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Why Are TV Writers’ Rooms Filled With Playwrights?

By July 12, 2021 No Comments

Are you a playwright? Then TV might be a great option for you.

Writing for the stage is an excellent path to take for those eyeing a future in TV. The training and experience many playwrights receive in the early years of their career oftentimes prepares them to create sophisticated stories, characters, and dialogue, which is exactly the kind of skillset industry professionals look for when hiring writers for quality programming.

And TV isn't just a good creative fit for playwrights but it's also a good financial one, with many finding more consistent work and pay in television than on (or off) Broadway.

So, for all of you playwrights out there, or those who aren't quite sure what to do with all of your stage plays, let's take a deeper dive into why so many playwrights are finding success in writers' rooms and how you can take advantage.

College Can Be a Major Pathway

For many aspiring writers, it all starts in the classroom. Playwrights are recruited from top colleges by producers, showrunners, and managers, so it's no coincidence that renowned theater programs have been offering more classes for television and film writing. And not only are they often accepted into screenwriting development programs and fellowships, they're able to use the plays they write in college as writing samples when looking for work.

Take, for instance, Ming Peiffer. According to The New York Times, she wrote her play Usual Girls in 2016 as an MFA student at Columbia University. The play opened in 2018 at the Roundabout Theater Company in New York. Since then, she’s worked on two Netflix shows, sold her own show, and earned a movie deal. Her agents send out her play as a writing sample.

 

TV Money is Often Better and More Consistent

A tough reality every writer inevitably has to face is finding a way to make enough money to survive. Of course, there’s always the cursed rite of a day job — but the goal is to write full-time. What are the best ways a playwright can forge a long-term and sustainable writing career?

Even while the theater world still sang with activity, playwrights were jumping ship and finding refuge in an industry that paid the bills. Some playwrights could make more in a few weeks' worth of writing for television than they’d make in a year. And since playwrights understand the frugality of making a living from play to play, television is a natural choice for its reliability.

A writers’ room can offer more consistent pay as well as better residuals. Unless you create a Broadway staple, a theater run can only last so long whereas re-run episodes and streaming numbers keep some money coming in.

Writing for the Stage Translates Well to the Small Screen

Prestige television shows have elevated the medium by allowing more time to develop the characters and plot. This allows for intimate conversations, a slower pace, longer set pieces, and conflict that bubbles underneath the surface of dialogue. 

The job of a playwright is to create an imaginary world within a confined space. The narrative must keep the audience engaged with minimal special effects, locations, and characters and if anyone knows how to simplify a story and create drama out of nothing, it's a playwright.

This is why playwrights can use their samples to secure representation, as well as land open writing assignments. In fact, Bekah Brunstetter, writer and producer on This is Us, sends out her plays as samples instead of television specs or pilots.

The skills evident in a playwright’s sample are honed over years of working through the machinations of stage production and that experience and self-sufficiency are what showrunners are looking for in candidates for their rooms. 

This is Us

'This is Us'

TV Writers and Playwrights Have to Be Adaptable

Playwrights often work closely with actors and members of different production departments. This willingness to embrace collaboration makes them an ideal candidate for writers’ rooms. Playwrights often have to develop a sense of adaptability in order to overcome hurdles that arise when what’s on the page doesn’t quite work on the stage.

When they join a writers’ room, playwrights understand that they’re serving the show — not their ego. Their job in a room as a staff writer is to bring the showrunner’s vision to life and they’re used to making rewrites with technical aspects of the production in mind.

Of course, it takes time to adjust to writing solo to working with other writers, but the leadership skills they learned writing for the stage make them prime candidates to rise through the ranks and one day run their own rooms.

 

Stage and Screen: The Best of Both Worlds

Using the knowledge they gain from writing for the screen allows a playwright to return to the stage in new and exciting ways. With the financial support gained from writing for television, some haven’t written a play in years while others continue to dip their pens between the two worlds. Some of the greatest living playwrights have written or are currently writing for film and television, like Tony Award-winner David Mamet, who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, or Tony Award-nominee Dominique Morisseau, who wrote and co-produced Showtime's Shameless.

This is to say if you’re writing for the stage and considering all the different ways that you can continue writing while making a living — maybe making the jump isn’t such a bad idea. Even feature writers are finding refuge in the space of television. It allows for a unique artistic freedom, offers more financial consistency, and minimizes the perils of development hell. 

A show can always get canceled, but if a pilot is picked up and you find yourself lucky enough to be in that room — you’re offered a slight reprieve from the worry of being unemployed.

A working writer is a happy writer.

Shameless

'Shameless'

The Pandemic Has Changed the Game (For Now)

The pandemic isn’t over, but as vaccinations continue to rise and infections fall, we are returning to some semblance of life before. A few new forms of live shows have popped up over the past year, but for the most part, people turned to their screens for entertainment. With Broadway set to reopen in September, there’s still no telling what kind of ticket sales the industry will be able to rake in. 

If the reopening of movie theaters is any indication, stage plays should still pull in plenty of cash — even if there is a little more elbow room at the Monday showing of Hamilton. Still, as we’ve seen with box office ticket sales, a lot of people are opting for the conveniences of at-home entertainment options, which is certainly a valid reason for playwrights to consider writing for television for the foreseeable future. 

The Day reported that “in 2020 nearly 500 scripted series premiered on the air, more than double the number launched a decade earlier.”

The number of streaming services has skyrocketed over the last year as well. What was born out of necessity is here to stay out of convenience. Every studio wants a piece of the pie. Content is needed across the board -- in animation, virtual reality, video games. Sticking with a single medium for the sake of prestige might not be a sustainable approach to a career in writing. 

Any writer hoping to make a living needs to learn how to adapt to changing technologies and the distribution platforms created in the wake.


Kevin Nelson is a writer and director based in New York City, baby. He has written and produced critically acclaimed short films and music videos with incredibly talented artists, worked with anti-human trafficking organizations, and would rather be in nature right now. See more madness on Instagram or follow his work on https://www.kevinpatricknelson.com

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