This story is part of a larger special issue on playwriting training.
In 2018, a record 495 original scripted series were released across cable, online, and broadcast platforms, according to a report by FX Networks. And with the growing popularity of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (not to mention new players like Disney and Apple), a whopping 146 more shows are up and running on various platforms now than were on air in 2013. So how does peak TV relate to theatre?
Once a way for financially strapped playwrights to land stable income and adequate health insurance, television has since emerged as a rewarding venue for ambitious dramatists looking to forge lifetime careers as working writers. Playwright Tanya Saracho is the current showrunner for “Vida” on Starz. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is the series developer of “Riverdale” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” Sheila Callaghan is executive producer of the long-running black comedy “Shameless.” Sarah Treem, co-creator and showrunner of “The Affair,” recently concluded the Rashomon-esque psychological drama in November.
To satiate demand for more content, showrunners have sought to recruit emerging playwrights to fill their writers’ rooms. It’s now common practice for them to read plays or spec scripts penned prior to a writer’s graduation.
Many aspiring playwrights have caught on, enrolling in drama school intent on flirting with virtually every medium under the umbrella of the performing arts. Several institutions around the country have become gatekeepers for the hopeful—post-graduate MFA boot camps bestowing scribes with the Aristotelian wisdom of plot, character, thought, diction, and spectacle before they’re dropped into the school of hard knocks that is the modern American writers’ room. Indeed, since our culture has emerged from the chrysalis of peak TV, playwriting programs have begun training students for a career that includes not only the stage but multiple mediums, including the screen.
Playwright Zayd Dohrn, who has served as both chair of Northwestern University’s radio/TV/film department and director of the MFA in writing for screen and stage since 2016, said versatility is the strongest tool in the kit of the program’s students.
“We offer classes in playwriting, screenwriting and TV writing, as well as podcasts, video games, interactive media, stand-up, improv, and much more,” he explained. “There’s no one way to approach the craft, and we offer world-class faculty with diverse backgrounds, professional experiences, and perspectives, so students can be exposed to the full range of professional and artistic practice.”
Dominic Taylor, vice chair of graduate studies at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in California, also agrees that multiplicity is the key to the survival of a working writer. “In the industries today, whether one is breaking a story in a writers’ room or writing coverage as an assistant, the ability to recognize and manipulate structure is paramount,” Taylor said. “The primary skill, aside from honing excellent social skills, would be to continue to study the forms as they emerge. Read scripts and note differences and strengths of form to the individual’s skill set. For example, the multi-cam network comedy is very different from the single-cam comedy—‘The Conners’ versus ‘Modern Family,’ let’s say. It’s not just the technology; it is the pace of the comedy.”
Taylor, a distinguished multi-hyphenate theatre artist working on both coasts, said that schools like UCLA offer a lot more than classes, including one with Phyllis Nagy (screenwriter of Carol). UCLA’s program also partners with its film school, and hires professional directors to work with playwrights to develop graduate student plays for productions at UCLA’s one-act festival, ONES, or its New Play Festival. Taylor also teaches four separate classes on Black theatre, giving students the opportunity to study the likes of Alice Childress, Marita Bonner, and Angelina Weld Grimké in a university setting (a rarity outside of historically Black colleges and universities).
Dohrn, a prominent playwright who is currently developing a feature film for Netflix and has TV shows in development at Showtime, BBC America, and NBC/Universal, said that television, like theatre, needs people who can create interesting characters and tell compelling stories, who have singular, unique voices—all of which are emphasized in playwriting training.
“Playwrights are not just good at writing dialogue—they are world creators who bring a unique vision to the stories they tell,” Dohrn emphasized. “More than anything else, a writer needs to develop his/her/their unique voice. Craft can be taught, but talent and creativity are the most important thing for a young writer.”
For playwright David Henry Hwang, who joined the faculty at Columbia University School of the Arts as head of the playwriting MFA program in 2014, success should be a byproduct, not a destination. “As a playwright, I don’t believe it’s possible to ‘game’ the system—i.e., to try and figure out how to write something ‘successful,’” he said. “The finished play is your reward for taking that journey. The thing that makes you different, and uniquely you, is your superpower as a dramatist, because it is the key to writing the play only you can write. Ironically, by focusing not on success but on what you really care about, you are more likely to find success.”
Since arriving at Columbia, one of Hwang’s top priorities was to expand the range of TV writing classes. This led to the creation of separate TV sub-department “concentrations,” housed in both the theatre and film programs. All playwriting students are required to take some television classes.
“We are at a rather anomalous moment in playwriting history, where the ability to write plays is actually a monetizable skill,” said Hwang, whose TV credits include Treem’s “The Affair.” “Playwrights have become increasingly valuable to TV because it has traditionally been a dialogue-driven medium (though shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ push into more cinematic storytelling language), and playwrights are comfortable being in production (unlike screenwriters, some of whom never go to set). Once TV discovered playwrights, we became more valuable for feature films as well.”
Playwrights aren’t the only generative theatremakers moving to the screen. Masi Asare is an assistant professor at Northwestern’s School of Communication, which teaches music theatre history, music theatre writing and composition, and vocal performance. The award-winning composer-lyricist, who recently saw her one-act Mirror of Most Value: A Ms. Marvel Play published by Marvel/Samuel French, said that the world of musical theatre is not all that different either; it’s experiencing a resurgence in both cinema and the small screen: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Justin Hurwitz, and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have all written songs that were nominated for or won Oscars. The growth of YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter have offered new ways for musical theatre graduates to market and monetize their songs and build an audience.
“I find that because of the way rising musical theatre artists are coming up in the field, they are doing a lot of concerts that are then packaged for videos,” Asare said. “The audio quality is good, the lights look pretty, and it’s kind of a standalone song.” Any Hollywood executive looking to scope out songwriters for their film projects can just check YouTube, which is how Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) and Pasek and Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman) were discovered. Instead of developmental readings, these graduates are pivoting to video.
“The feeling that a song has to ‘work’ behind a microphone in order to be a good song is really having an impact on young writers,” said Asare. “The song must sound and look good in this encapsulated video that will be posted on the songwriters’ website and circulated via social media.” She noted that in this case, the medium of video is also changing the medium of musical theatre itself. “Certainly it may lead to different kinds of musicals—who knows? New experimentation can be exciting, but I think there is a perception that all you have to have is a series of good video clips to be a songwriter for the musical theatre, a musical storyteller. I think that does something of a disservice to rising composers and lyricists.”
Some playwriting students, of course, are not interested in learning about how to write for television. But many who spoke for this story agreed that learning about the different ways of storytelling can be beneficial. One program in particular that has its eyes on the multiplicity of storytelling mediums is the Writing for Performance program at the California Institute of the Arts. Founded by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks in 2001 as a synergy of immersive environments, visual art installation, screenplay, and the traditional stage play, the program has helped students and visiting artists alike transcend theatrical conventions. Though Parks is no longer on the CalArts faculty, her spirit still infuses the program. As Amanda Shank, assistant dean of the CalArts School of Theater, puts it, “Every time she came to the page, there was a real fidelity to the impulse of what she was trying to communicate with the play, and the form followed that. It’s not her trying to write a ‘correct’ kind of play or to lay things bare in a certain prescribed way.”
That instinct is in the life fiber of CalArts’s Special Topics in Writing, a peer-to-peer incubator for the development of new projects that grants students from across various departments the opportunity to develop and produce writing-based projects. Shank defines the vaguely titled yearlong class, which she began, as a “hybrid of a writing workshop and a dramaturgical project development space.” A playwright and dramaturg, Shank said her class was born of her experience as an MFA candidate; she attended the program between 2010 and 2013, and then noticed her fellow students’ lack of ability to fully shepherd their projects.
“I was finding a lot of students that would have an idea, bring in a few pages or even bring in a full draft, but then they would kind of abandon it,” said Shank. “I wanted a space [that would] marry generative creativity, a place of accountability, but also a place that was working that muscle of really developing a project. Because I think often as artists we look to other institutions, other people to usher our work along. Yes, you need collaborators, yes, you need organizations of supporters—but you have to some degree know how to do those things yourself.”
Program alum Virginia Grise agrees. Grise has been a working artist since her play blu won the 2010 Yale Drama Series Award. She conceived her latest play, rasgos asiaticos, while still attending CalArts. Inspired by her Chicana-Chinese family, the play has evolved into a walk-around theatrical experience with some dialogue pressed into phonograph records that accompany her great uncle’s 1920s-era Chinese opera records. After developing the production over a period of years, with the help of CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP), Grise will premiere rasgos asiaticos in downtown Los Angeles in March 2020, boasting a predominantly female cast, a Black female director, and a design team entirely composed of women of color. Her multidisciplinary work is emblematic of the direction CalArts is hoping to steer the field, with training that is responsive to a growingly diverse body of students who may not want to create theatre in the Western European tradition.
“You cannot recruit students of color into a training program and continue to train actors, writers, and directors in the same way you have trained them prior to recruiting them,” said Grise. “I feel like training programs should look at the diversity of aesthetics, the diversity of storytelling—what are the different ways in which we make performance, and how is that indicative of who we are, and where we are coming from, and who we are speaking to?”
As an educator whose work deals with Asian American identity, including the play M. Butterfly and the high-concept musical Soft Power, Hwang said that one of his goals as an educator is to train a diverse body of students and teach them how to write from a perspective that is uniquely theirs.
“If we assume that people like to see themselves onstage, this requires a range of diverse bodies as well as diverse stories in our theatres,” Hwang said. “Institutions like Columbia have a huge responsibility to address this issue, since we are helping to produce artists of the future. Our program takes diversity as our first core value—not only in terms of aesthetics, but also by trying to cultivate artists and stories which encompass the fullest range of communities, nationalities, races, genders, sexualities, differences, and identities.”
The film business could use similar cultivation. In March 2019, the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE), a self-organized syndicate of working television writers, published “Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writing,” a research-driven survey funded by the Pop Culture Collaborative. Data from that report observed hiring, writer advancement, workplace harassment, and bias among diverse writers, examining 282 working Hollywood writers who identify as women or nonbinary, LGBTQ, people of color, and/or people with disabilities, analyzing how they fare within the writers’ room. In positions that range from staff writer to executive story editor, a nearly two thirds majority of this surveyed group reported troubling instances of bias, discrimination, and/or harassment by members of their individual writing staff. Also, 58 percent of them said they experienced pushback when pitching a non-stereotypical diverse character or storyline; 58 percent later experienced micro-aggressions in-house. The biggest slap in the face: When it comes to in-house pitches, 53 percent of this group’s ideas were rejected, only to have white writers pitch exactly the same idea a few minutes later and get accepted. Other key findings from the report: 58 percent say their agents pitch them to shows by highlighting their “otherness,” and 15 percent reported they took a demotion just to get a staff job.
But there was more: 65 percent of people of color in the survey reported being the only one in their writers’ room, and 34 percent of the women and nonbinary writers reported being the only woman or nonbinary member of their writing staff; 38 percent of writers with disabilities reported being the only one, and 68 percent of LGBTQ writers reported being the only one.
For Dominic Taylor, the lack of diversity and inclusion in TV writers’ rooms can be fought in part by opening up the curriculum on college campuses, which he has expanded since joining the faculty at UCLA. “Students need a comprehensive education,” Taylor pointed out. He noted the importance of prospective playwrights being as familiar with Migdalia Cruz, Maria Irene Fornés, James Yoshimura, Julia Cho, and William Yellow Robe as they are with William Shakespeare, and looking at traditions as vast as the Gelede Festival, the Egungun Festival, Shang theatre of China, as well as the Passion Plays of Ancient Egypt.
“All of these modes of performance predate the Greek theatre, which is the starting point for much of theatre history,” explained Taylor. “It is part of my mandate as an educator to complete the education of my students. Inclusion is crucial to that education.”
After all, with the growing variety of platforms for story and expression, why shouldn’t there also be diversity of forms and voices? Whatever the medium of delivery, these are trends worth keeping an eye on.
Marcus Scott is a New York City-based playwright, musical writer, and journalist. He’s written for Elle, Essence, Out, and Playbill, among other publications.