Playwrights Are Finding ‘Television Money’ Helps Pay the Bills – The New York Times

In a bare fluorescent-lit room at The New School in Greenwich Village earlier this month, three writers peered into their laptops as moans wafted in from the acting class next door.

They took turns reading one another’s television scripts, talking about how to pace their episodes, the kinds of visual cues they could offer the camera, and whether theirs was going to be the kind of show where the audience would see characters naked.

“Well, HBO is showing full frontal now,” offered one student, Jeremy O’Brian, before saying, yes, his characters would probably be nude.

O’Brian and his classmates are not aspiring TV writers, at least not primarily: They are getting their Masters in Fine Arts in playwriting. But the New School’s drama program, like those at a number of schools, has been making more and more space for a medium once considered too lowbrow for M.F.A. holders.

With the proliferation of prestige TV, show developers have been seeking out playwrights for their ability to compose sophisticated dialogue, plot turns and character. Everyone from recent M.F.A. grads to some of America’s most decorated playwrights have been snapping up jobs on shows, and now the schools that train them are seeing fresh opportunities as well.

At the top schools, administrators are fielding recruiting calls from television producers and managers, adding TV classes, and competing with high-paying shows for writers they can hire as adjuncts. While these programs say they don’t want their students to leave theater altogether, TV offers them a way to make a real living, the kind of financial stability that has ramifications not just for individual artists, but for the programs themselves.

“Everybody wants to write for TV,” O’Brian said of his contemporaries, “because we want to live.”

Ming Peiffer wrote the first draft of her play “Usual Girls” in 2016 while she was a student at Columbia University’s M.F.A. program, and it was staged for the first time in 2018, by the Roundabout Theater Company in New York City.

But in the two intervening years, she wrote for two Netflix shows, “Gypsy” and “Locke & Key,” sold a show of her own and got a movie deal. The piece of writing her agents sent around as her sample was her play.

“I’m actually teaching at Columbia now and my agents and managers have been asking me, ‘Hey, are there any exciting playwrights we should be looking at for TV?’” she said.

Rolin Jones, a Yale-trained playwright who was a producer on “Friday Night Lights” and a showrunner on HBO’s upcoming series “Perry Mason,” says he scouts at some of those programs, too. Periodically, he said, he checks in with schools like Yale to ask if there are exciting students or recent graduates he should know about.

“I call up and say, what do you got?” he said. “Who’s cool? What’s interesting to read?”


Credit…Joe Carrotta for The New York Times

Credit…Joe Carrotta for The New York Times

David Lindsay-Abaire, the co-director of the playwriting program at Juilliard, said the school was toying with offering some TV instruction for the first time, maybe in the form of a three-hour class that would focus on pilots. Perhaps, he said, it will happen when the newly announced co-director comes on board: The noted playwright Tanya Barfield, who was hired for her theater work and her long relationship with Juilliard, and also because she has written a lot for TV.

Some programs, like the New School, have had television classes for years, but have been experimenting with adding more. Last year, the New School offered an additional class focused on how to work in a writers’ room — a class that did not continue because the playwright spearheading it left so she could write for more TV.

At Columbia, students can now take upper level classes like TV Revision, because when David Henry Hwang took over the program five years ago, he said one of his goals was to expand the TV offerings available to playwrights.

After all, even some of the most successful playwrights out there were writing for television. Hwang is one of them: a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Tony Award winner for “M. Butterfly,” he spent four years as a writer for Showtime’s “The Affair.”

“The reality is it’s kind of an anomalous moment for playwrights, in that it’s actually a monetizable skill,” he said.

Even the lowest paid person in a writers’ room is required to make good money: At least $4,274 per week for about half a year’s work, according to the Writers Guild of America East. Most jobs require a minimum of at least $6,967.

By contrast, Adam Rapp — whose play “The Sound Inside” is playing on Broadway starring Mary-Louise Parker — remembered a good year he had in theater about 10 years ago: “I’d written and directed five of my own plays, and at the end of that year, I’d made $53,000 and could barely stay in New York.” Today, Rapp is an executive producer on a TV adaptation of the Philipp Meyer novel “American Rust,” and even Broadway money, he said, is “not better than television money.”

With more shows being made, there are more writing jobs to go around. Members of the Writers Guild East and Writers Guild West saw nearly a 50 percent increase in the number of writers who worked in TV from 1997 to 2017, growing from about 4,000 working members to almost 6,000.

Despite the increase, that number remains small as far as industries go, making it a difficult world to break into, whether one has an M.F.A. or not. Indeed, for MFA graduates, those challenges are often compounded by debt from their training. While some programs like the ones at Yale and Juilliard are free, the annual tuition for first- and second-year M.F.A. students at Columbia is $62,912.

There is risk in inviting television into drama programs, some administrators said. Talented playwrights are something of an endangered species, and as much as TV allows them to stay in the game, does it also tempt them away?

The playwriting program at University of California, San Diego, has offered TV instruction for years. But Allan Havis, who runs the program, said he still feels somewhat conflicted about it. “It’s hard to come back to theater once you bite the apple,” he said.

Barfield, the new co-director of Juilliard’s program, said that one way to look at it is that Hollywood is subsidizing theater by keeping writers employed. But, she said, “The downside of all the playwrights going to TV are all the ones who don’t go back to the theater, because the money in TV is just so good. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, I don’t need that money.’”

Peiffer said that while she has been thrillingly busy since graduation, she hasn’t written another play. Ideally, she said she’d like to take a year or two off from TV and film to focus on theater, but she’s afraid that the opportunities available now won’t be waiting when she wants to come back.

“I can’t write a play on the weekends — if I’m writing a play, I need to be writing a play,” she said. “I’m grappling with how to do it and maintain a living.”