Thursday, April 07, 2016

Why I became a playwright

It’s not for the same reasons Neil Simon did.

Before becoming a playwright, Neil Simon was a very successful television writer. Even wrote on prestige shows like SGT. BILKO and CAESAR’S HOUR (starring Sid Caesar and featuring a writing staff that also included Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen).

But back then the real prestige was in “theateah.”

It was also easier to get a new play on Broadway (it didn’t have to star Oscar nominees) and you could make a decent living as a playwright.

Writing plays also meant Simon could remain in New York. The television industry in the late ‘50s was fleeing to Hollywood as if there were Cossacks in Manhattan.

I have no desire to move to New York. It’s great fun for a week or two but then there’s always a blizzard or a hurricane. And unless you have Stephen Sondheim money you now have to live in Tenafly, New Jersey.

And as far as prestige goes, MASH, CHEERS, and FRASIER is hardly slumming it.

So why did I become a playwright?

Because I love to write smart, witty, grown-up characters and hear an audience laughing. And there is no outlet in television that does that anymore. MOM does (at times) but that show is room written. At best, I’d be lobbing in jokes. Not the same thing.

When my TV writing partner, David Isaacs and I were on the floor during the filming of our last FRASIER I said to him, “This may be the last time anyone lets us do this.” Unfortunately, so far I’m right.

Writing sophisticated sitcoms was the best of both worlds. Every week we had a live audience and I got to hear raucous laughter. To a comedy writer – or at least, me – that’s crack. And as a bonus, another 20,000,000 people got to see and enjoy the show. More people watched one new airing of CHEERS than all the stage productions of THE ODD COUPLE put together. And the pay was good.

But these days, I’d gladly trade the audience size for the freedom to write about situations and characters that are meaningful to me. I don’t have to create a show that would be a good companion piece for 2 BROKE GIRLS or would star some brat who can’t act but does have a YouTube following. I can explore issues, I can plumb for emotional truths, and I can still make people laugh (even though I’m over thirty).

I write plays for the satisfaction and sheer love of writing.

Getting to Broadway would be nice but it’s not the end game. Working with lovely people, turning out work I’m proud of, and hearing good actors bring my words to life resulting in laughter is reward enough.

One of my plays, A OR B? is being performed this month outside of Philadelphia by the Village Theatre of Hatboro. I’m flying there today and will see the production tomorrow night and Saturday night. After Saturday’s performance I’ll be doing a Q & A. If you’re in the area, swing by.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of frustrations with being a playwright. Finding venues and producers to stage your work is always hard. The script itself, if there’s any complexity, takes time and workshops to develop. The financial reality of theater is always a concern. Gone are the days you could write plays for seven or ten characters. Today you stand a much greater chance of getting a production if your cast is limited to four (and hopefully fewer) and your sets and production costs are minimal. This certainly limits the kinds of plays and scope of plays you can do, but within those restrictions you can go anywhere, tackle any subject matter, and create characters of any age (not just 20-22). I’ll take it. Oh... and there's no money for you.   I'll still take it. 

After all, I get to go to Philadelphia.

Ironically, Neil Simon now lives in Southern California.
A OR B? graphics compliments of Jess Lewis.


ninja3000 said...

Umm, Tenafly is one of the wealthiest towns in the NYC region, and has been since I was a kid in the '60s...

slgc said...

My husband and I will be there Saturday night - we can't wait!

Carol said...

When I was in London recently, we saw this play done by Kenneth Branagh's theatre company, starring him and Rob Brydon, called The Painkiller. It rain 1 1/2 hours with no interval,abd was a total laugh-fest. In London there are DOZENS of these type of shows, (Straight plays) because theatre is still respected there. In New York, it's a Big Musical Based on a Disney Movie or nothing.

A or B? Would totally play in the West End.

It's playing wonderfully in Hatboro, that's for sure! Someone said to our director that not only did they think it was the best play Village Players have done in years, he thought it was one of the best plays, full stop.

Someone else said it was like Groundhog Day crossed with Love, American Style.

We got huge laughs, even on Friday night. Friday's are notoriously hard to get laughs - people are tired from being at work all day.

So yes, anyone in the area of Hatboro PA please come see A or B? Our Abby and Ben are knocking it out of the park, and I guarantee serious laughter.

PNW Corey said...

Off topic: Did anybody else notice that J.C. from yesterday's post sounded like John Candy from SNL?

Ficta said...

I was there last Friday and even after a drive in the rain from Maryland, I *still* laughed my head off.

Carol said...

@ Ficta

I wish I'd known that! I'd have said hello at least. Maybe all Readers of The Blog should have a secret hand signal or something. Or tee shirts. :)

Tammy said...

Carol: Lucky you going to a Kenneth Branagh play (though as a theater person it's probably not your first time). Seeing him on stage is on my bucket list, really hope I get to one day.

Johnny Walker: Thanks for the Joss link the other day, great find!

David said...

That theater is missing the boat if it doesn't bill your post-show appearance as "Q & A or B."

Dan Reese said...

I'll be there Saturday-- looking forward to it!

Matt Tauber said...

According to your pal, Mark Evanier, Woody Allen never wrote for "Caesar's Hour."

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Ken, think you'll like this.

Here's D-backs CEO Derrick Hall discussing how Vin Scully is his favorite all-time broadcaster

MikeK.Pa. said...

I was originally supposed to go Saturday night, but had to switch to tomorrow night. Sorry, I'm going to miss out on the Q&A. If you get in early enough tomorrow (by noon), you can catch the Villanova victory parade in Center City.

Todd Everett said...

Not as prestigious, but there's a market for plays that can be performed easily in community theaters: smallish cast, more women than men, funny...and short. "By the writer of..." may not be as easy a sell as the name of a Broadway hit, but if the property is good, word will get around. And there are a lot of community theater out there. For high school and college productions, you go with larger casts (so a lot of people can get involved).

MikeK.Pa. said...

Switched my tickets to Saturday. Looking forward to the play and the Q&A.

Re: "After all, I get to go to Philadelphia." If you haven't been there before, try the Reading Terminal. It's a unique experience with all types of food - from cheesesteaks to Amish - under one roof

Roy DeRousse said...

I am looking forward to seeing the play on Saturday night. To follow up on a previous note, Reading Terminal Market really is worth a visit. Be sure to buy a donut at Beiler's Donuts there. They make the best donuts I've ever eaten.

Barry Traylor said...

So Ken, what do you think of the new THE ODD COUPLE on CBS? I happened to catch part of an episode last night and it wasn't too bad. At least it gave me a laugh or two.

Michael Hagerty said...

Neil Simon settled in Southern California? Thirty-some years ago, at the height of his popularity, with hit plays on Broadway and hit movies from Hollywood, he sat down for a Playboy interview. They asked him about being bi-coastal. His response:

"When it's 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity in New York, it's 78 in L.A.

When it's 32 degrees with sleet in New York, it's 78 in L.A.

There are one million interesting people in New York.

78 in L.A."

Guess Neil chose the weather over the people.

Anonymous said...

So if I understand what you are saying Ken, at least this weekend, on the whole you'd rather be in Philadelphia.

Wayne said...

I bet your play is as wonderful in Philly as Burbank.
If you're doing a Q&A on A OR B, be sure to mind your Ps and Qs.

slgc said...

My husband and I really enjoyed A or B? as well as the Q & A session after the show. Thanks so much for coming east and for a wonderful evening.

(And I swear that it normally doesn't snow out here in April. Seriously!)