8 Ways Television Is Influencing Theater
Anne Washburn started watching The Simpsons and writing plays at about the same time, and didn’t think they had anything to do with one another until she wrote Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play, running at Playwrights Horizons until October 20.
Her play imagines how survivors of an apocalypse would remember episodes of The Simpsons immediately after the end of civilization, then seven years later and seventy-five years after that. It illustrates what might be the most obvious of the eight ways, I am suggesting, that television is influencing theater.
1. Shared Cultural Experience
“I envy the experience of the Greeks or the Elizabethans,” Washburn says. “That whole audience came in knowing the stories. They could focus on the characters.”
Television comes closest to providing a similar shared culture. “Movies do too,” Washburn says, “but movies are gone so quickly. Because TV shows are around so consistently for so long, they’re more finely woven into our lives.”
“The Simpsons has always been a part of some people’s lives. Everybody knows who Homer and Marge are,” adds Washburn.
Avenue Q has had a long successful life by tapping into the affection for Sesame Street; imagining what Muppet-like characters (or, in truth, Muppet-watching children) would be like when they become adults.
“The characters on television shows are so much a part of the culture that people want to write about them,” says Washburn. Even plays or musicals that don’t revolve around a TV show can make allusions to them.
2. Direct Source Material
Sometimes a TV show is directly adapted for the stage. A recent example of this is The Addams Family. But while every movie studio has a department whose job it is to adapt its films for the stage, there is no such job in the TV networks.
“There’s a huge influx of movies being made into musicals, but not too many TV shows made into plays,” says Mark Subias, head of the theater department at United Talent Agency.
It is harder to get the rights to a television show, and easier to make money from one without adapting it for another medium. “Once it goes into syndication, there is so much money to be made, there’s not much motivation,” says Subias.
Still, it may be surprising to discover the television origins of some well-established works of theater. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, now on Broadway, debuted in 1958 as a musical written specifically for television. Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, currently in a revival on Broadway, began life on March 1, 1953 as an hour-long TV play starring Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint. Foote turned his teleplay into a stage play later that year, and it briefly ran on Broadway sixty years ago.
“Recently Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, and Happy Days have been turned into musicals,” says Rebecca Pallor, a curator at the Paley Center for Media. “Although the producers of Happy Days (and no doubt the others) had aspirations of bringing the shows to Broadway, it has not yet happened. I seem to recall an attempt to turn I Dream of Jeannie into a musical as well.”
Even if few television shows currently serve as direct source material for stage shows, it seems clear that this is for reasons other than their popularity. There would surely be an audience for such adaptations, and a nation of TV-watchers can’t help but exert an influence on what does get presented on stage.
3. Forms And Approaches
“We live in a world now where you could argue that long, series television is the state of the art of storytelling,” director Sam Mendes said recently in explaining why he had turned Shakespeare’s history plays into a four-part TV series renamed The Hollow Crown, currently being shown on PBS.
“People have been doing interesting things with forms on television—The Wire, obviously,” says Washburn. “The way people are thinking about the arc of characters is really exciting.”
In my previous HowlRound article, Too Much Theater? The New Marathons, I said that the recent experiments in epic works of theater such as Mike Daisey’s All The Faces of the Moon—29 different monologues over 29 nights—could be influenced by television. As Daisey told me “the work is the size, in time, of a season or more of a TV show. Which allows new ways to listen.”
David Van Asselt, artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, also used television as a reference point when talking to me about his brainchild, The Hill Town Plays—five of Lucy Thurber’s plays presented simultaneously in five different theaters in the Village. “With Lucy’s plays, you could see a play a week. We’re not asking any more of an audience than a TV show.”
These theater artists are far from the only ones who see television’s effect on the forms that theater (and not just “epic theater”) is using.
“It’s easy to see the influence television has had on me as a dramatist,” says Jay Stull, a director, literary manager, and the author of The Capables, a play recently produced Off-Broadway about a family of hoarders caught up in the world of reality television. But Stull doesn’t just mean using television as a subject.
“Television has conditioned me to prefer shorter scenes, quicker cuts, and fractured unities, but also to prefer longer stories generally.”
“I’m sure that watching TV changed how I think about dramatic rhythm,” says Washburn.
“I wonder whether characters like Walter White or Tony Soprano—the preponderance of anti-heroes on cable—make theater audiences more accepting of villains,” says playwright Sam Marks. “There are very few characters in my plays who are just ‘good.’”
Similarly, Matthew Maher, who plays Homer Simpson (among other characters) in Mr. Burns, sees a golden age of playwriting develop in just the past few years, because “the audiences of today have been trained to appreciate and develop an appetite for original thinking…and this training has come largely by way of the good shows on TV”—shows, not incidentally, by TV writers like Aaron Sorkin and Elizabeth Meriweather, the creator of the sitcom New Girl, who had their start as playwrights.
Itamar Moses has a mixed view. “I think it’s had some bad influence, in that you’ll see plays that are basically TV shows on stage, with tons of short, naturalistic scenes, in tons of locations for no particular reason.” On the other hand, Moses acknowledges that there are good shows on TV—and indeed, he is one of the growing number of playwrights who write for television.
“If a playwright gets a bad review, he says: ‘I’ll go write for TV,’” says agent Mark Subias. “It’s sort of like a joke.”
In truth, having television as at least a theoretical alternative offers more than psychological support; there is also the money. “Some artists do make a living in the theater, but it’s rare,” says Subias, which is a reason why “I’m always very encouraging of my playwrights writing for television—if they have the temperament and skills (different from playwriting) and the desire.”
And if it doesn’t work out—that too can in a weird way offer support. “One of my writers was hired for a TV show that turned out to be a very stressful, toxic experience,” Subias says. “It made this person realize: ‘I’m a playwright. I need to write for the stage.’”
Itamar Moses, though primarily known as a playwright, has also written for television shows such as Boardwalk Empire. Asked whether his moonlighting has influenced his playwriting, he replies “It’s hard to have perspective on my own work, but I think the answer to this is yes, in two almost contradictory ways: On the one hand, being in a writers’ room makes it really clear how many ways there are to tell a particular story. The number of ideas—good ones—that get tossed around and then thrown out over the course of a day in a writers’ room, let alone a season, is staggering. So I think it probably made me less precious in my playwriting about staying married to my first idea, gave me faith that if I allowed the writers’ room inside my head to kick things around a little more, there might be a better idea on the horizon, and a better one after that.”
He adds,“On the other hand, because the money is so good in TV, with the trade-off being that you’re generally a cog in a larger machine, serving someone else’s vision, working with characters and a world someone else made up, it made me feel even more strongly that, in my playwriting, there was absolutely no reason to ever do anything other than exactly what I wanted to do. If I’m going to be paid almost nothing to make something that, relatively speaking, almost no one is going to see, I might as well execute my own vision.”
5. Departures (Disruptions)
The list is long of theater actors who have left a stage show for a role on TV or the movies. Some leave abruptly, disrupting the show they are in. Some never return to the theater; the stage was their stepping stone. (Pictured here is Sara Ramirez who made a splash in Spamalot on Broadway, winning a Tony for her role as The Lady of the Lake. She hasn’t been back since cast as Dr. Callie Torres in Grey’s Anatomy).
But even those performers who want to make a career in the theater also have to make a living. “It’s really difficult to cast a play in New York during pilot season, which I think is around February and March,” says Washburn. “All these actors go out to L.A. I hear ‘I’d love to audition for your play, but…’”
The effect is less obvious for playwrights than performers, but, says Washburn, “when you’re writing for television, you’re not writing a play. It remains to be seen whether some of the theater writers who left for TV will come back.”
6. Celebrity Casting
The term “stunt casting” was coined for cameos or “guest appearances” by celebrities (usually movie stars) in television shows. It is a term almost always used pejoratively when describing the increasing practice of hiring celebrities (usually television or movie stars) to perform in a play or musical.
“If I could get a ‘star’ who’s a terrific actor, that’s a great thing,” says David Van Asselt of Rattlestick. “We’re trying to get audiences. I’m trying to find ways so attention can be brought to a play.”
The problem comes with an expanding definition of celebrity to embrace, that includes, for example, “stars” of reality television, who often have no experience on stage. Such casting is no longer restricted to bit roles; they are often asked to play the leads. Some shows have decided on a strategy to extend their runs by casting a succession of performers hired not for their talent, but because their names will attract publicity and lure in their fans.
“The great pleasure of theater for me is to see really good acting in action,” Washburn says. “Theater acting is a hard discipline; the more you do it, the better you are. People understand that stunt casting is an economic thing. But it does change the experience.”
7. Video Projections
Just this year, the Drama Desk Awards added a new category, Outstanding Projection Design, acknowledging the increasing use of videos on stage.
The winner was Peter Nigrini for Here Lies Love, the musical about Imelda Marcos by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim that was presented at the Public Theater in a theater set up to resemble a disco. But videos were used for more than just pulsating music video images. Videographers trailed the characters, projecting live close-ups on screens, as if they were news cameramen filming the characters making speeches or holding press conferences.
Wendall K. Harrington was given credit as “multi-image producer” for They’re Playing Our Song way back in 1979—the first of thirty six Broadway shows for which she has served as projection designer. Three years ago, she launched a new concentration in projection design at the Yale School of Drama.
“I explain to my classes that every playwright and director alive today grew up in the age of cinema and television,” Harrington says. “There is so much projection because they have been conditioned to think in these terms: Theater directors want scenes to ‘dissolve’ into each other; they’d like a ‘close up’—these are cinematic and TV terms. It would be hard now to write a play like Long Days Journey into Night—four hours in one room seems unthinkable.”
Videos on stage allow the kind of close-ups that were one of the advantages that television and movies had over the theater, and that audiences have come to expect, if not demand. But theater has taken the TV technology and turned it into something else. One example occurred in the Macbeth starring Alan Cumming, which included three video monitors with a live feed. To present the three witches, the three monitors showed Cumming from three different angles.
“The larger issue,” Harrington asks, “is whether the increasing use of video projections is affecting the quality of theater. Stay tuned for that.”
8. Theater As Anti-Television
A director once told Theresa Rebeck, playwright and television writer, “that since realism is done so well by television and feature films, the theater must explore something else.”
In her book Free Fire Zone, Rebeck makes it clear that she thinks the unnamed director is a fool (for one thing, she doesn’t think TV does realism well). Nonetheless, the director’s comment reflects what may be the greatest influence that television has had on theater—the push it has given theater artists to create something that will drag TV watchers out of their home and turn them into theatergoers.
“I can’t tell you how many theater mission statements I’ve read that say: We want to tell stories that can only be told through theater, that you can’t see on television,” Washburn says.
“How good TV has become at doing a certain kind of character-driven long-form storytelling really throws down a gauntlet for playwrights,” Itamar Moses says, “and challenges them to answer the question, with their work: What canonly theater do? What can’t we getanywhere else? And there’s no one answer to that, but it challenges every playwright to try to come up with theirs.”
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You can hear more from Anne Washburn here on the origin of the play, its unique development process, and how “The Simpsons” came to represent the high culture of the future.