TV lures moonlighting playwrights

Writers straddle stage, TV divide

Conventional wisdom used to be that if playwrights went to television, the theater would lose them forever.

Recently, however, there’s been a surge of writers successfully straddling both industries. And it appears that instead of suffering, legit may be gaining something from the cross-pollination.

For one thing, a TV gig can ameliorate factors that frustrate legiters. Poverty, for instance.

“A way to keep playwrights writing for the theater is to give them a way to make a living,” says Theresa Rebeck (“The Scene”), who, like fellow stage scribes Warren Leight (“Side Man”) and Paul Grellong (“Manuscript”), has balanced playwriting with time on a “Law & Order” franchise.

In other words, the paycheck that television provides — not to mention the months of free time after seasons have wrapped — gives writers the luxury to sit down and write.

Plus, television can salve the wound of writing a play that gets developed for years and never produced. Playwright Rolin Jones (“The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow”), who’s on the staff of Showtime’s “Weeds,” says, “On TV, what you write actually gets done, a lot of times the next week. In the theater, that doesn’t happen unless you’re Richard Greenberg.”

And artistically, writing for television can strengthen a playwright’s craft. “It’s not as if I’ve had to take some crappy job to support myself,” says Jones. “This is another avenue for real storytelling.”

Consider the small screen’s impact on Adam Rapp’s “Essential Self Defense,” currently running at Playwrights Horizons. The play includes more locations and characters than most of his previous plays, allowing him to explore his nihilistic themes from a broader perspective. Scribe (“Red Light Winter”) has said that evolution is due partially to his time on Showtime soap “The L Word.”

Rebeck adds that TV has taught her to keep a story moving. “Now my plays fling themselves forward,” she says. “Forward motion and muscularity are not things that are always focused on in the theater.”

Conversely, Craig Wright (“Orange Flower Water Lady”) believes TV’s demand for realism has liberated his plays. He’s written for “Lost,” “Six Feet Under” and “Brothers & Sisters,” created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz (“The Substance of Fire”). And he’s currently shepherding his own ABC pilot, “Dirty Sexy Money.”

“I think working in TV has freed my playwriting to not be commercial,” Wright says. “With so many plays that get written, you can just tell they’re movies waiting to be filmed. But with every year that I work in TV, my plays get more purely theatrical.”

For example, his allegorical drama “The Unseen,” preeming at this year’s Humana Festival at Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., centers on two anonymous prisoners who hear an unseen captive tapping messages on the walls. That’s hardly a plot for primetime.

But for all its benefits, few writers would claim operating in two industries is simple. Rebeck, who also has written for film, has endured enough intermedia chaos to write a book about it. “Free Fire Zone,” to be published this summer by Smith and Kraus, details her navigation of TV, film and legit spheres.

One crucial skill is learning to swing between the solitary act of playwriting and the usual TV method of collaboration.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a natural fit to go back and forth,” Rebeck admits. However, she feels playwrights are especially suited to thrive in the group setting once they’ve adapted to it. “There’s a lot of noise in the process,” she explains. “It’s not just you and your story. It’s you and 30 other people. If you have a strong, internal understanding of story and character, that can help you keep a project grounded.”

Echoing her sentiment is Eric Overmyer, who scored with plays such as “On the Verge” before creating skeins including current CBS drama “Close to Home.” He says, “It seems to me that in TV, there are a lot of writers who aren’t really writers, who came up in other things. So if I had my druthers, I’d work with someone who has experience writing for the stage and for television.”

Another delicate area is the legit world’s perception of a TV writer. Though it’s hardly a stigma to have a series on your resume — particularly a well-respected skein such as the “Law & Order” franchise — it can be tricky to be embraced as a playwright if you’ve made your name in television first.

Kate Robin wrote her first significant plays after working on “Six Feet Under,” itself created by playwright Alan Ball. (He recently returned to the theater from a long spell in film and TV with “All That I Will Ever Be,” which drew a mixed reception in its Off Broadway premiere at New York Theater Workshop.) January saw the debut Off Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company of Robin’s drama “Anon.”

“I was regarded, I think, with mixed feelings from critics because my major productions happened after I was a TV writer,” she says. “There does seem to be a feeling that there are playwrights who are to be taken seriously, writing literature, and that people coming from TV are less literary.”

Asked about this bias, Rebeck says, “It’s short-sighted to hold old-fashioned ideas about barriers between the two.”

At the very least, it may be time to retire the notion that TV poaches playwrights. Jones has a short play at Humana and Leight has a one-act in the upcoming Naked Angels fest, “Armed and Naked.” Rebeck is also on the Naked bill, and her satire “Our House” opens next year at Denver Center Theater. Even Overmyer, who hasn’t written a play in almost 10 years, recently accepted a commission from D.C.’s Arena Stage.

“Anybody who loves writing for the theater,” Jones muses, “will keep writing for the theater.”

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