Playwrights on Television: Conversations with Dramatists. Are Stage and Screen Starting to Merge?

When David Henry Hwang was first starting out as a dramatist, there was an “indivisible wall” between theater and television. Forty years later, “playwrights have become very popular in television now,” he tells Hillary Miller in “Playwrights on Television: Conversations with Dramatists (Routledge, 273 pages.) Hwang, who has been a writer on the Showtime cable TV series “The Affair” since 2015, is the most prominent (and probably the oldest) of the 18 writers interviewed in the book – not just a prolific Tony-winning playwright and musical librettist, but chair of the board of the American Theatre Wing and director of the playwriting program at Columbia University School of the Arts. His conversation with Miller happens also to feature the most relevant comments for what is suddenly a drastically changed landscape for theater, as well as for television (and for nearly everything else.) The definitions of both theater and TV were already being expanded, reconsidered, but if the wall between stage and screen was becoming more permeable, it’s easy to argue that the pandemic has caused it abruptly (at least temporarily) to collapse.
Hwang mentions to Miller how both his second and his 19th play (“Dance and the Railroad” and “Yellow Face”) were made into videos, one shown on the Cable TV channel A&E, the other on YouTube. “All this stuff that gets captured and distributed on the Web, it feels to me that this is good for the theater,” he observes. “And if I was the person who could make any decisions, I would feel that we should not restrict people from recording performances on their phones.” Yet he also says, “the live experience is still inherently different than watching something digitally.”
Will that attitude change? Has it already? Curious, I contacted Hwang. “I stand by these comments,” he replied, but added: “I feel efforts and experiments in ‘online theatre’ may provide techniques and approaches which will further enhance the live experience when the latter is once again possible.”
Miller, an assistant professor of theater at Queens College, City University of New York, has put together 18 Q and A transcripts, arranged alphabetically, from interviews she conducted between October 2018 and April 2019. The writers she selected reflect “a broad definition of diversity” – including in the balance between their onstage and onscreen experiences and identity, from Madeleine George, who at the time of Miller’s interview with her in December 2018 had been a playwright for 25 years ( The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence, Hurricane Diane), and a TV writer for ten weeks, to Tanya Saracho, showrunner for Starz TV series “Vida,” who tells Miller “ I have left the theater, consciously” (or Tanya Barfield, who tells Miller: “Maybe after my kids go to college, I’ll go back to playwriting. That’s a while off.”) Surely, a few of them would have something to say about our sudden era of online theater.

In one way, then, Miller’s book is the victim of unlucky timing. But in another way, some of the issues that the author does explore are as good a prompt as any to thinking about the current crossbreeding of media and what may be in store.
Her well-organized and insightful introduction, for example, begins with the information that Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson coined the term “playwright” and meant it as a slur – a craftsman, like a shipwright, rather than an artist, and used it not just to insult a rival, but to express his ambiguity about his own playwriting. Writers, in other words, long have felt the tension of straddling between two aspirations — struggling to reconcile the contrast “between art and entertainment, independent and commercial,” “ordinary” and elitist.
Miller tells us television’s first Golden Age relied on plays and playwrights, the budding industry seeing theatrical adaptation as a good fit for the medium. Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit was among the first plays to be broadcast, airing on NBC Television Theatre, in May 1946 to critical acclaim, just three years after the end of its Broadway run. Now playwrights are abundant once again in what for the past two decades has been a third Golden Age of Television, Miller says (arguing unpersuasively that there was a Second Golden Age in the 1980s.)
“The Sopranos wasn’t written by playwrights, but The Sopranos [1999-2007] and Six Feet Under [2001-2005] began to create this sort of television you didn’t have to be ashamed of having written for if you were a playwright, and then Six Feet Under, half that staff was playwrights,” Itamar Moses, the Tony-winning book writer for The Band’s Visit, whose four TV gigs include Boardwalk Empire, says in his interview in the book. “So I think there was a ripple out from that, and people in L.A. gradually began to start to see playwrights as a talent pool that they should specifically go after.”
“Six Feet Under was the first time I think I understood television as an art form,” Bash Doran, showrunner for HBO’s Demimonde, tells Miller.
In his interview with Miller, Hwang offers three reasons why TV has been seeking out writers with a background in theater. Oddly, the first two reasons focus on why TV prefers playwrights to screenwriters: Like television, but unlike film, plays rely on dialogue; like television writers but unlike screenwriters, playwrights are much more comfortable with the collaborative give and take of putting together a production. But his third reason rings the truest: Given the current proliferation of platforms and channels, there are now more than 400 scripted shows on television; in order to stand out, it helps for the writers to have passion and vision. Playwrights are “used to having our own vision of what something should be, and I think that that carries a lot of currency now, where it didn’t as much before.”
Sheila Callaghan, co-founder of The Kilroys and longtime producer-writer for Showtime’s Shameless, offers a fourth explanation: “The reason why playwrights are often a safe bet is, they’re cheap, first. They’re cheap until they make a career out of it.”
Miller has a few set questions for the interviews, finding out from each and every playwright their childhood TV viewing habits, and how they first got involved in theater. There is extensive questioning about issues of diversity and representation in both theater and television. She also solicits details about career steps that would surely most interest those readers looking for similar careers.
Many of the playwrights in the book describe their sharp adjustment to television, but some seem to see it as primarily a difference in process rather than content. There is much talk of the dynamics of the collective writing (the writers room) and often the hierarchy (“Someone else is Santa,” says Moses, “and you’re one of the elves.”)
Kristoffer Diaz, who has written about wrestling in his play “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety” and as a writer on the first season of the Netflix series GLOW, sees pitching an idea “one hundred percent the opposite” of playwriting. “I have a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival now. I want to write a play about the basketball players Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. What about them? I don’t know. Great, you’re commissioned! [Laughs] But television is, ‘Tell us who it’s about, tell us what they’re going to do for five years, tell us who else is going to be in it, tell us who might be able to play those roles, how is this show going to be exactly the same each week but completely different each week, how’s it going to feel, what’s the tone?’ Even simple questions, like, ‘Is it a half hour or an hour?’ ‘Is it on cable or network?’ ‘Which network?’”
Such advance planning would be antithetical to Madeleine George’s approach to writing; “for me playwriting is all basically incense and crying and endless drafts, I don’t know how I write a play. It takes me forever.” Playwriting for her is “about addressing whatever I can’t understand at the moment.”
What effect has writing for TV had on their playwriting (if any)? The quick pace and hectic schedule of a TV writers room, says Itamar Moses, “taught me I think to be a little bit less precious about my art. Just start, you know? “
Jordan Harrison, whose plays include “Marjorie Prime” and “Maple and Vine,”  sees his experience as writer-producer for three seasons of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, as influencing his theatrical writing, but only in an indirect way. “In some ways it’s actually made my theater writing stranger,” Harrison tells Miller. “Because you’ve been working in a certain mode in a writers’ room—it’s got to be sixty-two pages, it’s got to have five acts, whatever the restrictions are—so then when you emerge from the tunnel of your TV season and there’s no one but you in an empty room, you want the play you make to be something that could only be a play. Or I do.”
He illustrates his point by talking about his play The Amateurs, about a 14th century traveling theater troupe trying to survive the Plague, a play I happened to see.  It struck me that The Amateurs was one of the very few plays – or for that matter, television shows or episodes – that are described at all in Miller’s book, not even in a phrase. When there is some description, it comes from a playwright.
The nadir for me may have been when Miller launches into a discussion with Tanya Barfield about an episode on The Americans that she wrote, and doesn’t tell us what it’s about – referring to it as “Travel Agents, Season 4, Episode 7.” Now, I watched that TV series religiously, but I’m not a savant.
This stinginess extends to some basic information about the writers. Each interview is prefaced by a brief and largely unhelpful biography that’s indistinguishable from a resumé. Minor pieces of information go missing, which is sometimes exasperating. We don’t learn the age of some of the playwrights who talk about their generation or how their attitudes have changed since they were in their 20s (Was that ten years ago or 30 years ago? Is there a reason why we have to guess?) We don’t learn what TV show Madeleine George was working on. In her conversation with Tanya Saracho, Miller mentions her play “Fade,” but misses the opportunity to point out that it got a fairly high-profile production Off-Broadway in 2017, and that its autobiographical plot paints a severely negative view of both the television industry and of the television writer herself, a clear stand-in for Saracho.
Still, if “Playwrights on Television” doesn’t fill in all the blanks I would have liked, it’s often a pleasure and even a revelation to visit with such thoughtful and creative writers. This seems especially true if you have an interest in the specific playwrights interviewed, or are fans of some of the shows for which they’ve written, or if the effect of television on theater, and theater on television, has been an issue that has engaged you — as it has me. In 2013, I wrote an article for HowlRound entitled
8 Ways Television Is Influencing Theater. The eighth way I labeled Theatre as Anti-Television, and explained that the greatest influence that television has had on theatre may be “the push it has given theatre artists to create something that will drag TV watchers out of their home and turn them into theatregoers.”
Miller cites that article in a footnote in Playwrights on Television, and reduces my 2,500 words to a single sentence reference:
“Jason Grote, one of the writers interviewed in this book, questioned the puzzling tendency of some theater artists to try to compete: ‘When we’re competing with movies and TV, we’ve already lost.’ Yet many critics continue to pit live performance against television, or, as one critic put it, ‘Theatre as Anti-Television.’”
Is “many critics” a typo? It’s not critics (at least not this critic) who did the pitting; I quoted three playwrights – Theresa Rebeck, Ann Washburn and Itamar Moses — as making the point.
What Moses told me:
“How good TV has become at doing a certain kind of character-driven long-form storytelling really throws down a gauntlet for playwrights, and challenges them to answer the question, with their work: What can only theatre do? What can’t we get anywhere else? And there’s no one answer to that, but it challenges every playwright to try to come up with theirs.”
What would Itamar Moses say now? There is a hint In his interview in Playwrights on Television, when he talks about  “the fragmentation of the market,” pointing out that no show has the reach that network television used to have, “so the new model is to try to hyperspecifically reach every niche.”
But I wanted to know directly. So I contacted him, read him his quote from 2013, and asked whether the current era of lockdown and exclusively online theater will have any lasting effect on the theater, and on the relationship between theater and television. “Will the ‘merging’ (if that’s the right word) continue after the world-wide crisis is over?”
Here’s what he said:
“I think the long term effects of this period on theatre are very very hard to predict and that many of those effects will be on the institutional side or business side of theatre. But to the extent that it can affect the art-making side I think it’s important to clarify that what’s happening right now isn’t truly a “merging” of theatre and television so much as it’s an expansion of the definition of theatre. Sure, people are trying to figure out ways of presenting theatre, remotely, over screens right now, but it isn’t the absence of a screen that makes something theatre.
“Theatre is when something is performed, in real time, for an audience that is also watching it in real time, while gathered in the same space — and all that’s really happening right now is an expansion of the definition of what we mean by “space” to include virtual space.
“Which is to say that even live television — SNL, say, or those musicals they’ve been doing lately — are only theatre for the people in the room where it’s happening, not for the home audience, because we’re not in the same space. But they would become theatre — virtual theatre — if all those watching entered the same virtual space as the performers while it was going on. It’s our awareness of the aliveness and presence of the actors and our fellow audience members that makes something theatre and if being present together in a virtual space is the form this moment demands then we will, by necessity, develop techniques for maximizing the power of that form, maybe allowing it to become a legitimate off-shoot of theatre in its own right. (And of course this will in turn affect the institutional side of things as well, because it’s so much more efficient and cheaper.)”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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