Why Playwrights Rule TV and Film

(photo credit: Flickr/ JSmith Photo)

by Greg DePaul (@GregDePaul)

If you want to make a living as a screenwriter, stop what you’re doing … and start writing plays!

Sounds silly, huh? After all, why would you sidetrack your screenwriting career by writing for the stage when it pays, basically, nothing? And when most Americans go to a play about every… well… never.

Answer: Because it will make you a better screenwriter. And Hollywood knows it.

We are living in the Golden Age of Dramatic Writing. Writers with a strong grasp of drama are spreading their wings over a variety of media. It’s no longer that rare bird – a Mamet here, a Sorkin there — who writes for both stage and screen.

Now there’s loads of playwrights kicking ass in TV and film: Theresa Rebeck (Smash), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Eric Overmeyer (Treme), Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York), Jill Soloway (Transparent), Tony Kushner (Lincoln), Gina Gionfriddo (Law & Order: True Crime), Jon Robin Baitz (Brothers and Sisters), Adam Rapp (Flesh and Bone), Sheila Callaghan (Shameless), Tom Stoppard (lots and lots of movies), and so on…

And while most cinefiles and film students won’t recognize those names with regard to theater, drama school geeks and Off-Broadway theater-goers know them well. So do Hollywood agents and producers, because they know that dramatic writing is dramatic writing. If you can tell a story using characters, scenes, dialogue and action, you can write a play, a screenplay, or a teleplay. As I’ve learned by writing for both stage (my plays have been produced in NY & LA) and screen (Bride Wars, Saving Silverman), what makes playwriting similar to screenwriting vastly outweighs what makes it different.

But when I visit film schools, most students – and sadly, most faculty — seem to think playwriting bears little relation to screenwriting. Thus, the screenwriting students never take a playwriting class, and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, the film faculty are often caught up in the cult of the seventies, with its adoration of the director-as-author. There’s little room in that cosmology for any acknowledgement of the writer at all, let alone a nuanced understanding of what dramatic writing really is and how to cultivate it in their student-writers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As I said before – and as I discuss in my life-altering new book Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter — this is the Golden Age of Dramatic Writing. And it’s changing how writers create for theater, film, TV, and online.

Some examples of this Golden Age in practice:

I run a writing workshop in Manhattan called Stillwater, where working dramatic writers come together to show and critique plays, screenplays, TV pilots, webisode scripts, comedy sketches… you name it. I’m also a member of a production company in New York City that produces plays and films using the same writers for both. It’s called The Collective-NY, and it was co-founded by Amy Schumer and Kevin Kane, among others.

The same principles of writing begets writing are encouraged at the prestigious Sundance Institute and the Austin Film Festival (where I’ve served on various panels). Both of these institutions have made serious investments in theater, creating playwriting workshops, contests, and readings to complement their film and TV programming. These venerable entertainment industry institutions know — it’s all dramatic writing.

So, my aspiring screenwriter friends, I say this – if you want to improve your craft, consider writing plays.

And to those who teach screenwriting, get hip to what’s happening on the stage. Study plays, see theater, get to know active playwrights. After all, they may be writing the next movie, series, or webisode you watch.

~

btfScreenwriter Greg DePaul wrote Bride Wars and Saving Silverman. He has sold screenplays to Miramax, New Line, Sony, MGM, Disney, and Village Roadshow studios. He teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, and his book Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter comes out this summer on Focal Press. You can learn more about him and his book at gregdepaul.com and bringthefunny.com. And Yes, he is available for script consultations.

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