Variety’s 10 Storytellers to Watch Spotlights Fresh Voices, From Novelists to Podcasters, Playwrights and Poets

·17-min read

Ingrid Andress

Singer-songwriter

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Platinum-selling singer-songwriter Andress has “yet to meet [her] fans” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the country music artist has already amassed a global-wide following. The Colorado native, who is signed to WarnerMusic Nashville/Atlantic Records, was the sole country music artist nominated in the new artist category, her debut album “Lady Like” received a country album nod, and her debut single, “More Hearts Than Mine,” rose to the No. 9 spot on the Billboard charts. Andress’ holiday ballad “Christmas Also Finds Me,” co-penned with Derrick Southerland and Sam Ellis, was released in October, and the single off Andress’ album, “Lady Like,” has accumulated more than 40 million streams worldwide.

“I honestly didn’t really expect anybody to know my album or music since the pandemic kept me from touring,” says Andress. “At the end of the day, it really is just about people connecting with what you’re saying. That was really rewarding for me as a songwriter, because that’s kind of the goal.”

Andress notes that, while for the most part when you’re starting out in the music biz, “the goal is to put out happy, up-tempo songs because that’s what everybody tells you people like,” her style is anything but. And that’s what helped contribute to her breakout this past year.

“[My music] is very much, like, about a moody and sad girl, and that was the mood of 2020,” says Andress, who’s currently working on songs for her second album. “It just so happened to work out that people wanted to hear stories that felt a little more human, songs that were about real emotions, because we were going through such a crazy thing. In a way, the pandemic was kind of a great way for people to get to know me. As an artist, it showed me that people really do seek out humanity in music.”

— Malina Saval

Brit Bennett

Writer, “The Vanishing Half,” “The Mothers”

Bennett’s novel about the Vignes girls, Black twins from the South, who run away from home at 16 — and the one who passes for white — enthralled readers, reigning atop the New York Times bestseller list for 37 weeks-plus and landing on the National Book Award longlist.

In 2020, HBO won the rights after a heated auction with 17 buyers bidding for the epic yet intimate novel. Aziza Barnes and Jeremy O. Harris are writing and exec producing alongside Issa Rae and her Hoorae shingle, Bennett and Stephanie Allain with Homegrown Pictures.

“I’ve always loved storytelling,” says the native Southern Californian. “I’ve always loved reading. Any type of story, reading about the lives of people, their relationships, their challenges, the ways in which they change — just accessing the lives of people outside of myself. I’ve always been far less interested in myself than I am in the lives of other people.”

Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, “The Mothers,” was a New York Times bestseller.

Her next novel focuses on “singers who have a lifelong rivalry. So it’s been really fun to write about this world that feels very different that the world of ‘Vanishing Half,’ and you have this world that’s kind of larger than life, and this world of glamourous entertainment so it’s been a really fun, a nice escape from I think, particularly in the year in which there’s very little glamour. Yes, fun to be able to escape into that book right now.”

— Carole Horst

Sam Cannon

Digital/Visual Artist

Cannon hasn’t settled into a medium for her art, but that doesn’t mean her work is any less bold and boundary-pushing. Her pieces, which explore themes such as the feminine form and the digital space, live somewhere between photography, digital animation and video, always containing a dream-like and “ephemeral” quality to them, she says.

“One of the things that I’m really excited about as an artist, especially an artist today who really enjoys working with technology, is that the medium is this constant shifting thing, which I find really fun and interesting,” she says.

The visual artist, who is repped by WME, has led various exhibitions and lectured at the Fashion Institute of Technology and George Washington University, among other institutions. In 2019, she was named one of Wired’s 23 Photographers You Should Know, and her work has been featured in the New York Times, Town & Country, V Magazine and more.

Cannon has also directed several music videos and works closely with artists she describes as “cinematic,” such as Moses Sumney, a featured guest on her Instagram Live series “SC TV,” which showcases live performances supplemented with real-time digital-visual manipulations. The series arose from the void the pandemic left in her art world, which is often audience centered.

“A lot of times [my art is] just a way for me to explore my own imagination and fantasies and want to in turn explore other people’s as well and have it feel a bit more like a conversation,” Cannon says. “What I think is so cool about storytelling is that it’s much more inclusive and it’s much more conversational and it feels a lot more like an actual exchange back and forth between the creator and the audience in a way that I’m not sure I would have been able to experience as an artist a decade ago.”

— Natalie Oganesyan

Morgan Givens

Storyteller, podcaster, “Dispatches,” “Flyest Fables”

Givens took a somewhat unusual path to his now-thriving career as a storyteller, writer, audio producer and performer. He was the first openly transgender recruit in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Academy, helping to rewrite the training curriculum — but he’s always been a storyteller, in a family of storytellers.

“I was looking for something that helped me kind of connect back to myself, because if you do that job too long, you can lose yourself. And I didn’t like that,” he says. Givens was also encouraged by his friends to take the stage as well. His first performance was a revelation – to himself. “And you know, how sometimes you hear a really good story, everyone is locked in. So I had one of those moments. And I was like, this is great, you know, the story I told, it resonated with people.”

He turned to podcasting, with the successful “Dispatches.” He’s also a 2018 graduate of the Transom Storytelling Workshop and a former AIR New Voice Scholar, and has been featured on NPR’s “Invisibilia,” and several Moth mainstage performances. The current producer for NPR’s IA is also the creator of award-winning fiction podcast “Flyest Fables,” a fictional anthology series that tells the story of Antoine, a young boy bullied in school who finds a magical book that transports him into another world.

The passionate reader wanted to give his nephew something to read that inspired him the way certain books had charged Givens’ imagination when he was a kid.

Givens created these stories “wanting to have these stories with Black characters … that doesn’t ignore their Blackness but does not make explaining their Blackness the purpose of the art.”

— Carole Horst

Sarah Kay

Poet

Kay shot to the forefront of spoken-word poetry in 2011 after her TED Talk went viral on both the TED website and YouTube. Since then, she says, her life goal has been to expand the definition that people have for the written art form and who can do poetry.

“The truth of the matter is that poetry is so big and has so much room that there are poets of every possible demographic — age, race, background, country, ethnicity, gender, religion, you name it,” she says. “There are poets everywhere hiding, or not hiding.”

The poet wrote and recorded a reading of her piece “Mrs.” as part of a New York Times collection on the role of the honorific in journalism and society. In writing the poem, she connected the prompt to a true story she carried with her over years. She also enjoys the “infinite scroll void” of the poem’s online existence on the NYT website, since she could play with the form in a way unconstrained by any print measurements.

“I’m like a real structure geek,” Kay says. “I get really excited about storytellers who have a mastery over structure. Weirdly, a lot of my approach to my own poems are kind of structural, which is not very romantic, I guess, but is true.”

She also enjoys using her platform to help bring audiences to other poets creating content worth engaging with — of these, her three current inspirations include Safia Elhillo, Hanif Abdurraqib and Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz — and learning how poetry can manifest in other art forms like animation.

“Poetry is the thing that I have followed, and in following it, my storytelling muscles get to learn how to do new things constantly, which is the joy and challenge of my life, it seems,” she says.

— Eli Countryman

Sam Lansky

Writer, “Broken People,” “Close Friends”

Lansky’s acclaimed pieces have appeared in heavyweight publications including Rolling Stone (a Variety sister publication), New York Magazine, the Atlantic, Esquire, Out and Cosmopolitan. The West Coast editor at Time’s critically lauded 2016 memoir, “The Gilded Razor,” was a moving and vulnerable portrait of a young gay man struggling with addiction. Dustin Lance Black is adapting it for the screen. With his fiction debut, “Broken People,” which was released in June 2020, he earned even more praise, and adapted to a pandemic-induced promotional tour.

The novel’s protagonist, Sam, becomes seduced by the idea of fixing all his problems in three days, under the guidance of a shaman and some powerfully mind-distorting herb elixer. It’s a journey ripe with startling frankness, black humor and even hope.

“With ‘Broken People,’ I was really interested in exploring the narrator as a sort of fictional phenomenon. I guess and it sounds really abstract. What I mean by that is, I was really curious about how we as people tell stories about ourselves. I was really interested and curious in how, every time you do that, there’s a little act of distortion. It’s so hard to be truly honest with anyone … including ourselves.”

So did Lansky use his time wisely in the past year? “Living through the pandemic has been painful and transformative, as I think it has for so many of us,” he says. “I feel like I’ve changed and grown more in the last year than any year I can remember. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that I found space to reflect on what’s actually important to me without the clutter of so many distractions.”

Lansky has a television project in development at Netflix, with details under wraps, and his second novel, “Close Friends,” will hit bookstores in 2022. It’s about the death of a star athlete in a small Texas town that impacts the lives of four friends. “I really wanted to write about the way different people experience different things and how kind of subjective our experience of the same thing can be,” he says. “And these four friends are all really different. I really wanted to write about the sort of possibilities and limitations of thinking across lines of difference and lines of identity.” Lansky’s novel explores empathy and human connections, and “look beyond the parameters of my own identity.”

— Carole Horst

Kiley Reid

Writer, “Such a Fun Age”

Kiley Reid laughs when she begins talking about her next novel, pointing out that it’s not really her second, just the first to follow her publishing debut, “Such a Fun Age,” a New York Times bestseller that was selected for Reese Witherspoon’s book club and is being adapted into a movie by Lena Waithe’s production company.

“I like to say it’s the first good one that I wrote there were maybe eight trashy novels before it,” Reid says of “Such a Fun Age.” “It was the one that made it.”

Now based in Philadelphia, where “Such a Fun Age” is set, Reid grew up in Arizona and became infatuated with the City of Brotherly Love after attending a Beyoncé concert there. The novel, recently released in paperback, centers on Emira, a young Black woman falsely accused of kidnapping the child she’s babysitting, and Alix, a prosperous blogger who recently moved to the city with her husband and young child. It deals delicately with matters of race and class, two issues that have become even more heightened since the book was first published in December 2019.

“My only hope is that people can read my novel and for a minute forget about their day and enjoy the story, because that’s ultimately why I started writing it. I never sit down to write to teach anyone about racism,” Reid says. “I’m very interested in matters of consumption in class. And I think that that shows up in my writing, but the story always comes first.”

The author, now teaching at Temple U. in Philadelphia, became infatuated with storytelling at a young age, recalling her fascination with “The Monster at the End of This Book” when she was 2 or 3. “I remember feeling the sense of dread and terror that I knew that there was a monster at the end of that book and that really stuck with me,” she says. “I still feel that today when I’m writing: I’m trying to pull the reader towards ending with a sense of excitement and dread.”

— Diane Garrett

Walter Thompson-Hernández

Writer, Podcaster, Filmmaker

Los Angeles native Walter Thompson-Hernández hit the ground running as soon as he left his graduate program at UCLA, traveling the world for nearly four years as a New York Times features writer to report on unique stories in Japan, Brazil, Mexico, and all points in between. But it wasn’t until he returned to his rapidly changing hometown that he found his greatest muse waiting for him.

“In my travels, there were people who ascribed to a lot of stereotypes about L.A.,” he says. “And I kept finding myself in different parts of the world defending L.A., and a part of me really wanted to get the story of the city that I knew out: A deeply introspective, personal memoir about the city of Los Angeles from a person of color who was born and raised here.”

That was the genesis of the award-winning podcast “California Love,” which saw Thompson-Hernández take stock of everything from his own upbringing (one episode features an interview with his mother, another with a childhood friend) to L.A.’s invasive parrot population, the death of Kobe Bryant and the horseback riding culture of Compton.

He expanded on the latter topic in his 2020 book, “The Compton Cowboys: A New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland,” which is currently in development as a feature adaptation for Searchlight. He’s also written and directed two films — one a feature, the other a short, both in post — has another book due out in 2022, is in development for an animated TV adaptation of “California Love,” and also has a new podcast on the way: “Written Up,” which follows incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people as they “write their way out of prison.”

“I have ADD, right, so I have to always be working on different things, and I’m also just deeply curious about working in different media,” he says to explain his multiplicity of projects. But no matter whether his current medium is a newspaper article, a book, a podcast, a film or a TV show, Thompson-Hernández says his aspirations as a storyteller remain the same.

“I used to have these aunts and uncles as a kid who would tell the most incredible ghost stories, these super elaborate Mexican folk stories,” he says. “Those were the best storytellers I knew – they were masters of pitch, and tone, and pacing. And so for me the goal is always to be as good a storyteller as my aunts and uncles, who never went to school for any of this, but understood how to captivate an audience. I’m just trying to do that through as many different media as I can.”

— Andrew Barker

Lauren Yee

Playwright

Yee is an expert at finding the joy alongside struggle.

“I’m interested in the contrast between the light and the dark,” the writer says. “I will often look for the backdoor into a story that you don’t expect because it engages the audience in a different way.”

Yee’s time-traveling musical drama “Cambodian Rock Band,” which centers on the humanity and surf-rock resilience amid the Cambodian genocide, won the Horton Foote Prize for new American play.

Yee has penned a handful of other award-winning plays, including “The Great Leap” and “King of the Yees,” and recently wrote for the upcoming television adaptation of “Pachinko,” slated for a 2021 release on Apple TV Plus.

With grandparents who migrated to America from China, Yee often explores her own heritage in her writing, regardless of whether she personally relates to the material.

“Even in pieces where my own background may not be explicitly connected to the subject matter, I find an anchor in the piece,” Yee says. “There’s always something in there that I need to find familiarity with in some way.”

Along with “Pachinko,” Yee also has a new FX show on the horizon. She says the series, which has yet to be announced, is a deep character exploration and deals with history in an interesting way. Feeling unrestricted, Yee’s focus is to simply find the right medium for whatever story she “gets sucked into.”

“As a storyteller, it feels like the world is opening up for me,” Yee says. “It’s like realizing you have more instruments in the band than you thought.”

— Ethan Shanfeld

Tau Zaman

Podcaster, “Caravan”

Zaman started out trying to shape political communications to shed light on marginalized communities and social justice but pivoted to storytelling as a more effective and way more entertaining way to bring intersectional characters and their lives to a bigger audience.

They started writing “Caravan” as a novel,” but they had so much fun with the crew of “Artist’s Paradox,” another audio fiction series, that “Caravan” was born. “Caravan” follows Samir, a queer man who falls into a canyon while camping with his best friend and encounters demons, ghost riders, cowboys and all sorts of supernatural elements infused with Wild West tropes. So why the mix? “I was born in Bangladesh,” they say, so coming to the U.S. was a huge change, and “fantasy [fiction was] really my first introduction to the English language, and that was really how I learned English — through TV and through fantasy books.” “Caravan” also mixes suspenseful storytelling, black humor and sometimes laugh-out loud moments in what Zaman calls a “Weird West” genre.

Zaman wanted to bring together their passion for this part of America’s past and populate with people that helped build the West but were written out of history, including Blacks and the LGBTQ community. “It would be irresponsible to not include the those people who actually inhabited those places. That was part of the reason I wanted to merge these genres; I’ve been wanting to use these Western aesthetics in that setting, because it says so much to me about the American experience and American culture, but at the same time I wanted to really put together genres like fantasy and video games that can bring forward all of these other identities that we don’t see represented as often and see how they kind of interact with each other and I think it’s kind of a balancing act.

They have also done theatrical projects blending live theater and AR, including a piece called “Liminus,” and are working on season 2 of “Caravan,” which left fans with a cliffhanger. Zaman launched podcast “Rogue Runners” on May 14.

“Rogue Runners” is a play podcast that adapts games and other media. Volume 1: In the Blood taps into popular game “Hades” and Dungeons & Dragons.

— Carole Horst

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