The Playgoer: Plays on TV? WHAT??? There Was a Time...

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Plays on TV? WHAT??? There Was a Time...

by Abigail Katz

A few days ago, David Hare wrote an article on the "murder" of the television play (David Hare on how the BBC killed the TV play). Along with news of the death of Tad Mosel, who wrote for "Playhouse 90," "Studio One," and "Philco Television Playhouse," it made me wonder, what ever happened to the television play in America? And I'm not talking about the MTV broadcast of Legally Blonde (a musical whose days may be numbered incidentally, due to some incoming Jets and Sharks). I'm talking about shows like "Playhouse 90," "American Playhouse" and the like. I realize in the age of reality television and super successful shows with multiple spin-offs that the television play is hardly a money-maker, and therefore not very appealing to the networks. But even PBS has pretty much done away with any regular series where television audiences can experience the talent of American playwrights by viewing their plays on TV (as opposed to their TV shows, the way so many playwrights earn a living.) Yes there is "Live at Lincoln Center" which has broadcast some Broadway musicals, but it's not quite the same as having a regular series giving American theatre wider exposure through the far-reaching medium of TV. It makes me wonder, is there any commitment to American theatre on a larger societal and cultural level? Or does it all come from the theatre community itself? (and perhaps a few film studios who want to get into the theatre biz if they can build a money-making machine out of it.)

So I ask a hard question: what would be the value of bringing back a series like "American Playhouse"? I would like to suggest that it would benefit our playwrights and perhaps get theatre in this country back to a more prominent place on the cultural radar. I would love to see such a program return (hell who am I kidding, I would love to program it!) But would PBS or someone else be willing to take a chance on such a series simply because they believe in promoting American theatrical talent? And would we watch?

I put the question to you, readers.


Ken said...

I, too, long for a return to TV plays. PBS is the place for them. The other major networks (should they even dare to try out the concept) would chop up the play with commercials, of course, and the content would be vulnerable to the red pencils of network censors. The result? Watered-down, innocuous Neil Simon-esque comedies, I suppose. No, drama on TV should rightfully exist on PBS--but of course they have been virtually neutered in the decades-long onslaught from the right. The home of programs like "American Playhouse", and Theater in America" is now a culturally-barren tundra populated by "Antique Roadshow" and the umpteenth pledge-drive "Doo Wop" showcase.

isaac butler said...

Two quick notes:
(1) The original complete American Playhouse is available as a boxed set (it came out a few months ago) so people interested in what that was like, in tripping down memory lane or whatever should go get it.

(2) I feel like I read somewhere recently that PBS is planing on taking a more adventurous and arts-centered direction over the next few years. So maybe there will be a return of American Playhouse. Who knows?

Philucifer said...

Obviously, *I* would watch them, but that's no big surprise from a theatre geek. For a kid like me growing up in Los Angeles, other than the occasional tour of "Cats", TV was where I was able to get the foundation of my theatre education. I was able to catch most of the telecasts of Sondheim's work on A&E when it was still dedicated to Arts and Entertainment, the Ben Vereen/William Katt production of "Pippin" on PBS, not to mention all of the excerpts of plays and musicals on the Tonys. And when they stopped showing scenes from plays on the Tonys, I stopped watching the Tonys.

At the same time, I vividly remember things like the hour-long episode of "Family Ties" where the second half was Michael J. Fox on a dark stage, talking to his (unseen) therapist about a friend's death -- to this day, it's one of the best little one-act plays that I've seen on TV.

I look at a show like "Everybody Loves Raymond" which was not only incredibly popular, but also happens to have a pretty solid one-act comedic story structure, and is heavy with character-based comedy rather than one-liners. So I have faith that good productions of good scripts would find an audience in this day and age.

But I think it takes one of two things. Either you have to bait-and-switch by not marketing it as "Theatah" until the quality of the storytelling catches on, or else you need a champion of some sort who says, "Look, this is what we're doing because it's REALLY good stuff." And, of course, the deep pockets it takes to keep it going until it finds its audience.

Miss Lynn said...

I would really appreciate seeing a show on television that presented contemporary works of American Playwrights. We have so many strong stage voices living right now that I think they deserve a forum to reach a broader audience. Though there are some artists out there that I could never imagine seeing on the small screen, their work is just too large and magnificent for the small screen (mainly Mary Zimmerman comes to mind).

Anonymous said...

I am actually heartened by the new trend of musical films (Chicago, Rent, Hair Spray, Passing Strange soon, etc.). There is actually something that one can point to as a direction this genre is growing into.

But I'm not seeing what about TV today (reality shows and talent competitions - UNscripted work is the present and the future) that anyone can point to as a direction that would inspire the making of tele-plays again. Please help me here with something, anything, to back this idea up, and I'll jump on board.

Tad is not coming back, so what on earth makes anyone think that tele-theater might? Those early shows were all about a budding new thing called television, desperately in need of quick content to put between commercials - it was not about theater prominence in the least (and especially not about helping playwrights).

It's one thing to reinvent the wheel as we too often do; it's quite another to reinvent the wooden wheel.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't do it on a network or Public Broadcasting. It would be too damn expensive with SAG/AFTRA, Equiy buyouts, lots of other Union crud and fees and ratings would be so low you would never recoup.

However, you could do it on cable and with non union actors. And it would have to be playwrights who haven't been produced in theater yet (otherwise the equity thing gets in the way again, that's why some unions suck). However, I think new unpublished playwrights could be done on Bravo or another Arts and entertainment channel...oh wait it's all REALITY schlock now. Sorry I guess you couldn't do it on any station these days. I guess we have to wait for the next cycle to turn and the Housing bubble to wreak havok on Broadway so that nobody affords a ticket and Equity has to get off their asses and start thinking creatively like many under the radar theatre companies do now.



I feel that, just as rlewis stated, that there is a current direction towards theatre. While most of it has been because of the aforementioned popularity of the Movie Musical, it still calls attention to the original form, and that in itself is something to build upon.

In terms of television, we've seen a little of it slowly starting to develop, what with the broadcast of "Company" on PBS and the made-for-tv movie, "A Raisin in the Sun." It's not the full pulp of the theatre the way it was shown back during the days of American Playhouse (which I am probably too young to have seen), but it's something that I feel is going to be a gradual ascension.

I think that as long as there are people who are aware of this missing piece in the so-called "far-reaching" medium of television, and as long as there are others aware that there is an audience willing to see it, then that can help dictate the direction of theatre's place in the American cultural sphere.

Unknown said...

In response to your question of "what happened," I think what happened was the fragmentization of the audience as more channels arose. Now that we have some six hundred or seven hundred channels, it's even harder for a commercial channel to attract the sort of market needed for a niche audience (which is what people who want to watch theater on the television) is. As the audience was less and less concentrated, it became less and less worthwhile for the networks to air it. They, after all, have their advertisers to think about.

Another reason might have been the rising production value of television/movies. Back in the 1950s, there wasn't that big of a distinction between television and the stage; I Love Lucy, for instance, was basically a living-room comedy. Occasionally they went into the bedroom or the kitchen and even more rarely to the Mertz's or to Ricky's club.

But plays on the stage, when broadcast, have always felt kind of awkward, the stage pictures don't translate into film/television pictures all that well. That's why Raisin in the Sun was made for television--so the director could translate the stage pictures into film pictures. It creates a more vivid, realistic presentation than that of the real world.

I'm not necessarily sure that's the way to go, but I'm sure that if they hadn't gone that road, it wouldn't have been as successful.

Actually, I'm not fully sure how successful it was. Did people watch Raisin in the Sun?