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April Shih and Jen Goyne Blake first met in 2017 at the Sundance Institute’s Episodic Story Lab, a program where up-and-coming TV writers workshop their pilot scripts in the idyllic environment of the Utah mountain resort. Blake, who had been a script analyst at William Morris, was there as the founding director of the lab, and Shih, who would go on to be a staff writer on shows like You’re the Worst, Mrs. America and Fargo, was there to work on a dramedy called Tilted.
“We saw the benefit of being able to go to a space somewhere in nature, away from your normal routine, and how that immediately drops you into your creative process,” says Shih of the Sundance Lab experience. Over the years, the duo stayed in touch and mused about working together someday and re-creating some of the magic they’d felt in Utah. “We started daydreaming about, ‘OK, one day we’re going to be able to open this giant ranch and have residencies and basically do our own version of the Sundance labs, create yet another space for artists.’ ”
In 2021, Shih and Blake moved from daydreaming to doing. They formed a production company, Diversity Hire, and used some of the money Shih earned from an overall deal at FX to buy a $435,000 house in Lake Arrowhead, California, for hosting creative retreats.
The 1,600-square-foot, three-story A-frame is set on more than half an acre in the San Bernardino Mountains with little view of neighbors. It had all the qualities the women wanted — plenty of light, a fireplace, high ceilings, a wraparound deck — and they could envision its three bedrooms and office filled with working writers and artists. With the help of contractors Blake had worked with in L.A., the guidance of a so-called “creation doula” named Beverly Hynds and the taste of designer Tess Henderson, the two women have transformed it into a community space for writers whose projects they’re developing.
While the contractors were taking the house down to the studs, Hynds wrote words like “surprise” and “clarity,” which reflect Shih and Blake’s intentions for the house, behind the drywall, and advised them on the placement of crystals. “The contractors were like, ‘Who are these ladies from L.A. and what is happening?’ ” says Blake. “But at the end of the job, even a contractor was saying, ‘There is something about this space that when I walk into it, I feel relaxed.’ ”
For furnishings, the women added objects that feel structured but easy, a metaphor for the goal of a good script. They chose a copper soaking tub sold by an artisan on Etsy, a Hallman oven, a vintage Borge Mogensen easy chair and a Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter.
Even before the house was completed, Shih and Blake began hosting creative getaways. One time, they took the writers of a show they’re making called Run Bambi Run to a retreat in Montecito, complete with a hike to a hot springs and a salt cave meditation. At the retreats, Hynds leads writers in intention settings, tea ceremonies, dances and other activities designed to help them “drop into their bodies,” Shih says. “It’s important to invest in our artists emotionally, intellectually and financially,” Shih says.
The house developed alongside other creative projects the women are working on. Shih is writing on the latest season of Fargo, and Diversity Hire produced Joyland, a Pakistani film that premiered at Cannes, and has several projects in development.
Shih and Blake hope the Lake Arrowhead retreat will be the first of many they build, and they plan to create residency programs similar to ones that exist in the playwriting, literary and artistic communities. Participating writers, who have all been collaborators on projects Diversity Hire is developing, do not pay for stays.
“In TV, you’re asked to write a project in a vacuum, in an area like New York or L.A., where distractions are everywhere,” says Blake, whose husband is TV writer Peter Blake (The Good Doctor). “TV is collaboration. Why not open up the collaboration before the green-light phase? We felt like, ‘Let’s just provide it.’ We can’t guarantee anyone their series is going to get made, but we can tell you that we’ll help you figure out what your show is.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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