by Addie Johnson Talbott
Playwrights Traverse the Theater and TV Divide
Making a life in the theater often feels to me like putting together a massive, illogical puzzle. The pieces shift in front of your eyes as you lay them down, and the whole enterprise might be easily enough upended by a slobbering toddler, or just as likely to be left half-finished and moldering in a house upstate. Of course it’s not just a puzzle. If it were, who would even begin to sign up for this? This puzzle holds within in it a kind of Zen koan: Theater is ancient, and yet it does not exist outside the present moment. It is singular and collaborative in the same breath. It offers profound personal catharsis, but in some ways enjoys very little societal heft or sway. And, in our most un-Zen moments, we curse that it’s almost impossible to make a !#@*ing living.
In his truth-telling, wrenching book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the American Play, Todd London articulates some of the hard realities that playwrights face, particularly mid-career writers. He details fewer production opportunities, stagnating income, and a deep divide between the leadership of non-profit theaters and the artists whose work they produce. Many writers get to the intermission of their careers in a state of emotional and physical ruin. How can they go on? An increasing number of playwrights are scripting their own solution:
Enter television, stage left.
I wanted to know more about this medium and the writers making the leap into it—to know how they are puzzling together issues of financial stability, money and art, storytelling and audience, time and process, ownership and collaboration. And I wanted to explore the even deeper question of a writer’s ability to make an artistic home, and what part of TV writing might serve (or obfuscate) that purpose. I spoke and emailed with ten playwrights in various stages of TV and film writing careers to try and find out.
Qui Nguyen, whose play Vietgone is smashing its way through an extended run at Manhattan Theatre Club after having played to packed houses regionally, shares his feeling that up until recently, half-hour comedies with multiple jokes per page or hour long procedurals like Law & Order didn’t necessarily align with most playwrights’ prime fascinations: character and story. “TV’s changed tremendously through the last several decades,” he shares, “I don’t think playwrights are bending themselves to be TV writers as much as I think the medium of TV has now become more friendly to playwrights because our skills now better fit the types of stories they’re wanting to tell.”
There are also real artistic paradigm shifts between the two media that excite and inspire playwrights. Daria Polatin, a writer on Jack Ryan for Amazon and Shut Eye for Hulu, lays out a relationship of time and story that’s fascinating to me: “On stage, I love telling stories within a few hours of time and space;” however, she continues, “I’m also drawn to the recurring nature of TV, and the opportunity to see how characters can evolve and grow over time.” Several other writers I talked to marveled at the upside-down timescale of the artistic processes: in theater you spend months or years on a story that will play out in endless variations in the present moment, for an hour or two at a time. In TV, you might have as little as a couple of days to jam out a script that will take its place locked into a singular interpretation within many hours of long-form story telling. The opportunities and limitations of each form seem to complement each other for most (though not all) of the writers I spoke to.
Keith Josef Adkins, a playwright who just moved from New York to Los Angeles to start work on The Good Fight, a spinoff of The Good Wife, says, “For me, theater is a playing space for a limited amount of spectators. TV is a work space for an endless amount of spectators.”
Every artist needs a home, and must figure out how to meet basic needs. Playwright Courtney Baron confesses, “Theater is what I always imagined as my career home, but the truth is that I haven’t been so great at making my home there. I love the process of rehearsals into productions, I even love the endless workshop hamster wheel, [and] still I don’t know how to claim the theater as my home.” She explains that two things about TV make it different for her. One: “I have a better understanding of the end game for myself. I’d like to run my own show. Period.” And two, “The monetary compensation is undeniably affirming. I think of all of the playwrights that I love, who write beautiful, moving, important plays, but can’t buy a house or afford their kids or sometimes afford to be playwrights anymore. So, the successes in television for me are exciting, because I can easily understand them.”
Laura Eason, who is several years into writing for House of Cards even as she sustains a slate of New York and regional productions of her plays, says, “The financial piece of it is profound […] It’s enabled my playwriting to be as much about passion as it was at the beginning, and that is really wonderful.”
There is a famous story about the brilliant playwright María Irene Fornés, interviewing for the position of chair of an MFA playwriting department at an Ivy League school (a job she was ambivalent about getting). They asked her something like, “How would you describe playwriting?” And she replied (in her throaty accent, her h’s like the ch in challah) something like, “Writing plays is like humping. You don’t hump to have the baby. You hump to hump, and then the baby comes.”
I love that, and it seems like the metaphor is partly that in the relationship of product (plays/babies) to process (writing/humping) there is an element of accident, and also of inevitability; it is the pursuit of something that is fun, ephemeral, and physical/sensual/sensory. And the result of all that is a new creation—a new entity. I told several writers this story, and asked them if that is the way playwriting works for them, and if so if any of that was retained—or even amplified—in writing for TV and film. Mando Alvarado probably says it best:
TV writing feels like having drunk sex, finding out you’re going to have a baby and then you give it to someone else to raise, and you forget about it (not maliciously, more matter of factly; life moves on). Then the baby grows up and the world gets ahold of it and either the world is going to applaud you for having sex and making a baby, or blame you for how the baby turned out, even though you really had no say in how it was raised other than the fact you got drunk one night and had sex.
Laura Eason has a similar response, though she imagines the writer in a caretaking role rather than a parenting one, saying that as a staff writer, “As much as you bring your whole self and the best ideas you can to the process, you are really in service to a voice and vision that is not your own,” that is, the showrunner’s vision. “In short,” she continues, “it’s not your baby. To keep flogging this metaphor, you’re more like the live in childcare provider. You love the baby like your own but, at the end of the day, you aren’t the parent who, ultimately, makes the biggest decisions.”
Contracts and customs dictate a strict structure for most writers rooms, though each show of course has its own tone and style within the work environment. In a basic sense, the creator and showrunner (often the same person or team, but not always) run things and have final artistic say. Under the showrunner come executive producers and story editors, who are writers with some seniority (and in theory some more responsibility), and then there are a small group of staff writers as well as assistants and script coordinator roles. This group makes up the writers room, and is separate from (but highly accountable to) two entities: the studio (most equivalent in my mind to the artistic producing staff in a theater model) and the network (which I sort of understand in a theater context as if the venue had a commercial producer who was separate from the artistic staff but shared a vision for what was being presented).
Each of the playwrights I spoke to were surprisingly adaptable to some fundamental changes in how they collaborate and with whom when they write for TV and film. Every single one of them talked in depth about the collaborative aspect of the writing—how it inspired them and frustrated them, how it felt to be in a room with other writers after toiling alone for so many years, and the twinned fate of giving up autonomy of vision but reaping the benefits of a new way of working and thinking about story. My husband Daniel Talbott, who spent his first year in a writers room this year for the upcoming show The Mist, shares, “I know every show is different, and I’m just starting out in TV, so this is probably a very green response, but I didn’t expect it to be so collaborative and like a wonderful rehearsal in some way. I really expected to have to just shut up and write what I was told to, and the whole thing was so creative and shared and worked on together, at least in the writers room. I really loved it.”
For Qui Nguyen, the changes in writing process still felt familiar in some way, and gratifying. “I need to be in a room full of artists,” he tells me. “I’m a story nerd who needs people, which makes both TV and theater perfect mediums for me (rather than, say, writing a novel).”
In writing for TV, no single writer really owns the product. Even when a writer’s name appears on an episode, I am finding, it can be misleading—that byline can be more tied to contractual obligation than a reflection of who did the heavy lifting on that part of the story. Many viewpoints and layers of notes come into play for each episode, and everyone accepts and appreciates that reality in a way they never would in the theater. Staff writers are in service of someone else’s vision, which to me sounds a little bit like a recipe for disaster, at least artistically. But J. Holtham, who just finished up his first year in the writers room for Pitch, was surprised that even with layers of network and studio notes, and amid lots of competing priorities (sponsors, budget, critics, etc.) the “oars are (mostly) pulling in the same direction.” And he finds there is “far less cynicism in the work” than we might expect in what is ultimately a commercial realm. Ultimately, he thinks, as a writer the rules are the same. You want to “write the best story you can, assume the best of your audience, and tell the truth. Network and studio execs [are] no more frustrating than dramaturgs and artistic staff, and all with the same goal: making the best show we can all make together.”
Steeped in a theater background, I am shocked to hear about the casual necessity in TV of one writer taking over another’s draft, or of the standard competitive culture in which the best line—or joke, or moment—wins. In the theater, unless there’s a creative or personal understanding to operate otherwise, the playwright’s words are central and singular, and her collaborators don’t tend to directly offer rewrites. In another medium, it would feel like a painter’s agent or a sculptor friend coming into the studio and picking up a brush to make a few strokes. Horrifying. But what is antithetical in theater is in fact essential to the TV process. For a writer going back and forth, it might require a thick skin to work in this way.
J. Holtham confirms that for him, “the biggest challenge is the collaborative aspect.” He reveals that, “Even after grad school, and years of writers’ groups, and after collaborating with directors and actors, and getting notes from A.D.s and other producers, it’s still pretty humbling to have your pitches shot down in the room. (Even when they’re obviously not the best ideas.) You have to learn not to be precious about your ideas. If not, it’s going to be a very painful time.”
For all the differences however, Blair Singer, who has probably the longest TV resume of anyone in the group I spoke to, said, “When I’m working on something I find creatively challenging and fulfilling, it is exactly the same process as when I write for the theater. I write long, I write to discover, and then I begin the relentless process of honing it to find out what I’m actually trying to write. And that is excruciating. And, ultimately, the most rewarding. But it’s a long, painful road to get to rewarding.”
While not everyone in this group is still writing for theater, many are, and this seems like a seismic shift from even a few years ago, when people in the theater industry wailed about “losing” writers forever to Hollywood and its lucrative but subsuming landscape. I find it heartening that people are carving out ways to come and go, to add TV writing to a tapestry of home-making endeavors that includes teaching, office jobs, artistic admin jobs, and more. I asked the writers what they bring back, practically and artistically, to the theater from writing in television. Practically, they point to using white boards and note cards, outlines and storyboarding to plan out their ideas in new ways. They talk about embracing succinct dialogue and brevity of scenes, as well as finding in some cases a speed of writing and lack of preciousness. They also feel a new access to fluidity of style, genre, character, and dialogue. For example, a writer whose fascination is moody teen character drama has a different take on big action-style plots, and there are benefits for both the TV show and for the writer’s future plays within that collision.
Thinking more artistically, I wonder about the end result of this new kind of writing. Mando Alvarado talks about “the geometry of writing,” meaning a more bird’s eye view of the whole and its moving pieces. And surprisingly, Keith Josef Adkins speaks of finding a new horizon for his particular voice in a way that once might have felt like the provenance of non-profit theater. “There appears to be an honest desire for authentic gaze,” he tells me. “As a theater artist of color I often feel like I’m having to convince theaters in the importance of the authentic gaze, as well as the importance of complex characters of color that are not created through a white gaze. I have TV and film meetings where the primary conversation and interest is me and my authenticity.”
I’m relieved to hear that time spent writing for TV also seems to bring a perspective shift, and a deepening of the desire and impulse to write plays. Laura Eason appreciates “more than ever before being the final say about the text as a playwright.” Mando Alvarado describes less pressure about the need for his plays to be produced, a return to the feeling that writing a play is “the only way I feel free, connected to something bigger than me. If it finds its way into the mouths of actors and the ears/eyes of an audience, then it’s just a part of the cycle of things I want to put into the world that is mine.” Blair Singer looks forward to the return in another way. “I want my creative process in television to be more accidental, more ephemeral, but I’ve found that the more knowledge I have of the business aspects of television, the less adventurous I am and the more I structure my work toward commercial viability,” he tells me. “The honest truth is that I’ve let my theater writing be too influenced by my TV writing. Too formulaic, too naturalistic. That’s something I need to work on in the next decade,” he says with a smile.
For many writers, there’s a new sense of release in their lives and work. Megan Mostyn-Brown shares, “I think it’s helped me be less hard on myself. My boyfriend likes to use the phrase: be a drunk in a car crash. Which is basically like stay loose and don’t freak out, it’s not about you. I’m still not very good at doing that, but I’m working on it.”
Years ago, many of us in the theater might have kept a purist, haughty distance from TV writing. But it may turn out that this trashy, commercial thing—this glorified way to sell soup or soap—might be a beautifully functional and creative way forward in the lives of some of the playwrights whose work I admire most. Objectively, TV is also clearly coming into its own as a powerful storytelling art form. The second acts of these playwrights will no doubt be stronger because of it.
ContributorAddie Johnson Talbott
ADDIE JOHNSON TALBOTT is an actor, producer, and theater mom. She is an artistic associate of Rising Phoenix Rep, with whom she has produced numerous plays regionally and in the Off-Broadway and Indie Theater.