Lights, Camera, Talk!

As playwrights gravitate to TV from theater, the spoken word takes on a whole new role

October 08, 2006|By Sun Television Critic

Harlem playwright Kia Corthron remembers being told by her University of Maryland, College Park theater professor that serious dramatists would "never write for television."

Nonetheless, viewers of HBO's The Wire next month will be able to see an episode of the Peabody Award-winning series scripted by the Cumberland native; and it includes some of the most powerful and touching moments of the series' standout season.

Good thing she resisted her instructor's advice

"It's different than it used to be - the feeling about TV," says the playwright whose work has been produced in theaters from London to New York.

"Whereas there was a time when immediately people were said to have sold out if they wrote for TV, the issue is more complicated now because television is changing. There are more playwrights working in television, and I'm one of them. I've been fortunate that all the work I've done is work that I feel good about."

Corthron is part of a major shift in the television industry as playwrights, who once might have balked at writing for the small screen, are flooding the studios. Although the movement has been quietly building momentum for several years, a critical mass has been achieved this fall. The result is a bumper crop of new and returning dramas distinguished by richly-textured characters and multilayered dialogue.

After years of offering an overload of crude reality fare - a genre in which writers are often excluded from the creative process - network executives have stacked their fall lineups with quality dramas scripted and produced by some of the most distinguished writers in American theater.

From newcomers such as NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and ABC's Brothers & Sisters, to returning shows such as CBS' The Unit and NBC's Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the genre has been so enriched by the infusion of playwriting talent that some analysts are calling this a "new golden age" for TV drama.

"Something has flipped: People used to be embarrassed to write for TV, but not any more," says Warren Leight, the Tony Award-winning executive producer of Criminal Intent.

"Television has become a place where the writer has respect and power ... and you can see the results of that shift on the screen."

There is an award-winning group of playwrights now working as writers and executive producers - a combination that guarantees authorship even in the highly collaborative world of television production. In addition to Leight, they include Jon Robin Baitz (creator of ABC's Brothers & Sisters), David Mamet (CBS' The Unit), Aaron Sorkin (NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and Eric Overmyer (CBS' Close to Home).

Leight earned a Tony in 1999 for his play Side Man. Baitz, whose last three plays were produced at the prestigious Lincoln Center Theatre in New York, was a Pulitzer finalist and Drama Desk

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Award winner for A Fair Country. Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his play Glengarry Glen Ross. And Sorkin wrote the hit Broadway play A Few Good Men in 1989 before coming to Hollywood to write the feature film screenplay.

Overmyer, meanwhile, whose play On the Verge was first produced by Baltimore's Center Stage in 1985, will return to his roots next spring with a new play commissioned by Washington's Arena Stage. The former producer and writer for NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO's The Wire, taught play- and screenwriting for years at the Yale School of Drama.

The list of top playwrights working in television this year also includes Corthron (Breath, Boom) as well as Craig Wright (Orange Flower Water) and David Marshall Grant (Snakebit), both of whom serve as writers and producers on Brothers & Sisters.

Diana Son (Stop Kiss), Gina Gionfriddo (After Ashley), Jacqueline Reingold (String Fever) and Marsha Norman (Night Mother) are staff writers at Law & Order: Criminal Intent, while David Rambo (God's Man in Texas) writes for the CBS drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, network television's highest-rated series last week. Rolin Jones, a Pulitzer finalist in 1997 for The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, is on the staff of the Showtime drama Weeds.

"I don't think there is any doubt that there are more playwrights working in network television," said Baitz, whose Brothers and Sisters attracts about 13 million weekly viewers and is the highest-rated new drama of the fall.

"And if one is looking for an explanation, I don't think you can underestimate the profound effect on the networks of the great writing in HBO series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Six Feet Under. ... If the networks are to be something other than a vast and mildly charged wasteland, if they are to compete with intelligence and vibrance for the demographic that watches television, then it makes so much sense that the executives who run networks and studios would turn to the theater."

(West) Winging it

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