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The Teleplayers

Playwrights such as Krista Vernoff, Craig Wright, and Marsha Norman are making their mark on hit TV shows including Grey's Anatomy, Lost, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. logo
Marsha Norman
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Come clean: You watch more television than you should. Now, relax: Your guilty pleasure isn't so guilty. Some of America's best playwrights regularly write for some of TV's most popular series, including Lost, Grey's Anatomy, Brothers & Sisters, Weeds, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Among the scribes who have transitioned from the stage to the small screen -- while not abandoning the theater -- are Marsha Norman ('Night, mother), David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), Warren Leight (Side Man), Jon Robin Baitz (Ten Unknowns), Craig Wright (The Pavilion), Diana Son (Stop Kiss), Bridget Carpenter (The Faculty Room), Rolin Jones (The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow), Rinne Groff (The Ruby Sunrise), and Krista Vernoff (A Song My Father Wrote).

"If you were Shakespeare, you'd be writing for television. That's where the audience is," says Norman, who is a consulting producer (a title that applies to writers) on Criminal Intent, as well as the co-chair of the Lila Acheson Wallace playwriting fellowship at the Juilliard School. "The old-time theater audience has followed theater writers to television."

Indeed, Norman says that migration is completely logical. "Today, All My Sons would be a TV show. Television has taken over social issues and all the playwrights of that kind of drama have moved to television. Our need for stories is all-consuming. It's how we learn, how we remember, how we order our existence, decide what to do, and figure out what's in store for us."

The chance to write about important social issues aside, it's also a hefty paycheck that attracts even the most successful playwrights to the small screen. The Writers' Guild of America minimum for an hour-long teleplay is over $20,000; that sure beats many a playwriting commission, which can be less than half of that sum.

Yet, Stefani Relles, the vice president of creative writer development for Fox Development Company and a playwright herself, sometimes wonders if she's really doing her playwright friends a favor when she offers them a paycheck. Still, she urges them to give it a go. "I tell them, 'Let's not make art; let's make TV. You'll have a good time, you'll get paid, and some career options will open up.'"

When she started her job to help populate the talent pool at Fox, Relles told her employers: "I know where the best writers are. They're in New York and they're working Off-Broadway." She sees herself as a combination agent/producer/fairy godmother, looking for those playwrights she can spot, polish, and introduce to the industry. "I want playwrights who know who they are as writers," she says.

Indeed, the chance to test writing muscles by working quickly within the strict boundaries of television is a strong lure for some playwrights. "It demystifies the writing process," says Son, who writes for Criminal Intent. "You just have to do it and finish it on deadline. The crew is waiting to prep the episode." Carpenter, who writes for NBC's critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights agrees. "You're using a lot of the same muscles, but in different ways. I didn't discover how fast I could write until I had to." On her first day working on Showtime's Dead Like Me, Carpenter was told to rewrite someone else's script from page one. She panicked -- and then did it in one day. "Panic can be very useful," she notes.

Balancing plays and television writing can be a daunting but illuminating task. "My writing has helped my playwriting be purposeful," says Son, who adds that television has honed her dialogue's forward motion. Wright, who was working on his new play The Unseen for this year's Humana Festival, while also penning scripts for Brothers & Sisters and getting ready to film his own pilot Dirty Sexy Money -- which will star Peter Krause and Jill Clayburgh -- finds that writing for television has made his playwriting "more theatrical and more audacious."

The cast of Grey's Anatomy
(© ABC Television)
Wright also particularly appreciates television's possibilities of mass communication, thanks to a nightly viewing audience a gazillion times larger than any theater could ever hold. For example, Wright's inclusion of Flann O'Brien's obscure novel The Third Policeman on an episode of Lost resulted in massive sales of the book, and people often quote the line "Whatever takes you deeper into the reality of your life," to him, saying they've heard it at AA meetings. It's actually a line he wrote for a script of HBO's Six Feet Under.

Television can also be a learning experience, as well as a chance to explore new worlds. Vernoff, who is now an executive producer for the top-rated medical drama, Grey's Anatomy admits to knowing little about medicine. Carpenter loved sports, but didn't know a lot about football before joining Friday Night Lights. Wright's pilot is about an idealistic lawyer tending the legal and illegal needs of a wealthy New York family, although he has no law background.

Still, at the end of the day, television is a corporate business and being a link in the power chain can be dispiriting, says Vernoff, who honed her teeth on the series Wonderfalls and Charmed. "Getting notes like 'can you find a way to get the actresses naked this week?' can make you feel like you've sold your soul," she says. Of course, winning the 2007 Golden Globe Award for Best Drama TV Series can help anyone feel better. "It was phenomenal," she admits, "but it still doesn't compare to getting a standing ovation in a 70-seat house."

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