Plays Made for the Screen

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October 1, 2013 by Sam Graber

“If it can be effectively filmed, it’s not for us.” — theater submission posting

Recently I attended the staged reading of a new play under development. About thirty minutes into the reading I committed the social gaffe of slightly turning my body to the smattering of co-attendees with a cocked head and quizzical eye and pursed lips, as if to silently ask, “has someone been endowed to write a new play, but instead wrote a spec script for television?”

And by that someone I mean the playwright, a highly grant-funded playwright.

Who might possibly be sitting in the back row, watching me question professional motive with not-so-subtle body expression, my assumption that when not working as a playwright his/her occupation of choice is NOT professional hit man, which would otherwise make professional motive result in me sporting several pencils shoved into my quizzical eye. Assuming pencils still exist.

ARE PLAYS TODAY WRITTEN FOR THE SCREEN INSTEAD OF THE STAGE?

Alright, here’s what happened. I walked into the auditorium where the reading was to occur and went, WOW! 18 chairs! Spelled out, that’s eighteen chairs, for eighteen actors, for a reading of a new play. Here was a playwright going ‘be damned with theater economics and its crushing restrictions on dramatis personae!’ I like it. I scanned the room. If there’s actually chairs left over for audience, I’m grabbing myself one and setting up shop front row.

So I’m getting comfy and setting my cell to vibrate and riding the emotion of eager chatter when the artistic director saunters to downstage center and addresses the audience. The AD explains that because the grant-funded playwright whose new work we’re about to hear has been writing furiously over the past week to get the script done in time for the reading (um…what?) there happen to be scenes missing (as in lost?…stuck in the copier?). Therefore, we’ll all just need to put on our extra-perceptive audience listening skills. Oh, and we’ll all get filled in at intermission on backstory and plot craters hugely vacant from those missing scenes.

Now, as a proud and longstanding member of the Benefit of the Doubt Society (except when it comes to the IRS), I have no problem allowing myself to free up and expect nothing to gain everything. So let’s re-comfy ourselves here in chair nineteen and get cracking on this thing. Hit me with this freshly-written, scene-missing juggernaut that could potentially glow with theatrical marvel.

So the reading starts…

You can tell when you’re hearing a movie getting read. You just can. You can sit there and notice that what is supposed to be theater is instead choppy scene work and begrimed character development masquerading as a movie. Or pilot for network. Or a two-hour introductory episode of what promises to be a potential ratings-busting eight-season serial for cable.

The sad thing is that this was not the first time it happened to me. It’s been happening a lot. And unfortunately I’ve noticed it happening most with the grant-funded playwright, the individual who has been provided money and time and resources with the expectation that in exchange the individual will be writing a new play for the theater.

Is this a hiccup? A tick of my region? Or is this indicative of a broader trend across the nation?

I kept it all on low simmer in the back burner of my stovetop mind…until I saw an article in the Chicago Tribune which validated my intuition. The petri dish of theater has been officially hijacked for germinating TV-ready scripts. Episodic ‘plays’ are written under the pledged support of the theater for eventual pitch to Hollywood.

A FRIENDLY LIST

I’ve developed a friendly list of potential indicators that the play you’re seeing might have been written for the screen.

  • Number of characters. 18 characters? Sure, if you’re writing a modern take on Our Town. Oh wait, done quite well by Will Eno, actually.
  • Number of locations. See the ChiTrib article linked above.
  • Formatting of script. During the first ‘act’ break, slyly slink by the music stand on stage and peer at the page…looks like TV formatting to me!
  • Episodic nature of scenes. I’m not sure youth is a prime target demo, and even if they are, they’d be reluctant to believe a play would be just like their favorite TV show. A play shifting scenes every two minutes serves the TV format unless there is a clearly inventive, pure-theater rationale. Otherwise, using short scene riffs to reach digitally-minded audiences leans away from story and towards TV-type character formats.
  • Act breaks a la TV format. A five act play with each act at 28 minutes or 58 minutes? Smells like cable!
  • Clear association with prominent TV genre. A couple years ago I saw a reading of a new play by a Florida playwright who penned a strong and searing crime drama. The playwright said to me, ‘I deliberately wanted to avoid writing another police procedural.’ Rock on, Florida.
  • Writing on a timeline indicative of the TV writer’s rooms. “Has been writing furiously over the past week…” Mayday!
  • Color coding of scripts. Red copies, yellow copies, green copies…a pure indicator of TV production coloring schemes.
  • S1, E1. Is this a pilot for a televised serial or a play that stands alone? At the end were you wondering what happens in the next installment now that you’ve gotten an introduction to the characters?
  • Clear need for close emotive. Writing as if the audience will better understand emotional subtext with tight camera closeups.
  • Need for explanation. When explanation to the audience is requisite, similar to a five-minute producer pitch.
  • Audience votes. If the audience votes on which character stays or goes…you might have a problem.
THE SAD PART

Surely there is a lot of collaborative theater taking place today that is locational theater, or immersive theater, crafted for the exact environment in which the culminative presentation occurs. And obviously there has been a steady string of theater integrating digital media into productions. Furthermore, theater has attempted to augment its range of audience interaction, pitting theater practitioners to extend into new genres and modes of delivery. I also recognize the rich history of originating theatrical fare licensed for movie production.

Which is all well and good but that’s not what this is about. This is about deliberately using one artistic format in order to grow hire-ability and desirability in another.

Question – why do we as theater artists see this as problematic? I love the reviewer’s statement:

“that new plays by young authors now often feel more like spec treatments or screenplays than juicy dramas for the stage.”

Okay, but WHY is this a problem? The reviewer attempts to characterize the problem as the use of multiple sets and location scenarios. But if this kind of staging gets butts in seats and appeals to the next generation and broadens overall interest, then isn’t that a boon for theater? Television and film have far surpassed theater as the de facto storytelling medium. Why is using theater in the mold of more popular mediums a problem?

My feeling is that anything is a problem when it discredits the theater expression. And if it isn’t a problem then I offer that writing plays with an ulterior motive to cash in on the screen presents more challenges than opportunities to the theater expression.

When playwrights write for themselves, or for an audience other than the one sitting in a theater, then the expression is discredited. Certainly one of my literary idols, John D. MacDonald, would disagree with my position under his tenet that writers pleasing themselves is the primary authorship motivation. But playwrights mold art for audience consumption within parameters which have been defined over thousands of years. Attempting to challenge or expand these parameters is noble. Perverting them for personal gain is discrediting.

Art is in many ways about risks. In an era defined by increasing commercialization how many feature films take big risks? By contaminating grant money with riskless offering, art is capsized. Something other than risk is rewarded.

THE SCARY PART

So that’s all the sad part. The scary part is if there is a tacit agreement among talented burgeoning playwrights, seeking lifelong occupation as spoken-word character writers, in which after realizing the difficulty and improbability of cracking the salaried TV writer’s room without first undergoing years slogging the MFA or L.A. admin assistant circuits, will knowingly abuse theater patronage to grow a personal portfolio of TV-ready material…and the theater goes along with it.

Every system will get gamed. Especially the system of protracted employment in a competitive market. TV writers not only get paid really big bucks but also get unionized. Union writers serve under the bumbershoot of career protection and longevity. Compare the highly-funded playwright getting $25,000 a year in ‘one time only’ funds compared to the TV writer earning $25,000 a week under stable contract employment. No comparison.

It’s unfortunate my personal stage-for-screen experiences are committed mostly by playwrights under the influence of compensation. This tells me that once some playwrights get noticed or funded or get entrenched inside the theater development machine, they start thinking that they’re in the money and they need to stay in the money, and since theater money eventually runs out, it’s time to convert the current entry level of recognition into something much more prosperous and long-term. Can’t argue with that. Every playwright at some point has the urge to slake the thirst for financial foothold by advancing the career frontier.

But where is the theater in all of this? Again, I would be sad if, at best, the theater companies or writer organizations are reluctant yet allow the playwright to commit stage-for-screen writing. However, I would feel scared if, at worst, the theater companies are involved in it.

Imagine the artistic director who thinks, ‘hey, if this script we’re helping along somehow gets optioned for TV, maybe we can use that as a success story with our local funders…the next hit TV show was originated here…and maybe we carve a royalty with the playwright…if they get paid, we get paid!’

Perhaps my Benefit of the Doubt Society membership has self-revoked as a result of all the governmental abuse we’ve been subjected to (see my plays!). But I can’t fault the playwright. I fault any and all commissioners and overseers of new play development who are knowingly complicit with this duplicitous activity. These people include not just the artistic director, but also the board and funders.

When did theater become a surrogate for TV? Are you a theater company or a launching pad for TV?

Every system counts on the checks to maintain the balance. Artistic Directors are visionaries of art. Artistic Directors are also leaders. You’re not visioning nor leading theater if you tacitly or actively allow those working under you to dress your stage for the screen.

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