March 4, 2020

Alumni Spotlight: Davah Avena


By Keryl Brown Ahmed

The School of Cinematic Arts seems to have a way of turning Production students into writers. Maybe because of the SCA focus on storytelling, which is evident even in CTPR 507, the course students take in their first year of the Production MFA that is supposed to teach them the technical aspects of filmmaking.

For 2003 Production MFA graduate Davah Avena, a television dramedy writer most recently credited on Eva Longoria’s Grand Hotel, it was in 507 that she discovered her love for writing. Although she landed in television, Avena (whose first name rhymes with lava) focused on feature writing at SCA. “There wasn’t a lot of talk about TV at all while I was at school,” she says. However, her exit interview planted a seed. “I had a really great conversation with my mentor, Brenda Goodman. She sat me down and was like, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but you have a TV sensibility.’ And it was this Beautiful Mind moment—suddenly everything made sense.”

Avena researched ways into the TV writing field. “I read on Google that you should write what you watch,” she recalls. So, she cut her teeth on comedy specs for My Wife and Kids and George Lopez. She applied to the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s Writers Program—submitting the George Lopez spec—and got in. After NHMC, she completed a Nickelodeon Writing Program Fellowship. “I was the program girl,” she says.

Despite starting out in half-hour comedy, Avena decided to also embrace her more dramatic side. Her first television job, which she got through connections at NHMC, was as writers’ assistant, and eventually a staff writer, on ABC Family’s KyleXY. NBC’s Medium followed. Avena has since carved out a space for herself in the dramedy world, working on shows like East Los High on Hulu, Lifetime’s Devious Maids and ABC’s Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. She was a supervising producer on Grand Hotel on ABC.

The connection to Longoria (who also produced Devious Maids) is coincidental, but Avena says her success can be traced back to those early days on KyleXY and Medium. “The writers’ room for KyleXY had a lot of future showrunners in it,” she explains. When she got the call for a job on season three of Devious Maids, she still had a few weeks left in the writers’ room for East Los High. “The showrunner, Carlos Portugal, was like, ‘You have to go for it.’” Avena says the support she has gotten from superiors has made her want to help younger writers, and she makes it a point to reach out to new writers transitioning into rooms.

Avena always knew she wanted to work in a creative field. As an undergrad at Evergreen State College in Washington, her home state, she took every visual art class she could. Evergreen only offered documentary classes—no traditional, narrative cinema classes. “Because I leaned so much toward narrative storytelling, my documentaries would always have a more experimental part to them.” After working in graphic design for a few years, she applied to graduate programs. She was rejected from San Francisco State University. Their feedback? She was “too Hollywood” for their program. “I considered that a compliment,” Avena says. It should come as no surprise then that USC turned out to be the perfect fit.

Avena has one major regret about her time at USC. “I was constantly making films, and maybe I should have socialized a bit more,” she says, laughing, adding that she still managed to make “a few really good friends.” But her time at SCA contributed to her versatility and work ethic, she says.

Avena is now co-executive producer on the upcoming NBC musical dramedy Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist, which debuts in early 2020.