The Playgoer: Playwrights on TV, cont.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Playwrights on TV, cont.

"The Writers' Guild of America minimum for an hour-long teleplay is over $20,000; that sure beats many a playwriting commission, which can be less than half of that sum."

TheatreMania tells us more about the migration of playwrights to TV.

"Less than half"??? Try 10%! (if that)

Highlights:

  • A Fox vice-president got her division behind her on the line: "I know where the best writers are. They're in New York and they're working Off-Broadway."
  • "Getting notes like 'can you find a way to get the actresses naked this week?' can make you feel like you've sold your soul," says one dramatist.
  • Catch Marsha Norman--head of Juilliard Playwriting Division by night, "Criminal Intent" writer by day--basically saying theatre is finished, on to TV.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sad when writers like Norman say the theatre is finished, when really it's they who are finished with the theatre. Why do so many writers have such a hard time leaving playwriting behind, why do they have to blame "the theatre" for their own decision to move to other media?

Anonymous said...

Because they'd rather stay in the theater, but they can't make a living there.

Mark S. said...

What a dispiriting article. How does Norman reconcile her position as teacher of playwriting with what appears to be a clear belief that theater is an irrelevant dinosaur? While this sort of duplicity is hardly surprising in our culture of expedience, it is, nonetheless, angering.

Relles' pride in saying let's not make art, let's make TV is equally nauseating, its honesty notwithstanding. It all seems to lead to a sort of Spenglerian approach to culture: the times are brutal--therefore, get with the times! Remove the art--it'll teach you to be a better "artist"! If you must, comfort yourself with platitudes about going back to basics and honing elements of your craft (after all, Shakespeare would have *definitely* worked in TV), but make no mistake: they're all platitudes. The reality is this: you are a creature of history. And history says, "Fuck art."

Lovely.

Mark S.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Mark S.

Just because some playwrights want to be rich does not mean the theatre is stupid and irrelevant.

Hilary Sanders said...

Wait, where does Marsha Norman (or anyone in the article) say that theatre is finished? Or that they’re leaving theatre? Or blaming theater for their deciding to move into the television arena? Does anyone say they’re never writing a play again? Is it possible these folks are just trying something new, and earning a little extra money? Some money that might then allow them to spend more time writing plays? I guess I don’t see where anyone in that article states they’re abandoning theater. If Diana Son announced that she was going to work as a broker for a year just to gain some experience and earn some money for her family, would that be an equal betrayal to the theater community?

I think a few of you are putting words into the mouths of these writers, and missing the point they’re trying to make. It’s not that theater has become IRrelevant, but that lots of television has gotten better and become AS relevant as some theater used to be. Is there still lots of bad TV? Yes. Just like there’s still lots of bad theater.

I would never in a million years argue that television can do what truly exciting and challenging live theater can do. But I would also never argue that ALL television is irrelevant and artless. To take that opinion smacks of snobbery, elitism and ignorance, frankly.

The fact is, there’s some good TV out there. Shows like Six Feet Under, The Riches, and the West Wing (all CREATED by playwrights,) and many others, are all truly exciting, complicated, witty shows with a specific voice, point of view and theatricality. They’re relevant, messy and quirky. Like a lot of great plays. I LOVE theater. But I also LOVE to watch great television. Why is it a bad thing for great playwrights to go back and forth, writing great plays AND great television? I really just don’t get it.

Here’s another thing, most of the writers in that article – no knock against them - write fairly conventional plays. Something like ’night Mother by Marsha Norman wouldn’t be at all out of place incorporated into an episode of Six Feet Under. The funny/painful domestic family scenes in Warren Leight’s Side Man aren’t so different from the funny/painful domestic scenes in Showtime’s Weeds. Heck, even David Mamet’s signature staccato overlapping tough-guy cuss-filled dialog seems to have found it’s way into The Sopranos and every cop show on TV (sometimes courtesy of Mr. Mamet himself.)

I guess I might be more concerned to hear that Tony Kushner was going to write for Desperate Housewives. But Warren Leighr writing for Law & Order? It's just not that much of a leap for me.

Television has changed. And yes, it’s doing some of the things playwrights were doing more than twenty years ago. Just like Neil Simon was writing bantery, quick-witted urban situation comedies for the stage before sitcoms took over the television set. He was just ahead of the curve, and his success may have actually influenced the development of that particular kind of TV (I should say I have no evidence of this though – just talking out of my hat a little.)

I guess my point is, instead of looking at this trend of playwrights working in TV on occasion as the cheapening of theater, maybe it’s a classing up of television. And maybe it’ll force NEW playwrights to take bigger risks and create things that can’t be seen on television (for now.) Which will make theater AND television both better off. Just a possibility.

Mark S. said...

Hi Hilary,

My own crestfallen-ness (is that even a word? Probably not) at the article has less to do with television as an art form, but with (as in Relles' comment) the idea that it *isn't*.

It's not horrible for playwrights to work in television. Not at all. It's no sin. It's not morally reprehensible. What's disturbing is the *culture* surrounding the creation of television, and how easily it belittles the talents of its creators and how much it assumes (and it is assumption) about the sensibilities of its audience (see the end of the article).

Again, my personal objection is to the culture, not to the form. Would that our theatrical culture could better support the artists mentioned in the article, but thank God they're still working, and thank God they appear to be moving television (as an art) forward. Your objections are well taken.

Mark S.

The Playgoer said...

Ditto Mark, I too mostly agree with Hilary.

I see nothing (repeat, nothing) wrong with playwright taking work in Hollywood. Many of our finest always have.

My intention in posting the article was not to hold such writers up for scorn, but to highlight once again on how the TV industry is feeding on this pool of talent. And also to show how the contemporary theatre cannot compete compensation-wise. (But then again, it never has been able to.)

I do think the Marsha Norman remark is fair game, though. Maybe it was taken out of context, but on its own, one has to admit it's, too say the least, eyebrow raising, coming from the head of one of the nation's most presitgious playwriting programs: "Television has taken over social issues and all the playwrights of that kind of drama have moved to television."

Note "taken over" and "ALL the playwrights." I'm sure she regrets the dramatic overstatement. But I just hope it doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (OR, dare I suggest, reflect a current Juilliard bias...?)

Malachy Walsh said...

I'm with Hilary.

And weirdly, television is much more writer driven than most people assume.

That's in part because directors come and go while the writers stay.

When you look at TV script you can see this because it's written shot by shot - as opposed to scene by scene the way a movie is written.

The writer makes many more decisions and is a much greater part of the process in TV than elsewhere.