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It Cuts Both Ways

Sure, your audience is bigger, but look out: So are the pressures

September 17, 2006|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

IT is Labor Day weekend and a bone-tired Jon Robin Baitz, one of the most successful playwrights of his generation, is taking sanctuary in an overly air-conditioned hotel room in the desert, curled up with his dog, Trip, and a book of S.J. Perleman stories. He is seeking respite from the trenches of production for the new ABC series "Brothers & Sisters," which he created and which is set to premiere next Sunday.

Starring Calista Flockhart, Rachel Griffiths, Sally Field, Ron Rifkin and others, the ensemble drama about a conservative radio talk-show host and her L.A. family is one of this fall's most anticipated new programs. Yet it hasn't been a smooth road: They've had to recast key roles, reshoot the pilot and recently replaced the showrunner, the head writer and executive producer in charge of day-to-day creative production. Consequently, Baitz and his team have been playing catch-up in TV land, where the hours are grueling, even when you are on schedule.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 17, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Playwright: An article today in the Calendar section about playwrights writing for television spelled author S.J. Perlman's name as Perleman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 19, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Writer's name: A correction Sunday on the spelling of a writer's name in a story that ran in Calendar misspelled writer S.J. Perelman's surname as Perlman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Playwright: An article last Sunday about playwrights writing for television incorrectly spelled author S.J. Perelman's surname as Perleman.

"I have co-written 4 1/2 or five episodes in the past three weeks," he says. "It's impossible: the pace, the times when you're writing too much to write at your best. I cry a lot. I am horrifically exhausted. And as someone who had open heart surgery 10 years ago, I have been struggling to keep up with the system. But on the other hand, I created a TV show. I wanted to build something and share it with other artists -- just like the theater -- and that's happening."

Baitz is not the only playwright these days to hear the siren call of the small screen. Others who have recently worked on or are now working in TV include Aaron Sorkin, Peter Parnell, David Mamet, Theresa Rebeck, Marlene Meyer, Rolin Jones, Gina Gionfriddo, Jacqueline Reingold, Craig Wright, David Marshall Grant, the late John Belluso. And there are many others.

Moreover, playwrights are now producing, creating and running shows. Last season, Mamet created the "The Unit." This season, it's Baitz's "Brothers & Sisters" and Sorkin's latest, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." And Warren Leight, who, like Sorkin, has helped bring many fellow playwrights into the fold, has become the showrunner for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

TV has become a desirable place for playwrights, and not only because of the money. The negative stigma that once used to cause playwrights to turn down their noses at the small screen has all but vanished.

"There's no indignity in working in television!" says David Rambo. He sits in his office in the "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" headquarters on the Universal lot, with posters from his plays adorning the walls and a miniature replica of the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada" sign -- a nod to where "CSI" is set -- blinking atop a bookcase.

In many cases, these playwrights don't want to abandon the stage. They continue to write plays when they can -- less often, perhaps, but with no less dedication. And though it's true that most playwrights will never have the creative control in TV that they have in the theater, the medium is increasingly seen as a place where they can create interesting work, albeit within the constraints of established form and practice.

"In a weird way, something flipped, in terms of where the quality writers are happiest at the moment, and I think it is TV," says Leight, who started writing for television in the late '90s. "With movies, it's too easy for them to bring in another writer and another writer after you."

*

Sought-after scenarios

RAMBO is in the middle of an interview when his phone rings.

"Hello ... Sure, yeah. What the fibrosis looks like? If I recall, it was fibrosis of the palmer facia. Nodules on stringy tendons? Oooh-kay. Yeah, I'll find something. You're welcome. Bye-bye."

The call is from the show's second unit producer, who is working with a special-effects house and needs some visuals. "We have a medical condition that actually explains a huge story point in our season premiere," he explains. "They want to show what it looks like close up, and he just wondered if I had research on that."

"Yes, fibrosis of the palmer facia," Rambo continues, suddenly hamming it up to underscore that playwrights don't usually discuss such technical minutiae. "Nodules on stringy tendons. That's what we do at 'CSI'!"

Laughing, he then points to a sticky note with the number 1.5, stuck in a prominent place on his bulletin board. "How many playwrights do you know who keep in front of them at all times, on the wall, that liver temperature drops 1.5 degrees per hour, postmortem?"

The question may be rhetorical, but the point is made. TV -- and especially a highly popular crime procedural such as "CSI" -- can make very different demands on a writer than the theater. So how did a dedicated thespian such as Rambo wind up in a crime lab? Not by pounding Hollywood pavement.

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