Why So Many Writers are Working in Both TV and Theater

Hint: It’s the money in one of those media and the freedom in the other. Can you guess which is which?

moremasksby Michele Willens

Aaron Sorkin is reportedly preparing to do his play A Few Good Men, live on NBC. Larry David is curbing his TV enthusiasm and is in rehearsals for his first Broadway show. Tina Fey honed her skills on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock,but is now creating a stage musical. The director of Birdman is working on his first American TV series—and has hired a room full of playwrights. Never have writers moved between television and the stage so fluidly. The reasons? For hungry playwrights, TV presents financial offers difficult to refuse, and the medium grows more prestigious and creative every year. And for TV writers used to the difficulties of collaborating on a script, the theater offers them a chance to have the final say on their own words.

The list of those going back and forth between mediums is long and growing. Ken Levine (Cheers,M*A*S*H) just had a run of his play A or B at the Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake. Joel Fields, an executive producer of The Americans, co-wrote the revival of Can Can for the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Sarah Treem, one of the creators of The Affair on Showtime, wrote the recent off-Broadway play When We Were Young and Unafraid. Warren Leight, a producer on Law and Order, writes plays on hiatus. Scott Carter, executive producer of Bill Maher’s talkfest on HBO, wrote Discord: The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy, which was a hit at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Of these examples, Carter’s transition makes immediate sense. In prime time, he sits—and pits—political and theological opponents across a table from each other. So a leap to the sparring of three of the most famous talking heads in history is not so difficult to imagine. “I have been playing with this concept since I was 24 and wrote a play about the young Hitler and Freud getting together,” said Carter. “And I have always found that each different discipline I have dabbled in helps me with all the others. It’s like the way farmers keep their fields fertile by rotating the crops.”

That notion has been seconded by other writers. “One nice thing about theater is it tends to be driven by character and not plot,” Joel Fields said. “That has certainly trickled down and informed everyone’s approach on The Americans.” Treem has also said: “Everything I know about writing TV I learned from writing plays, and everything I learned about writing plays I learned from TV.”

This ricochet relationship has not always been thus—at least not since the first Golden Age of Television, in which dramatic works like Requiem for aHeavyweight and The Miracle Worker were penned for the small screen by theatrical scribes like Horton Foote, Frank Gilroy, and Abby Mann. Even the classic comedy series, Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, had a writing staff filled with those who also wrote for the stage: Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart.

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