Write what you know, the adage goes. And Bekah Brunstetter ’04, born and raised in Winston-Salem, knows North Carolina. Now a successful playwright in New York and a TV scriptwriter and producer in Los Angeles, her plays frequently draw on people and places back home, so much so, she said, that she asked Krispy Kreme to pay for her graduate school education because she put the Winston-Salem doughnuts in so many of her scenes.
“When my work is compiled after I die,” Bekah said, “some grad student is going to write, ‘What was her deal with doughnuts?’”
More recently, Bekah is known for cake — specifically, The Cake, a play that explores a conservative Christian woman’s dilemma when a longtime friend’s daughter, who’s like family, asks her to bake the wedding cake for the young woman’s marriage to another woman. The play opened in L.A. in early 2017 and had its regional debut with PlayMakers last fall, while the U.S. Supreme Court deliberated over a similar case of a baker in Colorado who refused to bake the cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding.
Bekah’s parents came to see The Cake in Chapel Hill, though they might have stayed away. Her father, when he was a state senator, sponsored North Carolina’s Amendment One, which would have defined marriage as a union between only a man and a woman. The Brunstetters came to support their daughter, as they always have, despite their differences. To succeed in a creative field requires emotional and financial support, and the Brunstetters gave Bekah both. Never once had they suggested she change course and study, say, business.
Through the characters in her plays, Bekah bridges some of the divide between her conservative Baptist upbringing and her views on life as she came into her own. Her characters say things she might shy away from in family discussions.
At the time Bekah came to Carolina, she fancied herself a poet, but honest criticism from her creative writing teachers derailed her plans to advance along the poetry track and pushed her toward the fusion of poetry and storytelling that gives birth to a play. Because she was one of the few students in the theater department who wanted to write — far outnumbered by aspiring actors and directors — several of her plays were fully staged.
Not that her success came without effort and dedication. She worked hard at her craft. After a night out with friends, as they headed to bed, Bekah would go to her room and write. When she and two friends set out on a summer road trip, she made sure all of them wrote in a joint journal every night, much to their annoyance. But more than a decade later, they relive their adventure through their communal storybook.
After graduation, Bekah moved to New York, where she completed a three-year program at The New School’s School for Drama. She took a corporate job but kept writing plays. She joined some writers’ groups, got some work produced and found an agent. She met someone who managed TV writers. Though she had watched precious little TV in her life, she had grad school loans to pay, so she made a couple of trips to L.A. to take meetings. She landed her first staff job on a TV show in 2012 and has lived in L.A. ever since.
Bekah has written for some of the hottest shows on TV in recent years — American Gods and This Is Us, the latter of which she also produced. Previously, she wrote for Switched at Birth and for MTV’s Underemployed and I Just Want My Pants Back. Earlier this year, she received a grant from the Dramatists Guild Foundation and has earned a reputation as a distinctive, culturally relevant female writer in a male-dominated field.
To help improve gender parity in the theater, Bekah and a handful of other female playwrights and producers founded The Kilroys about five years ago. They survey some 400 theater professionals every year, asking them to nominate plays by women. From that, The Kilroys compose a list of plays that they release as a tool for artistic directors to use in planning their season. The group is beginning to see some change in programming in theaters around the country. Some theaters have even staged festivals of plays by women only.
Bekah also participates in Write Girls, a mentorship program for high school girls that matches aspiring writers with working writers. And every day, for the past 11 years, she has written in her blog, bekahbrunstetter.com, showing the same discipline she asked of her friends during their college road trip, and —always — writing what she knows.