by 99 Seats
Jason Zinoman in the Times dives into the whole TV/theatre divide*. It's an old fight in the theatre world, but one that just keeps going. JZ seems to be fairly supportive, though, of the writers that light out for the coast and the "easy" money.
The successful young playwright who doesn’t take time off to work on a TV series is the exception. Cable networks like HBO, AMC and Showtime now provide a kind of second education for our best theater writers. And with the rise of ambitious series led by show runners with voices as distinctive as any film auteur, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
He talks to a number of playwrights, both in and out of the world of TV, most of whom have good things to say about the experience and how it relates to playwriting. That it has changed playwriting, how writers think about writing, though, is rarely explored.
The dozen or so playwrights that I talked to with TV experience generally shared this skepticism about a rigid distinction between art and commerce. They were more likely to talk about the creation of a play as a slow evolution rather than as a flash of inspiration.
This is a bit of a sticky wicket, isn't it? There's been a lot of lamenting about the shrinking scope of the new American play. Obviously, economics of all stripes plays into it. But the tighter integration of TV and film writing with playwriting training may have something to do with it. Since writing professionally is just about the only way for a a dramatist to, you know, eat, it's always in the back of a young writer's mind.
There's been a lot of complaining about The Walking Dead roundtable that we've been doing here. I think it's short-sighted and narrow-minded to dismiss just about anything on TV, to insist on this boundary between the high art of theatre and the low of television. Not only are we missing out on the important parts of the culture, we're also missing out on what dramatic writing is, how it works across mediums, how characters, story, and plot are built. Yep, it's a zombie show. But it's a smart, interesting zombie show.
Of course, there's a kind of flip side to it all. The Adam Rapp section of Zinoman's piece is fairly telling:
Adam Rapp said he derided such collaboration when he started as a playwright. “I used to think TV was just selling soap, and judged those who went to the West Coast for six figure salaries,” he said, adding that working on series like Showtime’s “L Word” and, currently, HBO’s “In Treatment” changed his mind. “In my early work I embellished too much. I would become overwrought. You can’t do that in TV. You learn to use subtext more.”
Huh. So...he thought all playwrights who wrote for TV were no talent hacks who sold out for buckets of cash...until he sold out for buckets of cash and then discovered the intergrity and utility of it. It's interesting that there are few playwrights interviewed who opted out, or found it stifling and unengaging. They must exist...or maybe they don't. Cash cures a lot of ills, don't it?
At the end of the day, Theresa Rebeck really nails it all, though:
But Ms. Rebeck finds snobbery toward television a waste of time, and no help to the theater either. “Going to TV doesn’t ruin your writing,” she said. “You know what ruins your writing? Not writing”
Writing is writing. Creating compelling stories is creating compelling stories. If writing for TV puts food on the table, and makes you a stronger writer, write about them zombies, folks. It isn't selling out, it's buying in. Or something like that.
*When I first posted this, I neglected to add a link. My bad.