Why are playwrights turning to television writing – and should the two mediums feud?

Austin Abrams as Ethan Daley (center) with a set of dancers in Euphoria. (HBO)

After a restless-filled second season, HBO’s Euphoria kicked off its penultimate episode last Sunday with an old-fashioned respite: a deluxe orchestral overture held on screen for a full minute before launching into the play. Lexie Howard’s (Maude Apatow) highly anticipated autobiographical schoolbook. , as if viewers at home were taking their seats and putting away their programs.

Ending the season with the most lavish high school production in recent television history brought enough treats for a theater fan to replace any interpersonal drama that unfolds between the characters – the extremely detailed sets, the chaos in the backstage, this locker room scene, and a revolution (a revolution!). Even the title of the penultimate episode, “The theater and its double”, comes from the French playwright Antonin Artaud, who – rightly, if you know the subject of the show – founded the theatrical movement “Théâtre de cruelty”.

These dramatic influences come as no surprise if you’ve been following Euphoria consultant and co-producer Jeremy O. Harris on Twitter. Earlier this month, Harris – a Yale-trained playwright who merged the Broadway success of his hit slave play with high-profile film and TV gigs — took to Twitter to comment on the perceived tendency of big-budget writers to hire TV writers with theatrical training to, in his view, “elevate” their programs.

With this, Harris sparked a feud between television writers and playwrights, and for anyone remotely connected to either world, the heated debate resumed deadlines for several days. But for Canadian writers, an impassioned response came not in defense of either form, but more the fact that it is a conversation.

“It’s just not cool to say, ‘We’re better than you, we’re going to elevate the medium,'” says Andrea Scott, a Toronto-based television playwright and writer. “Corn [the reaction] showed that there was a bit of resentment. It’s not warranted because playwrights becoming TV writers aren’t new, not even close.”

Maude Apatow as Lexi Howard in Euphoria. (HBO)

Since Paddy Chayefsky’s work in the “golden age of television” in the 1950s, writers have jumped between the two forms. This line is particularly blurred in Canada, where a transition from theater to television is almost inevitable for most writers, whether for professional development, financial stability or both.

Moving into TV writing was definitely a good time for Scott, who just finished a writing deal on Murdoch Mysteries, a gig that got him through most of the pandemic when theaters closed. A regularly produced playwright for over a decade, Scott still completes plays like in his residency at the Tarragon Theater and creates new works – like Damage controlledwhich sold out in Halifax in February 2020. However, Scott felt the reality of a professional playwright’s life after three and a half years of hard work and an acclaimed production that earned him $1,500.

“It was sobering,” she said. “[TV writing] was a complete change in my life. That’s for sure.”

Why wouldn’t a playwright want to do what he loves but for more money and in a way that allows his work to be seen by a much wider audience?– Keavy Lynch, playwright and writer

“Theatrical commissions are woefully inadequate for the amount of work involved, and the reality is that you don’t start making money until the play has had a certain number of productions,” says the writer. . Napoli Rose. “I’ve only been writing for television for a few years. But I have to say that when I made the decision to take the plunge, a lot of my fellow playwrights were there happily with open arms to welcome me.”

Scott and Napoli are not alone by far. Even for young writers like Keavy Lynchcoordinator and screenwriter of programs such as Coroner and Pretty tough casesthe move from theater to TV had “a meaningful career ladder – I could make a living from day one, work in writers’ rooms and learn from other amazing writers”.

“Interestingly, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many more of my theater heroes working in television than I’ve ever worked in theater.”

Deborah Castrilli as Viola Desmond in Andrea Scott’s play Controlled Damage. (Stoo Metz/Neptune Theater)

“It obviously has an appeal,” says Hannah Moscovitch, one of the country’s most prolific contemporary playwrights who also has experience writing radio drama and opera. Moscovitch has written for television for the past nine years, penetrating even the largest American market.

“It’s a huge medium if you want your work to be seen very widely. Pay scales can be ridiculously high. And, when I started, it was a ‘golden age’ of television and everything at Suddenly, the storytelling was super complex, character-driven, and original, and I liked it aesthetically.”

But while it’s not a new concept for playwrights to get writing jobs on TV shows, it’s true that a recent crop of titles like Euphoria had distinctly theatrical elements, with some major dramatic credits to boast. Lynn Rating took his two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning flare for dialogue at the 2017 reboot of She must have it; Michaela Coel turned a play into his TV series Chewing gum then created I can destroy you; Phoebe Waller Bridge Flea bag was adapted from his solo show of the same name. The wildly animated third season of Succession wore its writers room full of playwrights proudly – ​​the plot clearly borrows from Greek tragedy and Shakespearean intrigue, and its dialogue-heavy style comes from exactly a playwright’s greatest strength.

“It’s not new. But I think a lot more established writers are writing for TV right now,” says Anusree Roya Dora Award-winning playwright with TV credits on Remedy, spoiler, Nursesand Transplant. Roy has just launched a writers’ room for a show in development – half of which are other playwrights.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the Fleabag show. (Joan Marcus/National Theater Live)

“When you bring a theater actor into the writers room, they understand the character. Theater writers understand character motivations; theater writers understand the kinds of conflicts created by characters wanting something they don’t. haven’t,” says Romeo Candido, who began his career in theater in Toronto before moving into television production, writing and now showrunning – his digital series Topline premieres on CBC this year. (Full disclosure: Candido is a former CBC Arts employee.)

Every playwright-turned-TV writer I’ve spoken with cites an understanding of character, dialogue, and theme as the edge of a playwright moving into new mediums. Conversely, the skill of a career television writer is structure, plot, visual storytelling, and the more methodical collaborative process of television production.

Of course, streaming networks have fundamentally changed the way viewers consume television – and, therefore, the way it’s written and created, opening up the possibility for writers from different backgrounds to embrace the qualities of theater as well as film, visual arts and literature in their work on television.

“I think it’s exciting that we’re talking about it more openly, questioning and questioning what we can do with the television format,” said Tabia Laua Toronto-based playwright and writer on the CBC and Netflix show Counterfeits. “It’s exciting to write in a time when everyone is always looking for something new.”

Lynch agrees, especially for young writers just starting out: “More and more playwrights are realizing that we’re making pretty amazing television these days, and why wouldn’t a playwright want to do what? love but for more money and in a way that allows their work to be seen by a much wider audience?”

Ins Choi, Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Grace Lynn Kung in the original play Kim’s Convenience. (Soulpepper)

Candido argues that theater “has always been a place where writers can thrive because you can write a screenplay, write a grant application, and find a stage. There are no barriers to entry other than your own confidence”. Yet it’s only recently that these barriers in theatre, and even more so in television, have opened up to stories that actually resemble the Canadian population, leading to some of the country’s biggest television hits that come from the scene – like Trey Anthony’s Da Kink in my hairIns Choi’s Kim’s Convenienceand Bilal Baig Kind of (including the second season was officially announced last week).

“The reason I turned to television, in all honesty, was because I wanted to see diverse stories on screen and I wanted to see people of color speaking their own language and telling their own stories.” , explains Roy. “What I’m really looking forward to now is producing my own show where I can authentically give voice to my own people. So when it’s my time, I can put forward all the things that I ‘ve learned, from any medium, in my toolbox.”

“There’s absolutely no reason for there to be a divide between feature writers and TV writers and playwrights,” Scott says. “It’s still the same continuum. It’s very hard work. But we all want to do the same thing, which is to tell stories that unite us all.”

About the author