Brow Beat

Once the Place for a Paycheck, TV Is Now Where Playwrights Make Great Art

Sarah Treem (left) on the set of her Showtime series The Affair.

Mark Schafer/Showtime

When Jordan Harrison attended Brown University for his Masters in Fine Arts some 15 years ago, the goal was to write plays—to create “vast canvasses making big, bold gestures” that could only work on the stage. Anything short of that was, well, “a little TV”: too small, too easy, too accessible. Theater was an art form, a space for expression and exploration that could creatively, if not financially, fulfill. Television, on the other hand, was an unimaginable compromise. “If you wrote a play that could be adapted into a TV show or a movie,” Harrison explains, “then you had failed.”

Flash-forward to 2017: Harrison has just completed his third season writing on Orange Is the New Black, and his 2015 play Marjorie Prime, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was recently adapted into a film starring Jon Hamm that premiered at Sundance last month. After spending a decade in the theater, Harrison has evidently made the very shift that he once viewed as an artistic dead end: He started writing for the screen. But as he sees it, the change has been anything but limiting.

“What I suppose it feels like, in the 15 years I’ve been writing plays for a living, is that we traded places, TV and theater,” Harrison said. “For a while now, theater has been interested in these small observations, these almost hypernaturalistic slices of life, and the world of TV shows has gotten vaster … I started writing for TV because it became a place that made sense for what I was writing.”

Harrison, while a relatively new convert to the small screen, is not alone on that point. Speaking with playwrights of different backgrounds and levels of experience in screenwriting, I found that it became clear that we’re in the midst of a transformative, even pivotal moment for the relationship between television and theater. Once a pit stop for struggling playwrights in need of a steady paycheck, TV has since emerged as a favorite destination for ambitious dramatists, a place for experimental ideas to play out before a larger audience. Inevitably, this is changing the shape of both art forms.

The Great Migration

Jordan Harrison was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist after he started writing for Orange Is the New Black.

Still from YouTube

“You’d be hard-pressed to be in a [writers’] room these days without a playwright in it,” Rolin Jones, a 2006 Pulitzer finalist and 12-year veteran of television, told me. The migration of playwrights to cutting-edge television really started taking place about a decade ago, as breakouts like The Sopranos and The Wire started coming to a close and another Golden Age of Television—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, et al.—was upon us.

Not long ago, the way into TV writing was spec scripts, imagined episodes of existing series where the main guideline was to, as Jordan Harrison puts it, “follow the rules of the show.” He’d tried to get into TV in 2008 by writing a spec for The Office, but his episode broke its established format, envisioning a romance between one of the show’s unseen documentary crew members and B.J. Novak’s Ryan. It was swiftly turned down by his agents. “That sent me away from TV for years after that because it felt so dispiriting,” Harrison said. “That’d be the kind of thing that would get you hired on a TV show now.”

He might be onto something. Sheila Callaghan, an executive producer for Shameless, had similarly written specs for HBO hits like Six Feet Under and Big Love, to no avail. Instead, her big break came courtesy of a showrunner who’s now among TV’s most recognizably boundary-breaking: Jill Soloway. Her first showrunning job was United States of Tara, and she hired Callaghan not on spec but through her search for a very specific kind of writer. “I had a play go up off-Broadway … which was a feminist deconstruction of misogyny in the media … and as far as I know, this is true,” Callaghan recalled: “[Soloway] Googled ‘feminism, rape, and playwright,’ and got me!”

The Affair creator Sarah Treem was also recruited to cable TV because of her playwriting, first scoring a job on the very theatrical In Treatment. “I had a play that I’d written in drama school my first year out, and somehow that play got to HBO,” she explained. “HBO was looking for somebody to write Mia Wasikowska’s character on In Treatment for the first year …. It was kind of unusual that anybody [staffing a series] would read a play at that point, but [In Treatment developer Rodrigo Garcia] did and he really liked it.” Treem stayed on the show for all three seasons, eventually transitioning to House of Cards before developing The Affair, which won her a Golden Globe for Best Drama Series.

The playwrights I spoke with concurred that as TV has changed, the demand for strong, independent voices has increased exponentially. While it once made sense to seek out writers who could easily fit into an established template (think Law and Order), this new era has called for something very different, and playwrights fill that need. “Part of the reason why we get recruited is we’ve sort of already established that we can deliver a single-voiced product with a point of view and a story,” Callaghan said. “Because a lot of people were trained on writing spec scripts … it’s harder I think for somebody to deliver their own voice, when they’ve been busy replicating other voices.” Jones agreed, noting that he felt he had a “competitive advantage” as a seasoned scene-writer, relative to others when he first started in the Weeds writers’ room. And Treem, for her part, took it a step further: “I don’t think it’s anathema to say that television has gotten so much better in the past 10 years as playwrights have, basically, been infiltrated.”

Theatricality and Peak TV

Glorida  Calderón Kellett (right) on the set of her Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time.

Michael Yarish/Netflix

Unlike those more recent arrivals, Diana Son—best known for her acclaimed 1998 play Stop Kiss—has been working in broadcast television for almost two decades. She began on The West Wing before transitioning to procedurals such as Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Blue Bloods, and NYC 22. In her estimation, there’s always been one major difference between writing theater and network TV. “In broadcast, particularly, there’s a lot of on-the-nose writing,” she explained. “I think that for playwrights, we’re used to burying everything in a subtext, and to have it work for broadcast, all that stuff has to bubble up to the surface.” This was even true, Son said, for ABC’s recent, highly acclaimed American Crime.

Son had a bracing experience on American Crime, however—one that was, for the playwright side of her, “thrilling, emboldening, and inspiring.” Being in TV for so long, she’d observed the industry’s changes from within, how the intensifying competition between outlets for small segments of viewers created an explosion of quality and experimentation. American Crime, with its long takes, its bold subject matter, and its unexpected nuances, was very much a product of that new environment. Son described the experience of writing her first episode for creator John Ridley and how it expanded the way she thought about television by hewing closely to the process of playwriting. “There’s a scene where two families get a piece of legal news that they’re very upset about … and then they just go at it, they just go at each other, unleash,” she said. “John walked me to the door and said, ‘I want you to feel free to write the shit out of that scene’ …. I wrote a nine-page scene that ended up being a seven-page scene, which is just—these days, that’s a whole act [in television] …. It’s one of the scenes I’m proudest of ever having written.”

For many playwrights, this exact moment in the medium’s history—let’s call it Peak TV—has been creatively invigorating. Julie Hébert, another small-screen veteran who turned to TV to help pay the bills (her daughter’s college tuition, to be exact), has also been with American Crime since the beginning. She’s worked on TV dramas for over 15 years but only now has she considered the medium a viable space to really express herself artistically, even for running a show of her own. “My ideas for development earlier reflected more my playwriting aesthetic, and the television landscape was rather unforgiving to some of that,” she said. “But now it seems more open, that there is more actual enthusiasm for unique visions—visual storytelling, longer scenes with character-based storytelling, and not hewing so closely even to verisimilitude. There [are] a lot of different styles in storytelling happening now that I find very exciting.”

Hébert enthusiastically described the process of scripting American Crime as “writing prose,” with Ridley encouraging her to truly bring her “authorial pride” to the material. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson, meanwhile, needed to unlearn the explicit ways of broadcast TV after landing a spot on one of TV’s most acclaimed series. She first started writing for NBC’s critically panned Do No Harm, which lasted just one season, before joining FX’s beloved spy drama The Americans for Season 2. “With The Americans, I was sort of going back to my playwriting roots … back to what I knew,” she explained. “For Do No Harm, I had to tell the actors what they were feeling, the emotion and a lot of adjectives and stuff like that.” Conversely, she found The Americans a distinct challenge, burying into characters with the depth and subtlety of a play but over the course of multiple seasons and heading toward an unknown endpoint.

TV’s increasingly unpredictable nature has proven uniquely conducive to theatrical sensibilities. In a sense, the two artistic approaches have started melding together. “What happened with TV changing was that playwrights changed with it,” Sheila Callaghan explained. “When Netflix blew up, it was right when all the playwrights I knew started coming out [to Los Angeles]. It’s like, the audience was ready to not watch network television anymore, and the playwrights were starving—literally starving.” Callaghan added that TV’s expansion was also important for women and people of color in need of a place to tell stories: “The market determines what television is because there’s numbers, there’s money—there’s almost a democratic point of view .… There’s a lot more representation of different kinds of women on TV right now than there is in theater.”

Of course, there’s one particular brand of broadcast TV with deep roots in theater: the traditional multicamera sitcom. Gloria Calderón Kellett, a Los Angeles playwright who began writing for How I Met Your Mother in 2007, had always written short plays and came to view sitcoms—on the advice of Cameron Crowe, no less—as an ideal place to break in. Once she decided to work in TV, she fell in love with old comedies like Maude and The Wonder Years by watching hours upon hours at the Paley Center. (“This was before Hulu.”) She was especially struck by the fact that “you would never see” anything like these shows on broadcast TV as it is today. “That’s what gets my brain percolating with exciting ideas,” she said. “How can I use this old-school medium and do fun things within it? … It’s exciting to take something old and try to make it new again, and try to breathe life into it in a new way.”

That desire to revive the multicamera experience resulted in One Day at a Time, Netflix’s update of Norman Lear’s classic. Along with co-developer Mike Royce, Calderón Kellett exploited the artistic freedom of the streaming model to recreate “longform multi-am” as it existed decades earlier, moving away from an ad-segmented structure and toward a heavily theatrical one. Indeed, the series is as close to a straight theater experience as you’re likely to find in TV, with no interstitial music, a live audience actively engaging with the material, and one episode in particular that proceeds exactly like a one-act play, never leaving the main set. Calderón Kellett expects to continue pushing the envelope in Season 2: “There are some theatrical things that we can do that I have ideas for, that I’d like to try and play with, and have the audience at home feel like they’re experiencing a play more than they’re experiencing a sitcom.”

A New Approach to Theater

Tracey Scott Wilson at rehearsals for her 2015 play Buzzer.

Goodman Theatre

Most if not all of the playwrights I spoke with got into television at least partly for pragmatic reasons—as The Path’s Jessica Goldberg put it, “I got divorced, and I had a kid, and I was like, I think I need to get a job”—and they were agreed that it’s all but impossible to make a living in the theater nowadays. Jordan Harrison’s comments about how television was viewed in drama school 15 years ago—as a commercialized creative wasteland—still resonate. Even with the medium’s cultural value bolstered and the range of content being produced expanded, there remains the inevitable conversation about the infiltration of profit in the creation of art, and about how the proliferation of playwrights in television is affecting a space as timeless and intimate—and as cash-starved—as the theater.

For Craig Wright, the creator of OWN’s megachurch drama Greenleaf and a former writer for Six Feet Under, that conversation is a vital one. “When I started out as a playwright in Minnesota, the difference between playwrights and television writers and screenwriters was immense, artistically,” he said. “Now, under the banner of statements like ‘The best work is happening on cable TV,’ it seems that what used to be a stepped pyramid has now become a smooth upward sled ride toward money.”

Harrison said that he once “felt a little bit of pressure to prove” that he hadn’t been “changed by TV”; the first play he completed since joining Orange Is the New Black features “three unwieldy acts,” “different time periods,” and “metatheatricality.” Sheila Callaghan didn’t necessarily feel that pressure, but she noticed that her work headed in a similar direction nonetheless. “I think people expect that your playwriting is going to become televisionlike—like you’re going to start writing small and you’re going to start writing living room plays or kitchen sink plays or really naturalistic plays,” she said. “I made my plays more theatrical because there’s totally different dramatic tools at your disposal between both mediums.”

When I asked Tracey Scott Wilson if working in TV tends to change a playwright’s thinking on theater, she responded, “I don’t see how it can’t.” She described the process of writing her 2015 play Buzzer while writing for The Americans at the same time. “There was like a two-week overlap where I was working on my play while I was working on The Americans .… I just became so much more focused on the emotion of the scenes, as opposed to moving the story forward,” she explained. “I hope that’s something that I keep with me after this job [because] it’s actually been really good.”

On the other hand, Sarah Treem and Julie Hébert say they saw their plays improving in structure and plotting once they started writing television. “We can get lazy in television and we can get precious in theater,” as Treem eloquently put it. “I think that being able to go back and forth between the two mediums has helped me avoid that.”

Yet there remains that question of incentive—the unavoidable truth that TV provides a financial incentive while theater provides the exact opposite. “TV is keeping the theater alive,” according to Jones, offering playwrights a chance to make a living, and even bolster their craft, while also producing the kinds of plays that are closest to their hearts. As a newly minted showrunner for Fox’s The Exorcist, Jones took that into account as he began hiring writers: “Did I want to put some money into some playwrights’ pocket? Absolutely.” Treem, Goldberg, and Diana Son also hired a majority of playwrights when helming series for the first time.

Hébert went so far as to argue that with TV booming creatively, “industry titans” should bear some responsibility for keeping the theater alive and well. “I think that the theater has its own completely important value, and it also has a value directly to television as a training ground for storytellers,” she argued. “I wish that there was some way that television could let a little bit of the profit flow back to the theaters and recognize the value that the theater is offering to television in training these really robust artists.”

As Wright sees it, however, money should be taken out of the equation all together: “The net effect of all this is, 1), the decay of the uniqueness of the theatrical imagination, and then 2), the decay of any notion that a life lived for art could be and possibly should be nonremunerative.” He acknowledged the need to make a living and the creative intrigue of working in modern television. Indeed, of the other writers I spoke with, each of whom are moving as best they can between the two forms of storytelling, there seemed to be genuine inspiration, excitement, and gratitude for the strengthened potential to create. Their passion for—even debt to—the theater is irrefutable, as is the collective impact and imagination they’re bringing to this formally audacious era of television. But Wright’s warning should still be heard as we dive deeper into uncharted waters. “The Bible says the love of money is the root of evil, and what I will say, incontrovertibly, is the love of money can corrupt,” Wright cautioned. “And anyone practicing an art form had better be careful.”