Why So Many Writers Now Move Between TV and Theater

Working in multiple mediums increasingly allows creative freedom, prestige, and financial gain.

Aaron Sorkin is reportedly preparing to do his play A Few Good Men, live on NBC. Larry David is curbing his TV enthusiasm and is in rehearsals for his first Broadway show. Tina Fey honed her skills on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, but is now creating a stage musical. The director of Birdman is working on his first American TV series—and has hired a room full of playwrights. Never have writers moved between television and the stage so fluidly. The reasons? For hungry playwrights, TV presents financial offers difficult to refuse, and the medium grows more prestigious and creative every year. And for TV writers used to the difficulties of collaborating on a script, the theater offers them a chance to have the final say on their own words.

The list of those going back and forth between mediums is long and growing. Ken Levine (Cheers, M*A*S*H) just had a run of his play A or B at the Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake. Joel Fields, an executive producer of The Americans, co-wrote the revival of Can Can for the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Sarah Treem, one of the creators of The Affair on Showtime, wrote the recent off-Broadway play When We Were Young and Unafraid. Warren Leight, a producer on Law and Order, writes plays on hiatus. Scott Carter, executive producer of Bill Maher’s talkfest on HBO, wrote Discord: The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy, which was a hit at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Of these examples, Carter’s transition makes immediate sense. In prime time, he sits—and pits—political and theological opponents across a table from each other. So a leap to the sparring of three of the most famous talking heads in history is not so difficult to imagine. "I have been playing with this concept since I was 24 and wrote a play about the young Hitler and Freud getting together," said Carter. "And I have always found that each different discipline I have dabbled in helps me with all the others. It’s like the way farmers keep their fields fertile by rotating the crops."

That notion has been seconded by other writers. "One nice thing about theater is it tends to be driven by character and not plot," Joel Fields said. "That has certainly trickled down and informed everyone’s approach on The Americans." Treem has also said: "Everything I know about writing TV I learned from writing plays, and everything I learned about writing plays I learned from TV."

This ricochet relationship has not always been thus—at least not since the first Golden Age of Television, in which dramatic works like Requiem for a Heavyweight and The Miracle Worker were penned for the small screen by theatrical scribes like Horton Foote, Frank Gilroy, and Abby Mann. Even the classic comedy series, Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, had a writing staff filled with those who also wrote for the stage: Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart.

Then came The Sopranos and shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, which were largely credited with ushering in television's second Golden Age. With the stigma of working in TV fading (as The New York Times noted in 2010) playwrights had fewer reservations about making the move to the weekly format. Let’s face it, the quality of what we see on television now is as high as in any art form.

And there's the money thing. Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, the most important playwright of the day, once told me he could not possibly live on his plays alone, no matter how many times they’re reprised. The prolific Theresa Rebeck has gone back and forth between stage and television, most recently with Smash on NBC and two subsequent plays on and off-Broadway.

Rebeck said there's no way she could support herself or her family on a theater career. And yet, it is the place where there’s more room for what she calls "the singular voice of the writer. There’s a strength and purity to the voice of the play, which is harder to achieve in television, where there is a lot of group-think and politics. [In television,] the goal is not telling stories, it’s making money." For the hungry writer, apparently, as well as for the bloated networks.

Playwrights may go to TV for the big bucks, but they bring important qualities honed on stage: the strong sense of character development mentioned by Joel Fields and a way with dialogue. At the same time, those in the theater world are often pleasantly surprised with TV writers. Wendy Kout, who created the series Anything But Love, worked on other shows, and is now writing plays (Naked in Encino, which just had its world premiere in Rochester) said, "Our medium was a great training ground for writing for stage. We learned discipline, how to deal with endless notes, we sweated deadlines, we also developed confidence and earned residuals, which makes it possible to be playwrights." David Lee, one of the creators of Frasier and co-writer of Can Can, added "On sitcoms, remember, we basically do a little play in front of a live audience every week."

Still, there are compromises on both sides of the writing equation: "With a play, it’s your sole voice, while TV is more collaborative, which can be a blessing and a curse," said Geoffrey Nauffts, who wrote the acclaimed play Next Fall and is now an executive story editor on Nashville. "Writing can be an isolating experience so being in a room with others, spit-balling ideas back and forth is a welcome relief."

TV writers are well aware that there is still some prejudice against, or at least skepticism of, their stage skills, especially among New York critics. Check out reviews of shows like Under My Skin, which had a successful run at the Pasadena Playhouse before appearing off-Broadway this year. Penned by TV writers Prudence Fraser and Robert Sternin, it was quickly brushed off as sitcomese. The New York Times review of Joel Field’s off-Broadway play, How I Fell In Love, opened with a rather snarky mention of "the latest example of the genre that might be called 'successful TV writer tries the New York stage.'" TV writers admit they have to work hard not to fall back on comedic tricks of the trade, and there are times when they yearn for their more familiar medium: "In television, if I go down for a rewrite, that consists of 22 minutes of content and I have seven or eight highly trained comedy writers with me," said Ken Levine. "In theater, it’s 90 minutes of material and it’s just me."

And so back to Aaron Sorkin, who has arguably had the most success in the writing trifecta of film, theater, and television. After A Few Good Men, which played on Broadway when he was in his 20s, he moved onto screens both large and small. He returned to Broadway for The Farnsworth Invention—ironically about the discovery of television. Sorkin wouldn’t rule out doing theater again and told an audience at a recent film festival that he learned his craft as a concession stand salesman in a Broadway house. "I would stand in the lobby every night and hear great dialogue," he said. "It’s also why I still don’t write with a visual bone in my body."