‘The Retreat’ showrunners Ashley Denise (L) and Ricki Lynde (R)
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‘The Retreat’ showrunners Ashley Denise (L) and Ricki Lynde (R)

According to research from the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University, Black women comprised 21.6% of all major female characters in 2022, up from 16.4% in 2021. Behind the scenes, the numbers are even lower. According to a “Hollywood Diversity” report the University of California at Los Angeles released in 2021, racial minorities created 10%, 21% and 15% of all broadcast, cable and digital shows, respectively. In 2011, just 4% of scripted broadcast television shows were created by a racial minority; and for cable and digital shows, it was 7% and 6% respectively. There is no breakout data available for specifically Black women show creators.

What we know for sure is that the people in executive positions have immense power to set the narrative and give opportunities where there may not have been any before. So when we start to see more Black women creating TV shows (take ‘Queen Sugar’ on Oprah Winfrey Network, for example), there is a good chance we see more diversity on screen as well as behind the scenes.

The streaming and digital subscription landscape have opened the doors of opportunity to many folks who have previously been shut out of traditional Hollywood rooms, and Crackle TV is one of the platforms dedicated to uplifting the voices and stories of diverse creators.

Their new series ‘The Retreat’ just premiered on Crackle, and it was created by 2 Black women showrunners – Ashley Denise and Ricki Lynée. ‘The Retreat’ was created to intentionally highlight black women in front of and behind the camera. This series was staffed with an all Black women cast and crew.

During a vulnerable moment at an all Black women’s artist retreat, guest speaker Cynthia Chadwick reveals a dangerous secret about her past to a small group of women. The next morning, Cynthia has disappeared and her unlucky confidants, Pamela, Dana, and Bea are each given a wad of hundreds in exchange for signing a non-disclosure agreement that forbids any mention of Cynthia’s presence at the retreat.

The series picks up one year later, as Pamela’s soon-to-be-published book of memoirs threatens to expose what happened at the retreat. As scandalous rumors about Cynthia begin to circulate in the news and on social media, it’s every woman for herself in the struggle to survive. With tensions at an all-time high, alliances are formed, back-stabbing ensues, and the plot never ceases to thicken.

This is a project that has been enthusiastically championed by Crackle TV executives. They understood the changes being demanded of the industry as a whole, and wanted to prioritize inclusion going forward. Imagine if every network and platform followed suit!

We had the chance to chat with Ashley and Ricki about their careers, the series and the power of representation, for a show that is being described as “Black Girl Magic”.

How did the idea for ‘TheRetreat’ come about, and what was the process from inception to production?

Ashley Denise: The production company that Ricki and I co-own is called Nuanse Entertainment, and our mission is to create “Colorful Characters for Every Genre”–with projects that intentionally highlight new narratives about the Black experience. So, when brainstorming ideas for our new project, we talked about genres that were new to us as writers, and considered which genres we’d like to see feature more black lead characters.

We’d worked on a lot of dramas and comedies at that point, so thought it would be fun to explore new territory in the form of a suspense-thriller narrative. The next element was that we’d been talking for a while about creating a project with a cast and crew totally staffed by black women. That was something we hadn’t seen done before, and once we realized that it was within our power to pursue, we couldn’t shake the feeling that it needed to happen.

The final piece was asking ourselves what characters we wanted to see more of on screen, and one of the prevailing answers to that question was a mature, Black woman with a physical disability. Some time ago, I remember reading a 2016 report that stated only 2.4% of all speaking or named characters across 800 popular films were shown to have a disability. And those numbers don’t reflect how few of those characters were even represented by Black women.

Once we had those three main ingredients–suspense-thriller genre, cast and crew of Black women, and at least one lead character over 50 with a disability–we felt like we had a solid foundation to move forward with the series.

In terms of production, initially, our network was limited with regards to knowing Black women with crew experience–which is one of the main reasons we wanted to do this project in the first place–to bring together a group of Black women who could call on each other for future gigs.

The turning point was when we attended the Black TV and Film Collective’s semi-annual pitch meeting. This was an opportunity for us to pitch the concept of “The Retreat” to a group of about 20 black creatives. At that point, we had the script locked and were beginning the casting process, but still needed to crew up. Through a BTFC contact, we connected with our guest director, Angele Cooper. As a union gaffer, Angele had a vast network of experienced black women crewmates, including producers, cinematographers, and assistant camera operators.

Through these contacts, we were able to pull together the majority of our immensely talented team and were able to achieve our goal of creating “The Retreat” with a cast and crew full of black women.

This is a show that puts Black women at the forefront, both on screen and behind the scenes. Can you share more about what it was like working on a show like this?

AD: Designing and creating in an atmosphere like this one was genuinely a dream come true. The entire set reflected the vast and varied nature of what it means to be a black woman. It was an instance of art imitating life, imitating art–we had black women of all ages, shades, backgrounds, and orientations. The first three days of the shoot, we shot on location in the Poconos, and the cast and crew stayed at the same retreat house all together, which fed into that sense of community and collective energy we wanted to capture onscreen.

In the show, we reference Audre Lorde, and on the shoot, you’d hear people talk about how cultivating this group was a “radical act.” That feeling was reinforced by everyone’s unwavering focus and commitment. As a result, the project mirrors that same spirit of singularity, depth, and not to be cliche, but–Black girl magic!

Throughout the show audiences will get to see Audre Lorde references, and what has been described by Crackle as Black Girl Magic. As showrunners, can you share more about how this show is helping to shift the status quo in TV?

AD: The concept for the project began in 2018, and principal photography took place in 2019; during that time, there weren’t a lot of easy access points for us to navigate putting together a cast and crew like ours, so it was very much a grassroots effort.

I think that 5 years later, there has been movement within the industry to shift the status quo by putting more people of color on screen and behind the camera–namely by visionary filmmakers like Ava DuVernay. She’s been doing a lot of that work since 2010 with AFFRM/ARRAY, and in 2023, teamed up with Ron Howard’s Impact, to create the “number one global hiring resource for the entertainment industry.” (per Deadline)

So, in a larger sense, “The Retreat” has always been aligned with shifting that status quo. Now, when people ask, “How are you going to staff a cast and crew of all black women–there aren’t any black women DPs, etc?,” we can show them the receipts! Our show is evidence that it can be done, and that there’s an audience that’s eager to join in its success.

Why is it important to have diversity and inclusion behind the scenes as well as on screen?

Ricki Lynée: It’s important because exposure creates more opportunity within the film industry as a whole. For many people of color, certain spaces and positions in the industry appear much less accessible than others. I think when audiences watch a TV show, they consider the sort of “above-the-line” positions”, actors, directors, producers, etc. are the key players in creating that TV show or film. What often goes overlooked are the invaluable crew members who also work tirelessly behind the scenes to help make the show a success.

These are statistically white male-dominated positions, and when there are openings, those positions aren’t often circulated to as vast of a network that largely includes Black women and other people of color. So when the opportunity presented itself to Ashley and I in the creation of ‘The Retreat’, we set out to provide that access. We were determined to ensure that our set, from cast to crew, was representational of the future of the industry as we have longed for.

For those who aren’t as familiar with the title, can you explain what a showrunner is and does?

AD: The role of the showrunner is to be the central creative and managerial engine of the show. A lot of times, the position might encompass being the series creator, head writer, and executive producer. For “The Retreat” that also included directing the majority of the episodes as well.

What is your creative process like as partners on ‘The Retreat’?

RL: We really were partners on this show in the truest sense, in that we worked to make sure that every step of the way, the decisions around the show felt equally fulfilling to each of us from concept to release. For Ashley and I, that’s often been simple because we share such similar visions for our work, as well as embrace our unique and individual interests and styles.

As the creators, the showrunners, the executive producers, and the editors–the pair of us wore what felt like probably 100 different hats for this series–to say that it was hard work is an understatement. But it’s precisely this reason that we consistently checked in to determine what felt right around any decision. That’s true for any of our projects. When we’re bouncing ideas off of each other, we’re assured the best idea will surely come because of our shared love and passion for the work.

What were the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of working on this show?

RL: The greatest challenge we faced was having a limited budget for a show this extensive. We were fortunate to get a great response to the script and found that many people were inspired enough to donate their time and expertise to a new kind of project, one that focused exclusively on black women. We’re very proud of what we accomplished on a limited budget.

During production, we received in-kind donations for catering, equipment, transportation, as well as with some of our filming locations. Without these in-kind donations and services, we would not have been able to produce the show we have today.

One of things that’s been most rewarding, is hearing the reception from our team and audiences about how impactful the show has been. Our cast and crew have shared with us the overwhelmingly positive reactions they’ve received from family and peers, how unique the experience filming ‘The Retreat’ had been, as well as how inspirational it continues to be for future work for Black women in film.

I also have to admit, it’s been quite rewarding proving to the nay-sayers that a project like this could be successfully accomplished.

Where did you draw inspiration from in terms of characters, script, tone etc?

AD: In addition to depicting a euphoric artistic landscape—which we’d imagined our own experience at an all-Black women artist retreat would’ve been—we tried to consider some of the reasons this sort of creative paradise could be ruined. While developing the characters, “fear” became a recurrent theme of discussion.

Much of this came out of conversations we had about the political climate and cultural tensions that are still very prevalent today. With “fear” as an undercurrent, we began to infuse these personal trepidations in all four of our main characters’ motivations and creative goals. From this, our #firefour narrative evolved.

Early in the writing process, we talked in depth about character archetypes we love to watch on screen, and the traits or idiosyncrasies that make each one unique. One example with the role of “Dana”–her character breakdown reads: “Never uses 5 words when 4 will do…still waters run deep. “Dana” was the first character we built for this show–her name actually comes from being a photographer, rooted in the “Darkroom.” So, “D” for Darkroom, and “D” for Dana.

She’s the first character we introduce to the audience, and even though she doesn’t say much, over the course of the season, we see her story arc develop in some really unexpected ways. Ivana Noble plays Dana so adeptly–she has a presence about her that commands your attention right away, and although she often appears to play second fiddle to “Bea”, when she speaks, people listen. In the pilot, she only has one line, “We have a problem,” but that moment catalyzes the entire show.

What do you hope viewers will love about this series?

RL: The hope for me is that the viewers will find the subtle moments equally as satisfying to the evident plot twists in the show. When I’m watching film/tv show that’s in the mystery/suspense genre, I love going on the journey with the characters so much that I find myself rewinding to parts to pick up on all of the subtle interactions and gestures so that I never miss a moment.

I want to know the full story in the writing and the performance. We wanted ‘The Retreat’ to be that kind of show where the viewer can appreciate the fullness of it and left wanting more. I hope the audience loves all of these moments this ride has to offer.

Equally as important, what changes do you hope the show will inspire within the TV industry at large?

AM: Donna R. Walton, who plays “Pamela,” is constantly saying, “We are not a monolith,” and that’s something we believe in and try to portray in all of Nuanse Entertainment’s projects. If you look at “The Retreat” and think about other shows you’ve seen–what other suspense series, or even episodic drama, have you watched with an ensemble of Black women this diverse?

It begs the question–if we were able to pull this team together and make something that people are responding to with limited resources–why aren’t we seeing more of this diversity reflected in mainstream media from studios with bigger budgets and larger networks? Our hope is that “The Retreat” can provide part of the blueprint for more projects like this in the future.

Without giving away any huge spoilers, what are some key moments we should look out for in the series?

RL: There are certainly some twists in the show that we hope the audience are equally as excited about as we were when we were writing the show. What was the most fun was layering our cold opens (initial scene in the episode before the opening sequence) with nuggets that really highlight the levels to the schemes/twists taking place in the world of ‘The Retreat’. For the truest detectives of our fans, if you’re paying close attention, loads will be revealed!

You can watch all episodes of ‘The Retreat’ available to watch for free, on Crackle TV.