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November 20, 2010

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Jack Worthing

They ignore the playwrights who go to TV and never come back. Warren Leight, Diana Son, Eric Overmeyer, Marlane Meyer...

Jack Worthing

God forbid I should be accused of casting judgment here but a lot - THOUGH NOT ALL - of the playwrights who are very successful in TV have, I think, a literal-mindedness and sentimental edge which is more successful on screen.

99

Jack- Good points and worth noting. Not every successful playwright's sensibility fits the world of television. And I think there's something to looking at the work of a writer before and after a stint in the world of television.

isaac

Jack,

ha! Actually, an odd thing for me with reading this article is that I'm not a huge fan of two of the main playwrights the article focuses on (Wright and Rebeck). That doesn't mean that the thesis is invalid or anything, it just made (for me) for a more complicated reading.

I mean, I'm sympathetic to JZ's basic point-- that snobbery towards TV and those who go to write for it is increasingly a passe attitude to have, given the rise in TV's quality over the last decade or so. The second point-- that writers are frequently improved by their experiences in TV, which act as a kind of second writing school-- I think is really interesting, and I don't know where I stand on it, largely because of my attitudes towards Rebeck and Wright.

Jack Worthing

I agree with both your points - especially re. Rebeck, who once seemed to be an interesting writer and is now our own Yasmina Reza.

Jason Zinoman

Thanks for this thoughtful write-up and comments below. I should report that one of the pleasing things i discovered reporting the piece was that Eric O. is thinking about returning to the stage, and since i really admired his plays in the 90s, i hope he does. While my focus was trying to get theater writers on the record discussing what they learned from working in TV, a good follow-up, as these comments suggest, is to do more of a critic's view of how the work of these writers has changed. The only thing at this point i feel very strongly about is that the assumption that your writing will necessarily suffer if you go to TV or the movies is simply wrong. I do not see a dimming of ambition in the work of, say, Tom Stoppard, since he started working on screenplays. Then again, can we say that part of the reason Kenneth Lonergan has written fewer plays is because of tv and film? Probably. And is that a bad thing for people who care about good new work? Yes.

Jack Worthing

Fair points all Jason - hopefully there's another story in it. Thanks.

Mike Daisey

Just since people keep bringing this up...I for one do not malign TV as beneath theater, but I do think that they are incredibly different art forms--one is a community based experience, the other is a one-way communication.

I bring this up because I'm in the camp of people who is utterly bored by discussion of The Walking Dead--bored, bored, bored. But just because I'm bored doesn't mean it's because I judge one to be better than the other--I just don't care about that show, or any television show, as much as I care about the nature, context, and structure of live events.

RLewis

I thought Eric O. was a terrific literary manager at Playwrights Horizons... incredibly shy, but a good listener. I imagine that has changed, but I never saw his plays being loved all that much by nyc audiences, so I'm not sure that his return to the stage promises any greatness. And I don't have anything against tv writing - it seems like a good place to learn, so maybe we got things backward. Wouldn't it be better if playwrights started with tv and then worked their way up to playwrighting? It's much more difficult to write a great play when okay writing for tv seems to be just fine with viewers.

99

RL- I don't know that "okay" writing seems just fine for viewers, anymore than an "okay" play gets produced. And they do. Sometimes many, many times over. There seems to me an imbalance when theatre people compare plays to TV scripts, where the best of theatre is set up against the vast mediocrity (and, let's be honest, it is vast) of television. Is every show "The Wire?" Nope. But then again, not every produced play is "Angels in America."

And Mike...I don't know. I gotta say, for all of your protestations that you're not maligning TV and you don't think it's a lower art form, your dismissal of the discussion as boring, seems pretty maligning. Isn't something that isn't boring better? And does subject matter or style really not matter? It seems to me that dismissing all conversation about a show that's watched by millions of people AND receiving some strong critical praise is worth discussing.

George Hunka

Interesting that the BBC used to hire young playwrights to write for TV as well -- Pinter, Orton, Rudkin to name just three -- but instead of writing for series television they produced individual dramas like "The Collection," "The Erpingham Camp" or "Children Playing," instead of being hired for existing series. Just as in the Playhouse 90 era, playwrights like Paddy Chayevsky wrote "Marty" and "The Bachelor Party" and Rod Serling wrote "Requiem for a Heavyweight" for American network television.

What's different from the current crop is that Rebeck, Overmyer et al. are contributing to existing characters and narrative arcs, which may enable them to hone their talents, but only within those very narrow formal confines. I think it's one thing for Overmyer to write for "St. Elsewhere," for example, and quite another to have him adapt his own "Native Speech" (a brilliant play, by the way) for television, or to create a one-off television play himself.

What results is that playwrights are absorbed into existing narrative and formal paradigms; however good the writers might be at manipulating them, even extending them, and granting that the possibilities of content are much wider than they ever were, it is still, first, not theatrical, and second, on some level a co-optation of theatre artists for another medium. (I make no statement about whether one is "better" than the other, since as these are different forms the judgment is invalid.)

99

I think that's a very interesting point and another big difference between American and British television. We do require that a writer for television smooths out their style. But then again...we also tend to slot writers into camps. Adam Rapp doesn't get the same kind of flack for being a "TV" writer that Theresa Rebeck does. Similar to Isaac's Bender Theory of Taste, it seems like people speak of writers they like as being "playwrights," but ones they don't as "TV writers."

I wonder about whether it's a "co-optation" of theatre artists, or if it's a one-way transfer. I don't think it's any coincidence that the Golden Age of Television writing was driven by playwrights and the current Silver Age is also being driven by playwrights. I'll allow myself that much theatre exceptionalism.

Jason Zinoman

What i discovered doing reporting on this piece is that there are many misconceptions about the process of tv writing today. For one thing, each show operates differently. From what i understand, Overmeyer for instance has a tremendous amount of freedom to create character and narrative and David Simon is not exactly bullied by the network. The other thing that is that some writers become show-runners and they have much more control. Moreover, in theater, some producers have been known to keep a close eye on things and make pretty major changes. And not just in the commercial stage. You could also argue that things like genre or economic dictates (the two person play) also put limitations in much of theater. My feeling is that there are functional collaborations and dysfunctional ones -- and often out of the limitations emerges the greatest art.

Mike Daisey

"And Mike...I don't know. I gotta say, for all of your protestations that you're not maligning TV and you don't think it's a lower art form, your dismissal of the discussion as boring, seems pretty maligning."

Christ almighty. I'm not maligning television as a form; I'm just maligning the abundance of posts about a show I don't care about on a blog I visit primarily to read and talk about live performance.

"Isn't something that isn't boring better? And does subject matter or style really not matter?"

I don't know what you're getting at.

"It seems to me that dismissing all conversation about a show that's watched by millions of people AND receiving some strong critical praise is worth discussing."

I suspect you'll go on and have conversations, so I doubt my choice to not give a shit isn't going to deeply impact our culture at large. If we do all this by numbers, we should have a book club where we read and analyze Palin's book next.

I was simply refuting the idea that not enjoying a high number of posts about THE WALKING DEAD is a sign that someone is innately against television. I just think Parabasis is a lot more interesting when it is about things I want to read about--that is my natural bias. And I think that good sites about live theatrical performance are harder to come by and more valuable...at least, they are to me.

Do what you wish. I only brought it up because people not liking these posts is somehow conflated with a cultural war, and it's a lot simpler and more jejune than that, at least in my case.

Pete

As someone who regularly visits this blog and lives in a country where this show does not air (not even on cable which I can't afford anyway) I too find the preponderance of posts about the show boring. That doesn't mean you're not entitled to have this discussion, it just means I find it boring. I also appreciate the fact that there are other readers who feel the same way. I'll keep checking the blog on a regular basis in the hope that normal transmission will return.

isaac

Okay, this is going to get seriously meta, sorry about that in advance. But before I do... Mike, thanks for the clarification, I too was not 100% sure about the first comment's meaning, because of its final sentence. Anyway, here goes...

Doing this TWD roundtable has been an interesting experience, to say the least. I think other than some of my more strident pro-diversity posts, nothing has gotten as negative a reaction here on Parabasis. And that negative reaction itself has ranged, from Mike's point that he's simply bored by it to more dismissive of the form itself type response. And then at the same time, we've had people weigh in with positive sentiment towards it, and it's gotten the blog new readers (which is always nice).

To me, there's a couple of different ways that this can be looked at.

Since most of the readers and writers here are theatrefolk, I'm going to choose to look at it as an interesting case study in terms of audience and change (and please, in case you're worried, this is not going to turn into some way to dismiss or attack people who don't like the roundtable).

There's a preexisting community of Parabasis readers. They come here for a certain set of things. We decided to do something with this blog that we don't normally do-- a series of posts about a TV show and comic and not talk about theatre that much.

We didn't do this to be challenging or to fuck over our readership or anything like that, I thought it would be interesting, and the folks I got involved in the roundtable agreed. I suppose on some level, it was appealing to me because I've been trying to push this blog away from its "theatre + other things" focus and more into a "culture in general but we also talk about theatre" kinda place.

Anyway, and what's happened as a result? Some people are bored. Some people are ticked. Some people are happy. Got a few new readers, maybe lost a few. Got made fun of a bit.

As someone who regularly advocates that theaters change-- sometimes radically-- their programming, this has been an interesting experience. Both emotionally-- I have a tendency to get defensive about these kinds of things-- but also just in terms of understanding programming conservatism a bit more. And also understanding that when artistic directors say stuff like "we're heading in a more X direction, but we need to do it slowly to bring our audience with us" they're not just bullshitting.

Obviously, this is a bad case study. It's a blog, and we're talking about some posts about a tv show. But it's also an interesting moment for this blog. When your audience comes to you expecting something, and you give them something else, they don't always react the way you'd like them to. And that doesn't make them bad (or resistant to change, or any of the other ways we talk down to people when talking about theatre audiences). It makes them people who like what you were doing but don't necessarily 100% share your taste.

That being said, I am happy that 99 is raising some of the attitude-towards-television stuff. Not because I think it explains everyone's issues with the roundtable (99 doesn't think that either). But rather because it's a conversation (about theatre, no less!) that's worth having, regardless of why people do or don't like The Walking Dead roundtable.

Josh James

I'm late to this discussion, but I think that no one's really brought up (in the comments) the reason playwrights write for film and television ... money. We get paid. We get compensated enough for our work so that we don't have to have another job to support our writing.

it's a very important point, is it not?

Josh James

I should add, one reason I'm late to the discussion is that I've avoided the Walking Dead roundtable, not because I dislike the show, but because I've only seen the pilot and have 3 or 4 of the following episodes on DVR that I haven't had time to watch, and I don't want them spoiled ...

Jack Worthing

I may have been the first, or one of the first, to object to the roundtable. Let me go on record as saying I'm no TV snob. I love TV, I watch it a lot, I've worked in it a bit. I think zombies can be fun, too. I happen to not watch the show, though, and I didn't start coming here to talk about TV. It's your shop and you can do what you like, but that was my original point.

Gary Kline


I don't post often, but I visit a lot, and enjoy many of the threads. For what it's worth, I'm disappointed in The Walking Dead roundtable discussions. I don't look down on the TV show, or resent the threads, I just happen to not watch the show, and have no time to start watching it. So I come here, I see all the WD threads, scroll right past them to see if there's anything of interest. Lately there is isn't, so I hop on over to Playgoer or The Wicked Stage instead. No big whoop.

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