Q&A with UNC graduate and 'This is Us' writer Bekah Brunstetter

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Bekah Brunstetter, photo courtesy of Elisabeth Caren. 

Bekah Brunstetter is a screenwriter currently working for the hit NBC show “This is Us.” The UNC graduate will soon be returning to her roots, as her recent play, “The Cake,” will be performed by the PlayMakers Repertory Company on campus in the fall. 

Staff writer Molly Horak spoke with Brunstetter about her career, what it’s like working on a popular show and her new play.

The Daily Tar Heel: When did you know you wanted to become a screenwriter?

Bekah Brunstetter: I’ve been writing poetry and short stories since I was about 6 years old. Gradually that turned into plays — I loved plays but I didn’t like acting in them; I just wanted to be around them. My freshman year at UNC I wrote my first play, and from that moment I was like, “This is it; this is what I want to do.”

DTH: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face as a writer?

BB: It’s really hard to commit to a creative life because there is no guarantee that you will ever make a living. It’s hard to stay hopeful and confident and believe that you can make it, to deal with the rejection and the disappointment and not throw in the towel. 

I’ve been writing and wanting to be a writer and defining myself as a writer for so long that there was never really another option for me — I just kept doing it.

DTH: When did you know that you had finally “made it” as a playwright? 

BB: When you look at a creative career — be it writing or directing or painting or songwriting or whatever — sometimes it seems like a person can be an overnight success. 

But really, it’s years and years of all these tiny successes that add up to where the person is currently. Things like getting into grad school, getting my first play produced in New York, getting my first TV job, they’re all these little victories that add up to where I am now. And every little victory is usually coupled with a setback. 

If one thing is happening, there is another thing that’s not happening. It’s really crazy how the universe will throw you both things at once to keep you humble.

DTH: What is it like working on the hit show "This is Us"? Are there things that have surprised you about the experience?

BB: I’ve written for three other shows before, but this is the first with so many people watching it. And that’s been really cool because it’s rare that you feel like you’re actually writing for so many people. I think the success of it has really surpassed everyone’s expectations. The actors are all really lovely; the writers are all really lovely. 

My boss, Dan Fogelman, is very aware of the tone and the stories he wants told, so a lot of it falls into place pretty organically. None of it is very forced, which is why I think the episodes turn out so well.  

DTH: Tell me about "The Cake." What was your inspiration and what was the process like to create it?

BB: The play takes place in North Carolina and is basically about a woman who goes through this whole moral dilemma because she doesn’t feel comfortable making a cake for these two women who are getting married. 

I started writing this play about a year and a half ago, and my goal has always been to humanize conservative values. Like a lot of people in North Carolina do, I come from a very loving, wonderful, very conservative family, so it’s been my life journey to see what’s human about that.

I wanted to write a play in which a conservative person was sort of the hero and show them going on a journey of rethinking where their belief system comes from and sticking to their beliefs, not like all of a sudden their beliefs had changed.

From the minute I started writing it, I was thinking in the back of my head, “Gosh, I hope Playmakers does it,” because I really wanted to see it performed in North Carolina. Even though Chapel Hill is quite the liberal community, I feel like most people in North Carolina have conservative people in their lives and are trying to have conversations with them.

@molly_horak  

city@dailytarheel.com 

Thanks for reading.

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