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Jason Grote: How I got a job on 'Smash'

For playwright Jason Grote, writing for NBC's 'Smash' blows away all the clichés about working in television.

February 12, 2012|By Jason Grote, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Playwright-scriptwriter Jason Grote on the set of the show "Smash."
Playwright-scriptwriter Jason Grote on the set of the show "Smash." (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

As an East Coast "experimental" playwright, I'm often faced with disbelief when I tell my peers that I landed a staff job on NBC's new series "Smash." Partially it's the strange-bedfellows notion of an allegedly avant-garde writer paired with a big, glitzy TV show about Broadway produced by Steven Spielberg. Even more prevalent, however, is the perception among theater folk that writing TV is slumming, or torturous, or at the very least a cynical sellout. It's a cliché, but it doesn't come from nowhere. Hollywood did burn the likes of Bertolt Brecht and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the martyred writer is part of film iconography: the floating corpse of William Holden in "Sunset Boulevard" and John Turturro shambling through a flaming hotel in "Barton Fink."

Truth is, the American theater isn't much rosier than Hollywood. The gripes of the contemporary playwright could have come right out of William Goldman's 1983 "Adventures in the Screen Trade": interference from clueless producers; backstabbing between friends; oppressive mediocrity; a fraught political atmosphere where talent can be secondary; "development hell." Luckily, I get to mulch these theatrical grievances into the narrative of "Smash." Also luckily, I get to work under creator-show runner Theresa Rebeck, a playwright who happens to be a friend and mentor. I know her plays well, mitigating the learning curve that comes with writing in a show runner's voice for the first time.

My own entry into TV is analogous to (if considerably less glamorous than) the struggles of "Smash's" lead characters, Karen (an inexperienced ingénue played by Katherine McPhee) and Ivy (a Broadway veteran played by Megan Hilty), who vie for the role of Marilyn Monroe in "Smash's" show-within-a-show. Like Karen, I've been thrust into the spotlight from seemingly nowhere. Like Ivy, I've struggled in the theater for the better part of a decade.

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I will admit that my plays can be arcane. They've been called "meta-literary" and "dizzyingly cosmic" by supporters, "difficult" and "incoherent" by detractors. My characters have included Borges, Shostakovich and a talking feral hog that sounds like a Gertrude Stein poem. Whether they're commercial is a complicated discussion (even successful new plays rarely turn a profit), but I certainly haven't made a living from them. For six years, I supported myself as non-tenured "contract faculty" at Rutgers University, until the job was slashed in 2010. My first child came along just as my salary and health insurance dried up. For one harrowing year, I spent my days desperately searching for a job, fighting bureaucrats in two states to get public assistance and reaching out to anyone who could advise me about "breaking in."

One of these people, fortuitously, was Rebeck. At the time, neither of us knew that "Smash" was going to go to pilot (I didn't even know it existed). We met in Brooklyn's Park Slope, and she offered me sympathy and sound advice.

A few months later, I got a call out of the blue — the pilot was shooting, and if it got the green light she'd like to consider me as a writer. Per Rebeck's instructions, I set to work on an original pilot (my "30 Rock" and "Modern Family" specs were deemed worthless; Los Angeles is swimming in them). I raced through multiple drafts of an hourlong drama about the literary world, inspired by my wife's publishing career.

My final deadline coincided with an interview for a university job in a beautiful but remote part of the country. The crossroads couldn't have been starker. If "Smash" happened, I could support my family, remain in New York and continue writing plays. If I took a job in academia, my family would survive, but my theatrical aspirations would suffer. For three long days, I stumbled through interviews and classroom visits, scribbling my TV spec during breaks. I kept writing on the flight home, and finished the draft in Brooklyn at 5 the next morning.

My manager sent it to DreamWorks, along with my play "Maria/Stuart," and I waited out the next few weeks. If I had to become an academic, I would accept it with grace. We could rent a house, with a dishwasher. I'd take up hiking and yoga.

In the way of Hollywood, I never heard much about the pilot I'd toiled over. But it didn't matter, because I got the "Smash" job. My life changed dramatically, and hardly changed at all.

One of the greatest perks of the job is that I get to keep my theater career alive, possibly even enhance it. Writing on staff requires intense focus, but since joining the show I've managed to open a play ("Civilization") with the off-off-Broadway company Clubbed Thumb, and I'm writing a new piece in a lab with a Brooklyn-based company, the Civilians.

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