Tuesday, November 28, 2017

From the small stage to the small screen

Photo from LA Times
There was an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times recently about playwrights who transitioned into TV. You can find it here.

It’s interesting to me because I’ve been fortunate enough to be in both worlds (although WAY more successful at TV than the theatre).

The current trend in television now is that studios, agents, showrunners, etc. are looking for original material. It used to be they wanted spec scripts of existing shows. Those are now just supplementary writing samples. Original fare is what they seek.

That often means spec pilots but playwrights have drawers full of plays. And playwrights are in demand. Why? A number of reasons.

They tend to be prolific. Someone writes a pilot and the executive doesn’t know whether this is the only thing he's ever written or the tenth thing. But playwrights stick with it. Most playwrights I know have written at least three full-length plays.

Playwrights do it for the craft and need to tell stories. It’s almost impossible to make a living being a playwright. And this news comes as no surprise to them. They live in one room studios in Brooklyn with four other playwrights.  So executives know these are “writers.”

They've studied story structure and character and theme.  They know the power of dialogue.  

Playwrights often have the advantage of seeing or at least hearing their work. There are readings and workshops and I can’t begin to tell you how invaluable those are for the growth of a writer. So showrunners are hiring baby writers who already have experience.

And finally, in Hollywood’s quest to increase diversity, the theatre offers a great talent pool.

So kudos to the playwrights who have made the move over to television.

One thing struck me about the article though. 24 young playwrights were featured. And along with lovely photos, each offered their perspective. Many went to great lengths to justify the move. Some acknowledged that TV “paid the bills.” I kinda got the sense many of them were defensive – worried that they’d be accused of selling out.

So let me just say this. You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to justify. Playwrights starve; TV writers make good money. Embrace that. You’re getting paid handsomely for the thing you love to do. And all the playwrights who scoff and say you’re selling out – half of them would trade positions with you in a New York minute.

Your stuff is being seen by way more people than might see your plays. Yes, it’s not as intimate and not live, but more people will see an episode of THIS IS US that you wrote than all your plays combined. Hey, I’m writing plays. I’m thrilled to have productions in 99-seat theatres. It’s a great experience. Writing for the theatre is my favorite thing. But way more people are watching a rerun of one of my MASH episodes at 4:00 in the morning, and God bless each and every one of ‘em.

Also, we no longer have to apologize for the content on television. We’re in a golden age. There are better, more brilliant and complex dramas on TV than in the movies. There is more experimentation and breaking the form.  No longer is TV the second-class citizen to films.

And… you can always continue to write plays. They will probably improve as a result of your experience in television.

So congratulations again. Now you can finally get an apartment of your own with two or more rooms. Ain’t TV grand?!


Anonymous said...

Ironically, the REAL Golden Age of Television was in the mid 1950's when so many plays were performed on television
(amidst the sitcoms and detective shows). You had the top playwrights - guys like Chayefsky and Serling - writing for people who either were or would become the top actors and actresses of the next generation. Yes, it was in black and white, and yes it was staged clumsily by today's standards, but there was never better material on television, written and performed, than many of the staged plays of the 1950's.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I'm currently reading a book called, "Playrights Teach Playwriting" compiled by Joan Harrington and Crystal Brian. Its a series of essays by various playwrights on how they write and what they teach in their classes. While I haven't finished the book yet, what I have read so far is NOT particularly friendly to television. As one might imagine many of these playwrights look down their noses at T.V. They're very condescending. The following quote is typical. "Television is loaded with glib, facile writing. The theater somehow demands more rigor." (I won't mention the name of that writer) Its very similar to how theater people believe that they are the REAL ACTORS and that T.V. and film actors are somehow inferior. Yes, playwrights do write a lot. But I believe its because it makes them feel like they're still part of the business. In other words, they can think of themselves as being "playwrights" even if they've never had a play produced. Its the same mentality that makes many of us here in Hollywood take endless acting or improv classes, workshops, etc. i.e. you may not have had any work in a while, yet you still fell as if you are plying your trade. And let's be honest, there are just as many bad plays out there as there are bad T.V. scripts. Maybe more. The more I try to write the more I'm learning that there's no magic formula. You just have to write and then write some more. Bottom line: If you want to be a better writer just keep writing.

Andy Rose said...

Mark Evanier wrote a great piece about a writer he knew who turned down a good job when a "friend" told her she was selling out, and of course it was really a situation where the friend just wanted her job. The story starts about halfway through this blog post:


E. Yarber said...

While readings and workshops are indeed invaluable, I think the most important aspect of working in live theater is taking the material to an audience of strangers and somehow surviving. Their direct response is the true graduate school for any dramatist.

A stand-up comedian can change course with fingertip ease to adjust to a crowd's mood, but a play is as hard to maneuver in performance as a Sherman tank. Making the latter work night after night involves a lot of preliminary work. You truly have to understand how to set up your material and keep the audience's psychology in mind every step you take, which is no mean feat when you consider you're trying to reach dozens of very different individuals at the same moment.

Movies and TV shows can't react to an audience. Most bad scripts simply take it for granted that the viewers will like the lead characters and agree with whatever they do or feel, even if those figures do nothing to earn such loyalty. For the one-sided dialogue of film to work, the author has to be able to accurately internalize the emotions the action and dialogue will receive from a crowd that isn't there. There's no better way to learn that process than direct interaction with a random group. If you can speak to 99 people, you're on the way to entertaining several million.

Ted said...

Forget the article, how can I get L.A. Times photographer Christina House to take a picture of me? That seems like a fairly attractive group of writers, but she makes them look fantastic.

mdv59 said...

Totally unrelated... I thought you'd appreciate this picture of a young Natalie Wood, purportedly from a rehearsal on the set of The Great Race in 1964.

Natalie Wood

You're welcome.