As an East Coast “experimental” playwright, I’m often faced with disbelief when I tell my peers that I landed a staff job on NBC’s new series “Smash.” Partially it’s the strange-bedfellows notion of an allegedly avant-garde writer paired with a big, glitzy TV show about Broadway produced by Steven Spielberg. Even more prevalent, however, is the perception among theater folk that writing TV is slumming, or torturous, or at the very least a cynical sellout. It’s a cliché, but it doesn’t come from nowhere. Hollywood did burn the likes of Bertolt Brecht and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the martyred writer is part of film iconography: the floating corpse of William Holden in “Sunset Boulevard” and John Turturro shambling through a flaming hotel in “Barton Fink.”
Truth is, the American theater isn’t much rosier than Hollywood. The gripes of the contemporary playwright could have come right out of William Goldman’s 1983 “Adventures in the Screen Trade": interference from clueless producers; backstabbing between friends; oppressive mediocrity; a fraught political atmosphere where talent can be secondary; “development hell.” Luckily, I get to mulch these theatrical grievances into the narrative of “Smash.” Also luckily, I get to work under creator-show runner Theresa Rebeck, a playwright who happens to be a friend and mentor. I know her plays well, mitigating the learning curve that comes with writing in a show runner’s voice for the first time.
My own entry into TV is analogous to (if considerably less glamorous than) the struggles of “Smash’s” lead characters, Karen (an inexperienced ingénue played by Katherine McPhee) and Ivy (a Broadway veteran played by Megan Hilty), who vie for the role of Marilyn Monroe in “Smash’s” show-within-a-show. Like Karen, I’ve been thrust into the spotlight from seemingly nowhere. Like Ivy, I’ve struggled in the theater for the better part of a decade.
I will admit that my plays can be arcane. They’ve been called “meta-literary” and “dizzyingly cosmic” by supporters, “difficult” and “incoherent” by detractors. My characters have included Borges, Shostakovich and a talking feral hog that sounds like a Gertrude Stein poem. Whether they’re commercial is a complicated discussion (even successful new plays rarely turn a profit), but I certainly haven’t made a living from them. For six years, I supported myself as non-tenured “contract faculty” at Rutgers University, until the job was slashed in 2010. My first child came along just as my salary and health insurance dried up. For one harrowing year, I spent my days desperately searching for a job, fighting bureaucrats in two states to get public assistance and reaching out to anyone who could advise me about “breaking in.”
One of these people, fortuitously, was Rebeck. At the time, neither of us knew that “Smash” was going to go to pilot (I didn’t even know it existed). We met in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, and she offered me sympathy and sound advice.
A few months later, I got a call out of the blue — the pilot was shooting, and if it got the green light she’d like to consider me as a writer. Per Rebeck’s instructions, I set to work on an original pilot (my “30 Rock” and “Modern Family” specs were deemed worthless; Los Angeles is swimming in them). I raced through multiple drafts of an hourlong drama about the literary world, inspired by my wife’s publishing career.
My final deadline coincided with an interview for a university job in a beautiful but remote part of the country. The crossroads couldn’t have been starker. If “Smash” happened, I could support my family, remain in New York and continue writing plays. If I took a job in academia, my family would survive, but my theatrical aspirations would suffer. For three long days, I stumbled through interviews and classroom visits, scribbling my TV spec during breaks. I kept writing on the flight home, and finished the draft in Brooklyn at 5 the next morning.
My manager sent it to DreamWorks, along with my play “Maria/Stuart,” and I waited out the next few weeks. If I had to become an academic, I would accept it with grace. We could rent a house, with a dishwasher. I’d take up hiking and yoga.
In the way of Hollywood, I never heard much about the pilot I’d toiled over. But it didn’t matter, because I got the “Smash” job. My life changed dramatically, and hardly changed at all.
One of the greatest perks of the job is that I get to keep my theater career alive, possibly even enhance it. Writing on staff requires intense focus, but since joining the show I’ve managed to open a play (“Civilization”) with the off-off-Broadway company Clubbed Thumb, and I’m writing a new piece in a lab with a Brooklyn-based company, the Civilians.
Even aside from “Smash’s” setting and subject matter, the process has been surprisingly similar to theater. Playwriting has, in fact, prepared me for TV far more than I thought it would. The structural puzzles required of serialized TV writing resemble the formalist games of Italo Calvino and the Oulipo writers; I learned long ago to never get attached to my darlings; and, accustomed to working in tiny spaces with tiny budgets, I view physical constraints as a creative challenge.
One marked difference between theater and TV is the writer’s relationship with the actors — aside from occasional chitchat, there isn’t one. Or, more specifically, official communication is handled through rigid protocols, with a director or show runner providing the conduit between the parties. While this is a marked contrast with the theater, where writers and actors converse all day in rehearsal and then afterward at the bar, it makes sense — in an operation this size the potential for disastrous miscommunication is enormous.
I’m not the only young playwright discovering creative fulfillment in TV: The most successful of our ranks, Liz Meriwether, recently created the Fox hit “The New Girl.” My peers Itamar Moses (“The Four of Us”), Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) and Rachel Axler (“Smudge”) have all taken TV staff jobs recently, and two notable playwrights, Jacquelyn Reingold and Jerome Hairston, are among the nine writers on “Smash.” Sheila Callaghan in particular has been a pioneer for unconventional playwrights in Hollywood, first as a writer for Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” then a feature writer (“I Dream of Jeannie,” the upcoming Steven Shainberg project “The Nakeds”) and the creator of “Over/Under,” a pilot recently shot by USA and Fox Television Studios.
“I was surprised by how much they trusted me, and my vision, but I was also surprised by how comfortable I was being in charge,” Callaghan told me of her pilot experience. “I expected executive producing to be terrifying, but in many respects it was like being a playwright, exercising control over creative decisions, but on a much larger scale — choosing stuff like costumes, casting, locations.”
This is not to say that the adjustment has been wholly effortless. While playwriting is more collaborative than most playwrights admit (producers, directors, designers and actors always substantially inform a new work), even a friendly TV writers’ room can be a splash of cold water for a playwright. My own first experience pitching an episode was a harrowing comedy of errors, saved only by the handholding of “Smash” executive producer David Marshall Grant (also a playwright).
The fixed hierarchies of TV writing are also entirely new, though these can be as bracing as they are intimidating. As playwright and “Boardwalk Empire” scribe Moses put it, “One of the great things about [TV is] simply the fact of having a boss, hours, an office I had to go to every day, externally imposed deadlines — all the things that, as a playwright, you generally have to invent for yourself. There’s something to be said for TV as a nice source —money aside — of perspective and balance.”
“Playwrights have years of experience developing characters through dialogue, which gives you a real advantage in TV,” said Dan Halsted of Manage-ment. A longtime producer, Halsted has more recently become the go-to manager for “downtown” playwrights like Callaghan and myself (among countless others). “What defines a playwright as being successful in TV is a combination of having an individual voice with the ability to mimic a show runner’s writing. It’s a rare quality, and something that distinguishes successful TV writers.”
If the theater has taught me anything, it’s to avoid overconfidence. No matter what happens next, I’ll always remember that, one year ago, I was waiting in line to apply for Medicaid, and one month ago I was in another line, at “Smash’s” red carpet premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This week, the show premiered to good reviews (The Times’ Mary McNamara called it a “triumph”) and good ratings.
I know this isn’t a safe business. But I got to see and hear my words brought to life by “Smash’s” amazing cast and crew — and that’s something no one can ever take away.