“TV writing gives you the power to say no.”
Okay, that’s not exactly how she said it. We were sitting around a conference table at Juilliard when a well-known guest playwright was speaking about the advantages of working in TV. Her actual statement had more expletives in it, as well as a sexual act she suggested theatrical artistic directors might try on themselves. But the spirit was the same: TV writing was financially empowering and artistically enlightening for this particular guest.
In my first TV job I have found this to be true. And while I would never suggest anyone try extreme sexual positions, I have exercised some power in turning down unfulfilling offers that don’t interest me. It’s not perfect, but I’m in a TV writers’ room in New York City where five out of the six scribes are playwrights who have healthcare, steady work, and our own offices with these exotic things called landline phones.
The story behind my first TV job is simple. I came back to New York City last September to interview for a playwriting fellowship and find a new apartment. I didn’t get the fellowship, but the next day I went out to Brooklyn to talk to a married couple who had been showrunners on “The Good Wife.” At the time, Michelle King and Robert King were starting their venture into a second series: a political satire titled “BrainDead” that’s set to premiere in the summer of 2016 during the season of political conventions. While “The Good Wife” is cast, produced, and shot in New York City, the writers’ room is in Los Angeles. For “BrainDead,” the network and the Kings agreed that everything should be in New York, including the writers’ room. I thought it was the perfect chance to take a step into the TV world while maintaining a few theatre projects in New York City.
After a quick and colorful conversation with the Kings, I said goodbye and left. I thought I acquitted myself well in the meeting, but I had no expectations or inklings. I took the subway back to midtown to find a quiet coffee shop and start writing a new play. By the time I got off the subway at the Port Authority I had two voice messages from the production company asking me to call them back. Two weeks later I was getting the keys to my own office, filling out WGA-East paperwork to join the union, signing with a top-tier management company, and moving into a larger apartment in Brooklyn.
This isn’t the way I thought it was going to turn out. Granted, I got a degree in radio/TV/film from Northwestern University, but the truth that I rarely share with others is this: I was accidentally placed in that program my freshman year due to a software glitch in the university’s enrollment computer. I was supposed to be in the Medill School of Journalism. I was a high school jock from Florida who thought he was going to become a sports reporter for The Miami Herald. I knew nothing about movies or fictional TV. My college transcript shows that I ended up using the bulk of my electives for Russian literature courses and investigative journalism, but I stayed in the film department because my 18-year-old self liked the idea of going to class to watch “Die Hard.”
I also got a certificate in a newly formed minor called the Creative Writing in the Media program. We abbreviated ourselves with the tribal nomenclature of “C-Dubyas” that was then further shortened to “C-dubs.” Back then, it was everyone’s dream to write the great American movie or—if all else failed—write a play or novel. Few students talked about TV. At Northwestern I fell in love with theatre and decided that I needed more training and an excuse to move to New York. A journalism colleague suggested getting my MFA at a less expensive university like the New School as a way to accomplish both goals at the same time. Perfect.
After graduating from the New School with my MFA, I developed a high tolerance for financial discomfort, found I was quite persuasive at negotiating down my loan payments, got accustomed to never seeing a dentist, and doing all the things theatre artists do to survive without too much complaining. I worked temp jobs at law firms where I ran into other actors, singers, and writers.
I always asked for graveyard shifts and high-pressure cases that required overtime and weekend hours. At these 80-hour-a-week jobs I was left alone, had my dinners paid for by the law firm, and could work like a hermit in the calm of the night with other likeminded introverts. We were the single and childless transients who kept the lights on in Manhattan’s office towers until the following morning. Believe it or not, it was actually pretty fun. We didn’t care about our jobs, our bosses understood we were only there for a paycheck, and we were devoted to the arts.
In my 20s, I lost most of my artsy colleagues to marriage, permanent office jobs with retirement benefits, and places other than New York for the chance to have the lives of normal human beings. We hardliners stuck it out, promoted our next play reading, and some of us even scored a rare-unicorn production. We congratulated ourselves for being tough enough to weather the rejection notices and the closed doors of opportunity, not to mention the class/race/gender inequalities that exist in the theatre community we loved so much. We were the cockroaches after the nuclear bomb of college debt dropped, and we scuttled to and from odd jobs, subsisting on favors and goodwill, and making our projects with whatever we could find in the rubble (or at Materials for the Arts).
Everything changed when I got a playwriting fellowship at Juilliard, or—as we’re taught to say—the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at the Juilliard School. I got access—access that doesn’t normally exist for people like me. Agents no longer fled my presence at parties. Artistic directors would say these crazy things like, “Send me your play and I’ll read it.”
But I found that the people who were the most eager to read my plays were TV executives. While it would take the literary department at a major theatre six months to a year to read a single play of mine, I was getting emails from people at networks who read my work after only having it a few days. The other stunning thing is that they actually wanted to meet me, find me work, and believed I should be paid to write. Paid to write. The words echoed in my head. I had the opportunity to get paid to write. And I wouldn’t need a second job to support my writing “job.”
I took up a series of freelance journalism gigs so I could afford my first official business trip to L.A. I started emailing the old C-Dubs from my Northwestern class. My trip coincided with a classmate getting her first feature-length movie out into the world and I went to its Hollywood premiere: Run and Jump was written and directed by my C-Dub classmate Steph Green. Later that week, seven of us C-Dubs reconnected at Overland Café in Culver City. A decade after college and our waists have expanded while our hairlines have thinned; many of the C-Dubs are married with children, although most are still single.
But the most surprising revelation of this reunion was that while we were all dented and bruised from the industry’s obstacle course, none of us had become outrageously bitter from years of struggle. We all seemed somewhat sane (and yes, “seemed” maybe the operative word), and everyone was working in arts or entertainment. Some had become film directors, others had taken up arts academia. But half of the 12 C-Dubs were TV writers and producers. We shared our “first job” stories, and I became convinced that this was something I could do. Now I am.
The six writers on the show I’m a part of take lunch in the conference area of the office. The production company comps us up to $15 for our meals, and it’s usually a salad or sandwich kind of affair. Though we’re working in TV now, the conversations around the table are about theatre: We spend most of the time talking about the plays we saw, the latest opera at the Met, what new theatre project we’re working on, how to get tickets to Hamilton.
The weeks are usually built around either planning or writing. Planning weeks take place in the writers’ conference room around the big table. We “break story,” as the lingo goes, or outline new episodes on a white board, then transfer them into color-coded cards on a wall. We move the cards around until there is a strong “act out” at the bottom of each of the 5 acts (4 acts and a teaser) so that viewers will want to come back after the commercial break. A main character saying, “I’ll get right on it,” and cracking open a book is not a good act out; someone saying, “Luke, I am your father,” and Luke going, “Whaaaa?” is a good act out.
The writing weeks are more flexible. On this particular show almost everyone gets to work on scenes in every episode. Since we are six writers and it’s an hour-long show, the page count usually ends up being around 7-10 pages for each writer. After we’re assigned our scenes to write, we flee into our offices, caves, or favorite coffee shops for the next 48-72 hours. Then the lead writer reassembles all our scenes, we read the Frankendraft of everything stitched together in one big lumpy and overwritten mass, then we go through the overlapping moments, things to cut, scenes that don’t work. Each writer gets one more chance at revising their scene with notes provided by colleagues, and then the lead writer takes the revised Frankendraft and turns it into their own over the course of 2-3 days of heavy revising, trimming, adding one’s distinctive voice throughout the episode so it has a seamless feel.
The episode is finally sent to the showrunner, who gives their own notes; then the lead writer revises some more, and the showrunner revises that revision and takes it to the network. CBS has their own notes, and then still more revisions are made. This network-level revision goes on for a few more rounds, with a breakdown of all the characters and scene locations added. At some point a voice from on high says, “Okay, you can move on,” and the lead writer is usually in and out of the room while the next episode is being outlined and assigned.
That sounds like a lot of back and forth—and it is—but this writers’ room is 100 percent sane and functional. I have heard horror stories of writers who can’t stand each other being trapped in a room for 6 months with egomaniacal showrunners who throw tantrums. In stark contrast, our room is filled with thoroughly normal people with spouses and families who don’t have time for drama. People want to work, write their scenes, then go home to their families. Everyone shows up on time, we help each other out, we toss around opinions, and the flow of work gives us the freedom as well as the structure to thrive.
I think playwrights are having so much success in TV these days because we are used to delaying gratification. We work for years purely on will power, with no exact dates or defined plans to ever see our work in front of an audience. When we are finally given the chance not only to show our wares but broadcast them to millions of people, the typical playwright will pour out all that potential energy, stored up over years of delayed gratification; there is no holding back. I’ve called other writers at 11 p.m. at night and we’re both up and working on our scenes, shooting emails back and forth, hoping to get positive notes from the network. We aren’t getting paid for the overtime hours and no one cares. There is a sense of wanting to get things right. We write, revise, revise, and revise some more, get network notes, and then revise again. If we do a really good job we might see the reward months later when an episode airs. Or we might get fired. But either way, at least we got paid.
There is this still this thing called theatre, which is done occasionally and intermittently in the lives of these playwrights working in TV. But there isn’t a sense of desperation or a puppy-dog eagerness about it; we don’t need the approval of an increasingly calcifying segment of the not-for-profit arts world. If we write the hit play that actually gets produced one day, wonderful. If we don’t…oh well. I wish I could say whether this is an optimistic revelation or a somewhat sobering downbeat at this point in my life. But I don’t know.
Theatre dreams that were once so passionate and burning have become things that seem to pleasantly float by our heads. I don’t think we grasp on to these hopes too hard anymore. But we do talk about them at lunch over our salads.
Aurin Squire is a playwright, TV writer, and independent journalist. He has playwriting fellowships at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange and National Black Theatre while serving as a staff writer on the upcoming CBS summer series “BrainDead.”
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!