Tue. Aug 11th, 2020

Emmy interview: Emmy-nominated ‘PEN15’ co-writer Stacy Osei-Kuffour

(l) Stacy Osei-Kuffour; (r) Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine in PEN15 (Photo: Alex Lombardi/Hulu)

Stacy Osei-Kuffour is an actress, playwright, and now, an Emmy-nominated writer. She recently received her first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for her work in PEN15, shared with the series creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. Osei-Kuffour is only the 3rd African-American woman to be nominated in this category in Emmys 70+ year history, after after Lena Waithe (who won, for Master of None) and Stefani Robinson (Atlanta).

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Stacy is a BFA graduate of NYU. Her one-act play, The Painter, was a finalist at the Off-Off B’way Samuel French Festival and nominated for Best Play of 2010 (Strawberry Festival of One Acts). Her play Breathless was chosen for the Dream Up Festival and the Downtown Urban Theater Festival (both showcased at Theater for the New City). She developed her southern crime drama Dirty Blood, through People’s Theater Project in 2013, showcased at the Jumel Morris Mansion. In addition, Dirty Blood had a reading at the Billie Holiday Theatre for their New Voices Reading Series and Rattlestick Theater’s Reading Series in May of 2015. Stacy then graduated from Hunter College’s MFA Playwriting Program run by Mark Bly, Tina Howe, and Arthur Kopit. Her one-act play One Course won the Irv Zarkower Award at Hunter College in the spring of 2014. The play also received a reading at the Lark Development Center. Another play, The Pearl and the Black Sea, received an Honorable Mention in The Kilroy’s The List of best new plays by women.

Her extensive TV work includes Happy! (SyFy), The Hunt (Amazon) and The Power (Amazon), based on the acclaimed novel by Naomi Alderman. On the horizon for Osei-Kuffour is HBO’s Watchmen starring Regina King (which debuts this October), Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Run (also for HBO) and Morning Show for Apple, starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. Stacy’s goal as an artist is to bring untold stories to the stage and screen, stories that challenge our political, societal, and stereotypical views of the Black experience.

Her Emmy-nominated work is a prime example of how she has brought her unique voice to TV. PEN15 depicts middle school as it really happened and the episode Stacy was nominated for, “Anna Ishii-Peters,” follows the theme of growing up. The episode depicts the conflict of Maya feeling like her family likes her friend more, and Anna getting a little too comfortable trying to be a part of Maya’s family. Stacy drew from her own experience, lending her voice to the idea of jealousy and paranoia that we all felt during our teenage years. Stacy also made a cameo in the episode, acting as Mrs.Osei-Kuffour, a middle school teacher.

I spoke with Stacy about her surprising nomination, her days as a camp kid to double degree graduate and incredible career trajectory and future.

AW: Stacy, congratulations on your first Emmy nomination. How did you find out you were nominated?

SOK: Thank you so much! I actually found out while I was in London. I was there working on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s new show Run and was out all night with my friends. I got home at 2 am and I knew the nominations were coming out that morning, so I just decided to stay up. I remember just waiting and waiting and refreshing and refreshing each page I could find and then Anna Konkle texted me that the episode was nominated and I was just stunned. I was so proud and happy of all the work they have done. I rewarded myself by finally going to sleep by 6 am. I was up a few hours later and went into work and that was it!

AW: I’d like to go back to your creative roots: what experiences as a child drew you to writing and creating?

SOK: Well, I was that annoying kid at day camp, always asking people if I could be in their plays. I remember being ten or eleven years old and I wrote this play – I made everyone in day camp act in it. No one wanted to but I told them if they did, my mom would buy each of them a McDonald sundae. After that experience, I remember thinking, I think this is magical – being able to write something, getting people to act in it, and seeing it acknowledged. I remember thinking then, this is what I want to do for life. There’s nothing better.

AW: You have a BFA from NYU and an MFA from Hunter College. What did you learn most in school that best prepared you as a playwright? What did it not teach you?

SOK: I went to NYU Tisch for acting. I was in the Stella Adler Studio and it was ALL ABOUT THE SCRIPT. We literally had classes about text analysis and why a character said this and moved here and why they grabbed the coffee cup at this particular place in the play and it just stuck with me. The technicality of writing, the science behind it, how everything means something…I think as a kid I fell in love with it, but at NYU, it felt like something I had to pursue. At first, I was just writing plays for myself because I just couldn’t get parts and then that morphed into becoming a playwright. Hunter College came around that time. I realized that I was done writing plays for myself and wanted to just write. I think something that neither my BFA nor my MFA taught me was the business side of things. No one can prepare you for that. I found myself always trying to chase people to come see my plays or my work. I was that same kid from day camp trying to bribe people and what I finally understood is people are going to come to see your work if you are true to yourself, if you honor your voice. After I realized that, I just started writing whatever I wanted. And then that’s when all the opportunities poured in. I finally just decided to be myself.

AW: You have an extraordinary playwriting history. Is that your first love?

SOK: Yes, my first and last love. It’s everything to me. There is nothing like being in a theater, hearing and seeing a mass of strangers react to your deepest insecurities. Theater conditions you to take risks. I think once I transitioned to TV, I realized I had to tone it down. I was used to being able to have a lake and a horse and a car all in one scene because you can make it work on a stage. In the TV world, we always have to ask ourselves if we have the budget for it.

AW: What was making the jump from plays to television? How did your first opportunity present itself?

SOK: 3 days after graduating from Hunter College, I decided to move to LA. I had been in NYC for 9 years, almost a decade, and nothing was happening for me. Playwright wise or acting wise. I was so depressed and poor and just really low. I was seeing a guy at the time, who is now fiancé, was living in LA and told me to come out here. He told me playwriting was in but I didn’t really believe him – or maybe I did but I didn’t believe that I would be able to penetrate that world. It seemed so far out of my reach. I didn’t have representation or a manager, nor had I ever produced a play before. Most playwrights transition after they have a hit play. Ultimately, I decided to take the leap. I then got into the EST writers group in LA and started writing this play HANG MAN, which is about a black man who is found dead hanging in Mississippi and a white woman who becomes obsessed with his black body after finding him. After I finished that play, a great playwright friend of mine, Aurin Squire, connected me with an incredible manager and dramaturg Kelly Miller. She told me she believed in me and “I live your weird plays.” From there, she got me signed and within 9 months, I was staffed on my first TV show. I remember I got the call while I was in Nashville working on a play. I had to fly back out two days later and start the job.

AW: How does being an African-American woman help you define your art and what you want to express with it?

SOK: It just makes me want to continue to create in-depth stories for people of color. Stories that are expansive, unique, fun, creepy, cool and most importantly, not stereotypical. I love creating worlds for people of color that I haven’t seen before.

AW: What are your thoughts that art needs to be told through the eyes of those that have rooted experience and knowledge in it?

SOK: It depends. I think when you take someone else’s experiences and exploit it or misuse it or lie about it, then no, you shouldn’t be telling that story. For me personally, I only enjoy telling stories that I have knowledge in, it makes it so much fun and so much more delicious to tell.

Stacy Osei-Kuffour in her cameo of her Emmy-nominated episode of PEN15 “Anna Ishii-Peters” (Hulu)

AW: Looking to your Emmy-nominated episode of PEN15, which you also have a cameo in, how was collaborating with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle?

SOK: Collaborating with Anna and Maya was incredible. They’re both so giving and kind, not only while we were writing but also onset. They are comedic geniuses!

AW: Did you have a relationship that helped guide the writing of this fantastic episode?

SOK: Yes, Anna, Maya and I all went to NYU together so we definitely have a shorthand. I met with them before writing the episode to refresh myself with their humor and childhood memories so it was extremely helpful.

AW: You have some really exciting things coming up with HBO’s Watchmen, Apple’s Morning Show and Run from Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Is your career trajectory on the path you expected?

SOK: Not at all! It’s kinda crazy and I truly feel so blessed. I mean…I’ve been writing since leaving NYU which was at least 10 years ago so it didn’t happen overnight but I never thought I’d be here. I’d love to one day have my own show that I act in and write like Anna and Maya. That’s the goal!

AW: Stacy, thank you so much for taking the time to chat and best of luck at the Emmys next month.

SOK: Thank you!

Stacy Osei-Kouffer is nominated in the category of Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the episode “Anna Ishii-Peters” of Hulu’s PEN15. Emmy voting ends on August 29th at 10pm PST.

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