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Posts Tagged ‘writer’

How a Nice Playwright Like Me Starting Plotting Murder

I am often asked to speak to early career playwrights who, this day and age, accept as fact that they will have to write for TV or film in order to make a living. It’s not even sad but definitely true.

Jessica Hecht and Sandra Oh in "Stop Kiss" at The Public Theater Credit: Photo © Michal Daniel, 1999

The year that my play Stop Kiss premiered at The Public Theater, extending three times, making it the longest-running straight play produced at the theater since A Chorus Line – I made less money than I do in one month as a writer/producer for series television. And when the play finally closed –my income stream ended. I had been working as a freelance copywriter prior to the play’s opening. The day the reviews for Stop Kiss came out, prompting my phone to clatter off the hook with friends telling me “You’re the toast of the town!” (not to date myself but my phone looked like this), I was hurriedly writing the last of the Star Trek trivia questions that were due for the SyFy Channel website – a job that I had fallen behind on during rehearsals. Wanting to take advantage of the steam misting off of Stop Kiss’ successful run, I went to L.A. for a week and packed in as many meet and greets with studio and network execs as I could. These kinds of meetings can feel pointless at the time, the writer’s equivalent of kissing hands and shaking babies, but you never know what they will eventually lead to. For me, it was an offer to work on the recently picked-up series “The West Wing”. My husband and I sublet our one-bedroom East Village walk-up and rented a small house in West Hollywood so I could see what it was like to be part of a writing staff. It was, shall we say, a unique experience, not only for me as a neophyte TV writer but for the more seasoned writers on staff, many of whom were playwrights too.

At the end of “The West Wing”’s first season, I decided to return to the East Village. To best convey my rationale, I offer this analogy from real life – that year in L.A. my husband and I attempted to get pregnant, but to no avail. The minute we returned to New York City, our first son was conceived. For the first two years of my son’s life, we continued to live in that one-bedroom walk-up while I wrote two pilots for CBS and adapted Stop Kiss into a screenplay.

One day, when I was on the 1 train headed for the theater, I ran into Warren Leight, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Sideman. Warren was a friend of Eric Bogosian, who was married to Jo Bonney, the director of Stop Kiss. We’d met at a dinner party. Warren told me that he had taken his first series TV job, and was writing for the latest “Law & Order” spinoff, “Criminal Intent” and that they might be hiring a new writer. Maybe I’d be interested? I said “Sure,” thinking that a cop show was about as far out of my range of abilities as platform diving. But a couple weeks later, I got a call from Warren that he’d given Stop Kiss to showrunner Rene Balcer to read, and that Rene wanted to meet me. My agent sent me a stack of scripts to read. I read a dozen of them within a couple days.

There was something powerfully addictive about these stories, as viewers of CI and all the shows in the L&O franchise well know. But even more than the mothership and SVU, I found that the CI scripts stayed so far ahead of you, misdirecting you with such sharpness and outrunning you with such agility, that I couldn’t wait to turn the page. Suspense was not my strong suit and I wondered how I could ever write for this show. But my meeting with Rene went well and weeks later I was offered the job. I was going to be able to live in the city of my choice while working on a broadcast network TV series with a foreseeable future. I would later realize I had no idea how good I had it.
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Diana SonDiana Son is the author of the plays Stop Kiss, Satellites, BOY, R.A.W. (‘Cause I’m a Woman) and others. She has also been a writer/producer for TV series including “Blue Bloods,” “Southland,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and “The West Wing” in addition to writing pilots and the occasional feature film. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 3 sons.

Crossing Town on the M86

I took the M86 bus west early this morning. A trip made seven days a week for months while writing Guiding Light. We started our work day at the Starbucks on 86th and Columbus, armed with the shiny, pink flowered schoolgirl notebooks we’d buy from Jay at the deli across the street. I still have that stack of notebooks under my couch, covered with dust and dog hair. I haven’t bought a notebook since.

Riding through the park I thought about two things as I watched the first dog run of the day. Two worries. The task of writing this blog and the fact that I was heading to meet a young person at the above-mentioned Starbucks who wanted my advice about television writing. I’ve never written a blog before. I HAVE spoken to young people about daytime television, many times over the years. They generally find my story amusing – the fact that my waitress job led me to my 17 year gig at Guiding Light. They’re impressed by the jobs I held there (lots) my Emmy (one) and the fact that I loved my work so much. But they wanted solid tips… advice. The truth is, some wonderful people gave me a chance. I showed up, accepted assignments, made my deadlines and was so damn happy they let me stay. When it ended, I staggered out of the studio, back into my “real” life, did my best to keep walking and talking, and finally got an office job just as the money ran out! What am I going to say to Nicole? Why didn’t she get in touch with one of the writers still writing TV? They could talk to her about sustaining and surviving in this business. I don’t even know Nicole very well. I’m not a television writer anymore. The flowered notebooks are under the couch. What do I say? Okay, I’ll buy the coffee. It’s the least I can do after wasting her time this morning.

Nicole arrives. I buy the coffee. She’s looking for answers. I ask her questions. What is she writing? What does she watch on TV? What did she study in school? Premed, then Columbia film school. Wow. I’m surprised by the stuff she’s working on and interested in her take on daytime. A friend calls while we’re there. When I explain our meeting she says “talk her out of it! Tell her to run back to med school.” I can’t. I am more practical than I used to be – keep your day job, money stress is paralyzing. But if you want to write, do it. Say you’re a writer. Don’t be shy. Take a class, work on a web series….I can’t talk her up to my EP and try to get her a sample deal. But I won’t tell her not to go for it. This could be a great time for young writers. Shows are tumbling left and right but still, exciting things are happening. Out of the ashes… I am dazzled by the people who are pouring their hearts into making web series. We still want to tell stories. The audience still craves them. We’ll have to tell them differently, we won’t make that 80’s and 90’s money… but stories will be told. And something tells me that Nicole – or Danielle or Brett or the Rebeccas or Nidhi or Michelle or David or Kimberly – one or two or all of them – could be the Irna, Agnes, Bill or Claire of the future. Why not?

Nicole and I finish our talk and go our separate ways. I hope I encouraged her without giving her false hope. I hope she has a story to tell. I’m feeling lighthearted and hopeful myself, with a couple of stories rattling around in my head. I buy myself a pink flowered notebook from the deli before I get on the 86 going east.
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Jill Lorie Hurst was raised in Detroit in the 60’s and 70’s, the daughter of a mother who watched CBS soaps and a father who loved New York. She studied theater and English at Wayne State University. She moved to New York in 1982 and started a ten year gig as a waitress in the garment district before finding a home at Guiding Light. Jill spent 17 years with the CBS soap as a receptionist, a writer’s assistant, a script writer, script editor, breakdown writer, story producer and finally, part of the co-head writing team until the show went off the air in September 2009. When CBS deactivated her ID, Jill spent 15 months or so wandering the city streets before settling into an assistant job in Manhattan. She has recently joined the writing team of Venice the series and is working on her first play. Jill lives in New York City with her husband Tony, dog Jocko and cat Molly.