Thursday, November 1, 2012

"How Come I Didn't Write Plays"

His mother loved the theater.

She introduced him to Broadway.

She took him to see touring companies of hit shows when he was seven.

He visited New York annually, to catch the latest comedies and musicals.

He wrote numerous plays at camp.

Feed that into a computer, and it spits out:


Sorry, Mr. Computer.  Not this time.

It‘s not that I wound up a lawyer or a landscaper or a lathe operator.  I did become a writer.  But a writer for television.  Not for Broadway.  Never wrote a play.  Didn’t even think about it.

How come?

What I wrote yesterday was meant to be a preamble to a study of that question, but it preambled too long, and became a post of its own.  I am not sorry about that, because I got to remind myself of some memorable moments with my mother, and that was enjoyable.  Hopefully, not just for me.

Besides, who wants to talk about what, in some hidden recess of their aspirational mechanism, they may have wanted to do but didn’t?  And “Besides Number Two”, the answer to why I never wrote plays is simple:

“Because I did something else instead.” 

Something that was satisfying and remunerative and, arguably most importantly, after the initial “breaking-in” period, available. 

In relatively short order – though it seemed like forever at the time – I became a valued commodity in television, and very quickly – and some, like my agent whose income increases parasitically with his clients’ would say wisely – my focus became locked on my career advancement in the medium that believed I was worth paying.  And paying handsomely at that.

So there was the economic reason.  Combined with “It was easier to advance my reputation in one medium than to throw it away and start from scratch in another.”

Also, no small thing, though all of these may sound like excuses, because to some I-will-leave-it-to-you-to-determine degree they are, from the time I started attending plays to when I began working professionally, theater noticeably changed. 

As with movies, plays, having become prohibitively expensive to produce, began relying on the lavish spectacle  (“You can’t see that on television!”) and the “tried and true” – banking predominantly on revivals, and new plays from reliable hitmakers of the past. 

The preceding sentence somehow got hijacked and went a different way than I expected it to.  What I was planning to say was that theater, as an meaningful art form and the Mecca for all serious, aspiring writers, became increasingly marginalized in our culture, partly because the inflated cost to attend priced out the less affluent and the young, but also because, compared with other entertainment options, the idea of theater came to seem stodgily out of date.  With the exception of the youthful audience at The Book of Mormon, which I recently saw, the median age of audiences going to the theater is “almost dead.”

Theater is slow.  Messaging is instant.  It’s hard to compete.

Another minor but meaningful point is this.  Once you’ve commit to one form of creative endeavor, and I shall herein include blog writing, your mind lasers in unilaterally on what it is you have selected to do.  You work on a television series, and your mind is afire, in a frantic search for episode ideas.  There are no brain cells left to think about plays.

So, there’s all that.  But these are generic explanations.  How ‘bout the personal stuff?

Okay. (After writing “okay”, I heaved a substantial and revelatory sigh.)

Somebody once suggested that, since I wrote half-hour scripts, I was a sprinter, as compared to playwrights (or screenwriters) who, maintaining the metaphor, would be marathon runners. 

My critic was focusing on the length of the script, which, for me, at least, is not the issue.  That’s just more paper.  Longer till you can get up from writing.   

I like writing.   And though of course there’s a different template involved, templates can be learned, and I’m a really good learner. 

The problem is not length, but depth.  Writing for the theater, you are asking people to pay money and sit there for two or more hours.  What insight or original perspective do you have to impart – “you” meaning I – that is worthy of the audience’s precious time and money?

That one, I never figured out.

This failure is most likely a matter of attitude.  When I can’t do something, or at least have not done it yet, I idealize the undertaking at hand, exaggerating its difficulties, making its accomplishment realistically, in my self-sabotaging mode of thinking, beyond my capacities.  At such moments, unhelpful thoughts go buzzing through my mind:

“I am ‘television deep’.  Writing plays, you need to be ‘theater deep.’”

“I am ‘television’ interesting.  To write plays, you have to be “two-and-a-half hour, with one intermission”, interesting.


The funny part is that I see plays – I saw four of them during our recent visit to New York – and none of them were all that wonderful.  When I imagine a play, I imagine it flawless.  No play is.  What they are, however, is finished.  And sold.  And onstage, being performed for an audience. 

Some of them even win prizes, even though there are gaping holes in the storytelling, the comedy is considerably less than “first tier sitcom” funny, and they include extended patches of nap-inducing boredom. 

I guess they mark them “on the curve.”

The simple message is this:  If you believe you can do it – not “Then you can do it”, I am not Tony Robbins – but at least you have a shot.  If you, however, for whatever reason, don’t believe you can do it, because what you’re doing is accessible and rewarding, plus you’re temperamentally risk-averse, and besides, what you’re doing is not that terribly different from that other thing, then there’s a good chance

You won’t even try.

I’ll be honest with you.  I liked the post about my mother better.

No comments: