When I sat down to write this article I initially conceived of it as a dive into the minutia of writing a web series. It turns out that was not where my mind took me, and instead I wrote what I’ve been referring to in my head as a bit more of a journal entry of sorts. At its core, this piece is a personal reflection on the emotional process of being a part of “Lambert Hall” and what it means to me now that the show has premiered. This is not a review or a ‘behind-the-scenes’ exploration of the production process. It’s simply a few pages of my thoughts and feelings. In the coming weeks we will publish more focused content on “Lambert Hall” including a piece where you can get a more complete look into my writing process, and hopefully an interview with our fearless showrunner Danilo. Until then, please enjoy this peek inside my mind.
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Roughly three years ago, my dear friend and Middlebury classmate Danilo emailed me about a project he wanted to start working on. I was coming off of a semester abroad, focused on near non-stop academic writing, and was itching to jump back into the creative fold, so I read his email and was quite excited by it. While writing had long been a love of mine, this was the first situation in which someone I respected wanted me to write with him. I responded almost immediately with, upon reflection now, most likely a few too many exclamation points, but what can you do. Then we were off!
The project was a web series, one that Danilo funded with a grant from Middlebury (a budget!). His idea was to bring together a small writer’s room and flesh out his broad idea: what happens when you write a story about strangers trapped together in the basement of an academic building? He wanted to craft a web of characters with disparate backgrounds and outlooks so that we could pit them against each other in the hopes of hashing out a final reality of them all coming together. I was fascinated by the idea, one that seemed similar to stories I knew but with tweaks that provided us a wide array of possibilities to make it our own.
Once I signed on, Danilo also brought on Briana, another Middlebury student. Together, we set about turning an idea into a narrative, but with a lovely little geographical wrinkle. I was living in New Jersey and working in New York City, Danilo was at home in Brazil, and Briana was in China. Three different time zones and wildly different day-to-days turned scheduling video conferences into a labyrinth of late nights and early mornings. But we did it, and as weeks turned into months, we established our world. First came the overall flow of the narrative, which Danilo had sketched out, and we later filled in. Then we tasked ourselves with developing voices and personalities to populate it, and ended up with a dynamic set of characters.
The beauty of having a three-person writing team is that everyone can maintain a specific voice while also stepping aside when someone else is better suited. I learned quickly that I was at my best when tackling the more horror and thriller tinged moments of the show, or dramatic stretches digging into a character’s past. I fumbled outright when we needed humor in the dialogue, or to move through the romantic underpinnings of the plot. Briana is a master of comic timing, and she has a shrewd sense for how to build tension between characters. Danilo possesses a sixth sense for pacing that was integral to unspooling all of our moments in a way that made them more than fleeting and instead a cohesive arc. Writing with them remains the greatest learning experience I have had in terms of how to tell a story because we were a team of unselfish and committed craftspeople with the singular goal of telling the best story possible.
On a personal level, this project taught me more about writing characters than anything I had done before, and I walked away having conceived a character who remains in my pantheon of personal creations: Victoria. A young woman who descends into the basement of the eponymous Lambert Hall carrying with her a history of self-doubt and chronic pain, Victoria ended up with more than a dose of my own psyche into her backstory. I did not actively realize how true this was until we were reviewing our first drafts, but from there on I leaned into it, processing a great deal about myself by learning about who Victoria could be. Quite early in the show, she is isolated from everyone else, and while it was in some ways a challenge to sculpt a character who has no one to play off of for long stretches of time, it was a wrinkle that allowed me to explore her internal make-up in ways that were otherwise unapproachable. Revisiting her storyline now, even with the occasional twinge at a line of dialogue or two that now seems weaker to me than it did at the time, I still feel taken with the humanity at her core, and I am incredibly grateful Danilo gave me the chance to take her on.
We finished our ten scripts during the fall of 2017 when we were all back at Middlebury together. It was glorious to be in a room without the barrier of a screen in the way, and I do believe it allowed us to polish our writing to a higher degree. From there, Briana and I handed this world we had created with Danilo off to him, along with the cast and crew he assembled, and over the course of that academic year a team composed entirely of students brought Lambert Hall into the world. I caught up with Danilo often to hear how production was going, to bounce ideas around, and, in one memorable afternoon to meet with Amanda, the actress playing Victoria, who wanted to hear more about my conception of her. Overall, though, my contribution was done.
At the end of the academic year, Danilo and his team completed shooting, and so began the process of editing and all manner of post-production needs. This is where the ensuing three years went, with Danilo plugging away at the project in the midst of trying to figure out next career and life steps. We’ve always kept in touch, and I would ask how it was going every now and then, and there would be little updates about the episodes and the process. The show surged forward last year when Danilo found a composer, and from there the updates were more frequent and detailed. Then, last week, Lambert Hall was set to premiere the first five episodes.
Sitting and watching those episodes, now so long after first delving into the ideas that spawned it, I was giddy. It was real. So often I had found myself wondering if it would ever actually come together, and to have my computer open and hear the words Briana, Danilo, and I wrote read by talented performers was surreal in the best way possible. After the third episode, when the words “Written by Devin McGrath-Conwell” flashed on the screen, I couldn’t help but cry. I doubled down on the tears after episode five, the script dedicated to expanding Victoria’s storyline.
Reflecting on it now, more than anything else, I am grateful. Grateful that Danilo believed in my voice and that he assembled Lambert Hall with such care and grace. This feeling is especially welcome amidst our current world order, and while a storyline concerning a group of students trapped in a basement may not feel like comfort food for the age of quarantine, I truly believe that their story of coming together during adversity is one that should be appealing. So readers, I humbly ask that if you find yourself in need of something new to binge while killing time in quarantine, consider Lambert Hall. I will be forever appreciative if you do.