One of our Spalding MFA playwrights, Larry Brenner, pretty much just won the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest. So that got me to thinking that I know several playwrights who have written for film and TV, and they’re pretty much just awesome. Given that my circle of friends and colleagues provides a relatively small sample size, still, it’s something to consider.
No need to recount the long and storied history of playwrights tackling Hollywood — the good, the bad, the Barton Finks. It’s not a new thing. Since time immemorial….. But, with the supernova of TV and internet material exploding past film at warp factor nine, it seems playwrights with chops are in a better position than ever.
Theater is similar to television in terms of scope, and is far more character-driven than Hollywood feature fare. Good playwrights excel at giving us the inner lives of characters. They provide a level of detail and nuance that movies don’t often have time to expose. Theater and TV build heat with the escalating compression of tightly enclosed scenarios, and are more dialogue-dependent than features; meaning, in my mind, playwrights are often fantastic wordsmiths.
At USC and Spalding I’ve had the privilege to teach many a playwright the screen craft. They typically struggle less than those coming from prose. The adjustment comes in learning to show, not tell: writing visually and relying on images and action as opposed to flowing, voluminous dialogue. Structure is often a problem, too, and most playwrights I’ve worked with — like novelists — don’t tend to love the outline so much, preferring to discover the story by writing it. That’s not often a successful process in screenwriting, and in TV, it’s mostly forbidden.
But those things can be learned, and quickly if you’re good. The emotional connection to character, the ear for dialogue, the understanding of escalating conflict, and the exploration of difficult scenarios in their work, make talented playwrights a commodity in Hollywood — especially in TV. For young people considering a career in showbiz writing, I’d recommend spending your undergraduate years in the theater — more fun than any fraternity ever was — and learn to write a fantastic play. Then do it again. Rinse and repeat. Become an observer. An explorer. A dramatic scientist. Become a talented writer, first, in that ancient art form, then hopefully you can learn to become a craftsperson in our newest.
Obviously, no path is easy. Writing one or a bunch of good plays will not automatically make you the next Mamet or Sorkin. All paths are difficult and require talent, excruciating labor, and placing oneself in the right position to be lucky. A successful playwriting background might just give you a leg up, is all.