you can be a creative, make a living, and make changes in the world that are positive?

KW: I think there's a lot of different answers to that. When I was growing up, I didn't really see black female screenwriters, and now I can at least think of two: Michaela Cole and Issa Rae. So, the fact that kids growing up now are seeing these women who are successful, all over social-media winning awards and doing great things, is a step in the right direction. You can grow up realizing you can do that because you see people like yourself doing it. I also think that people in power need to be more willing to share that power and I don't know if they're going to do that, because people like power. People in the industry need to keep talking about what they're doing, keep talking about the struggles because if you're prepared for a journey to have difficulties, you're more willing to stick the journey.

EO: So then how would you encourage younger playwrights to break into the scene and keep working to get through the glass ceiling?

KW: I'd say have a network of people who understand your work. It's going to get hard, and you're going to need people that you can talk to and support you and keep you going. There are so few opportunities, and they are so over-subscribed your work must be brilliant to stand out because they're not willing to give people a break. Have people around who can help your scripts be the strongest they can be because you need to be sending near perfect scripts to be picked for various opportunities. It's going to get hard, but if this is something you want to do, keep going. People want to hear your stories; audiences do want to hear diverse stories. Keep going but take a break if you need to.

EO: Before anyone watches ‘Celibate’ what's one thing they should know?

KW: It's a funny story about an unusual subject told authentically. Yes, there is sex and swearing, so if you don't want to see that maybe you shouldn't watch it.