Where Have All the Playwrights Gone? Cable TV

Posted on November 22, 2010

Jason Zinoman has an interesting article about how rare playwrights are. Well, it's not that there aren't any successful playwrights -- there are. It's just that they keep getting lured away to write for television. Playwrights that are successful generally get seduced into writing for AMC, Showtime and HBO (well, that certainly explains why they have such amazing programming).

The trend makes some writers in the theater world quite grumpy. It's the whole art vs. commerce thing. Television pays much better than the theater, that much is for sure. But many playwrights say that it is the Hollywood training that makes them better at writing plays. Zinoman explains:

Craig Wright, who has written and produced for shows like Six Feet Under, Lost and Brothers and Sisters, said working in television has made him a better playwright. His new comic drama Mistakes Were Made, now at the Barrow Street Theater, is a taut work in which Michael Shannon plays an opportunistic Broadway producer, loosely based on the multiple Tony-winner Kevin McCollum. That it's a sympathetic portrait of the usually demonized producer, Mr. Wright says, is partly because of his work in Hollywood. "One of the things you experience creating television," he said, "is that there's this fake vanity sometimes on the part of the writers who still labor under this old idea that the writers are Artists with a capital A, and the producers and studio executives are businessmen who just want to make a buck."
Wright said that writing for television made him much better at communicating information more efficiently to the audience. Television uses a sort of shorthand to describe things and characters. TV shows have very strict time constraints, and successful writers know how to hit the beats of a story efficiently.

It's an interesting insight on writing for theater.