Playwrights Who Write for Television

Usually, I use this column to write dispatches from Los Angeles to the rest of the American theater community about the thriving theater culture here. This dispatch, however, may be of particular interest to my colleagues in Los Angeles, where the explosion of cable TV and web-based content has created a thriving job market for writers, many of whom already have national reputations as playwrights.

Tanya Saracho looking at the camera
Tanya Saracho. Photo courtesy of Tanya Saracho. 

Just a few years ago, the best way to break into television was with your own pilot and a spec script. Today, broadcast television, cable, and new media producers like Netflix and Hulu are all competing for increasingly diverse audiences, and are actively recruiting new talent. Chicago-based playwright Tanya Saracho, whose plays include El Nogalar (an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard) and Our Lady of the Underpass, got a call out of the blue to meet with Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black) because of an article about her in the Chicago Tribune. Though she didn’t sign on for that project, it opened her eyes to the fact that television actually pays its writers a living wage. She later sold her play Mala Hierba to HBO, got signed by United Talent Agency (one of the largest talent agencies in the world), and booked a spot in the writer’s room on Devious Maids, then Looking, and now, Girls.

 

Just a few years ago, the best way to break into television was with your own pilot and a spec script. Today, broadcast television, cable, and new media producers like Netflix and Hulu are all competing for increasingly diverse audiences, and are actively recruiting new talent.

 

Sheila Callaghan looking at the camera
Sheila Callaghan. Photo courtesy of Shelia Callaghan. 

Sheila Callaghan, a finalist for this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for her play Elevada, had a portfolio of spec scripts in her bag when she got to LA, but as with Saracho, it was a play that made Hollywood take note: She was recruited by Jill Soloway on the basis on her play That Pretty Pretty: The Rape Play. Callaghan shared:  “Jill Soloway had just taken over United States of Tara and she had had great experiences working with playwrights on Six Feet Under, and she was looking for a playwright who could write rape funny. This might be slightly apocryphal, but I imagine she Googled ‘playwright rape feminist’ and got me.” Soloway hired Callaghan to write for United States of Tara; she now writes for Shameless.

SJ Hodges looking at the camera
SJ Hodges. Photo by Hollywood Lit Retreat. 

Playwright SJ Hodges, winner of the LA Weekly Annual Theatre Award for Playwriting for her play How Cissy Grew, came to television in an even more roundabout way: through books. After graduating from the writing program at NYU, Hodges spent a number of years ghost writing memoirs. She moved to LA to write for television and, on the suggestion of a friend, applied for and was accepted to the Humanitas’ New Voices Program, which includes a $25,000 grant and an opportunity to write a pilot under the supervision of a veteran showrunner. She now has pilots in development with Jasan Katims (Friday Night Lights) and Kung Fu Monkey Productions (Leverage).

Michael Golamco looking at the camera
Michael Golamco. Photo by Artists at Play: a Theatre Collective. 

Playwright Michael Golamco, who has had plays produced in LA at The Geffen Playhouse (Build) and by Artists at Play (Cowboy Versus Samurai), got started in television in a more traditional way—by selling a pilot to ABC—and is now a writer on Grimm. Golamco, who moved here from Northern California, has been particularly appreciative of the fact that diversity is an increasing priority in television (a 2013 study by UCLA found that shows with diverse casts get higher ratings), and that he is not limited to writing the Asian-American story just because he is Asian American. For Grimm, for example, he wrote an episode called “El Cucuy” about a mythical Mexican boogeyman. Golamco says that the “emphasis on diversity comes from the network. We embrace it more in TV than we do in theater. Diversity in theater is a tough nut to crack. In TV, people are facing the music and they know that it’s a nut that must be cracked.”

To that end, the Writer’s Guild of America, along with participating studios, created a Diversity Program that encourages shows to hire more diverse writers by having their salaries paid by the studio rather then the show. In other words, the show gets the writer for free. Though Golamco doesn’t know if he was hired for Grimm under this program, Saracho was told by a colleague that she is a “diversity hire,” something she has mixed feelings about: “That whole thing is so complicated. Some of us might not have gotten in if we weren’t the diversity hire, but then you are otherized because of it and you have to prove yourself. People are well meaning, there’s no malice, but the micro-aggressions happen every day. As a woman, you spend 25 percent of your time wiggling out of situations—sometimes it’s gender stuff, sometimes it’s sex stuff. And if you’re a person of color you spend 25 percent wiggling around race and ethnicity and nationality. So if you’re a woman of color, you spend 50 percent of your energy wiggling and navigating these minefields. And that happens in theater, too.”

Other things about the process are not so similar. Callaghan has found working with a group of writers to be a fun challenge: “I think as playwrights, because we’re working in solitude, we are more able to find the story as we go and then show somebody. But in TV you kind of have to have the story first and to pitch ideas whether you really know if they’re going to work.”

Saracho’s strategy for writing a show of which she is not the sole author is to find a character with whom she particularly connects: “Being a writer for hire, your voice is actually the last thing that you should bring into the room. It will come in to play when you write your episode, but your actual tone, your aesthetic is the last thing. You have to just give in to the process. Fall in love with the characters right away. I have to find my avatar, the person whose eyes I am looking through.”

Hodges, who taught herself to write memoirs by thinking of them as 350-page monologues, has found that writing books has, in turn, prepared her for “what television does. You’re writing a long story, so you’ve got to figure out what’s the long, long arc of this. And that’s been very helpful now in terms of approaching television. With a play you only have to entertain people for ninety minutes. With television you have to entertain them for twenty two hours.”

Though Hodges struggles to find the time to write projects that don’t pay (aka theater), she says she has two plays in her head that are finding their way out. “In New York my plays were written in response to external stimulation, and in LA there is no external stimulation. You’re in your house or your car by yourself all the time. So it has to come from a place inside of you. LA requires you to dig down into your eternal soul and pull something out. You have to fill the well yourself. It takes time.”

All of these playwrights continue to write for the theater. Saracho’s Mala Hierba will be presented as part of the Second Stage Theatre's 12th Annual Uptown Series in July. Golamco is working on commissions for South Coast Repertory and Second Stage. Callaghan’s Elevada will be part of Yale Repertory Company’s 2014-15 season. Hodges continues to self-produce along a commercial model and will be presenting excerpts from her newest play, The Accident: A Global Ghost Story, to backers in April.

Because developing a show out of town requires time off from television, and, for Callaghan and Hodges, time away from their children, all of these playwrights are also interested in deepening their ties to the Los Angeles theater community. We would do well to make our city a theater home for them: Their talent and diversity will both enrich our art and connect our theater to a larger culture of American storytelling.

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"all of these playwrights are also interested in deepening their ties to the Los Angeles theater community. We would do well to make our city a theater home for them..."

The Theatre @ Boston Court, for one, is all over this sentiment with the upcoming production of Sheila Callaghan's "Everything You Touch."

A fine piece on the options television offers playwrights now and an amazing change from the days when all of TV was a wasteland. It's worth mentioning that the playwrights cited here, in comments below, and others (Aaron Sorkin, Theresa Rebeck, Beau Willimon, among them) are all working at the high end of the medium whether on cable, Netflix, Amazon, or traditional TV networks. There's still a caution left over from the bad old days for playwrights considering writing for shows that are many steps down the quality ladder. When you work at the high end -- and assuming you have the stamina -- you can, as many of these writers do, take on theatre projects at the same time. Life in a writers room can demand grueling hours that leave little time for your own work, but it's still possible to do. Where problems can develop is in writing for the low end of the medium. After three to five years toiling in that region -- and if you haven't been able to continue writing plays -- it may take as much as a year or two of serious work to regain your playwriting voice. On the other hand, it's worth keeping in mind Theresa Rebeck's take on this issue: "Going to TV doesn’t ruin your writing. You know what ruins yourwriting? Not writing."

A fine piece on the options television offers playwrights now and an amazing change from the days when all of TV was a wasteland. It's worth mentioning that the playwrights cited here, in comments below, and others (Adam Sorkin, Theresa Rebeck, Beau Willimon, among them) are all working at the high end of the medium whether on cable, Netflix, Amazon, or traditional TV networks. There's still a caution left over from the bad old days for playwrights considering writing for shows that are many steps down the quality ladder. When you work at the high end -- and assuming you have the stamina -- you can, as many of these writers do, take on theatre projects at the same time. Life in a writers room can demand grueling hours that leave little time for your own work, but it's still possible to do. Where problems can develop is in writing for the low end of the medium. After three to five years toiling in that region -- and if you haven't been able to continue writing plays -- it may take as much as a year or two of serious work to regain your playwriting voice. On the other hand, it's worth keeping in mind Theresa Rebeck's take on this issue: "Going to TV doesn’t ruin your writing. You know what ruins yourwriting? Not writing."

As a playwright, I used to believe that the only television I'd ever write for was PBS but now there are so many screens (online and off) and the stories presented on television seem to be flourishing nowadays.

How can I be down?

Great piece! In addition to Michael Golamco, Tanya Saracho is also writing a newly commissioned play for South Coast Repertory. (We've commissioned Sheila Callaghan twice in the past--and I'm a big fan of S.J. Hodges.) Wonderful writers, all. Some other great playwrights out here (also) writing for television include: Bekah Brunstetter, Carla Ching, Jason Grote, Nick Jones, Marco Ramirez, Adam Rapp, David Wiener, Daria Polatin, Jon Kern, etc etc etc.