Warren Leight's No Foreigners to Have New York Premiere Sept. 17
By Robert Simonson April 29, 2005
Side Man Playwright Warren Leight's No Foreigners Beyond This Point will get its Off-Broadway debut Sept. 17 courtesy of the Ma-Yi Theater Company at the Culture Project (45 Bleecker Street).The show, directed by Loy Arcenas, will play until Oct. 16. No cast has been announced.
Leight's Tony winning Side Man drew heavily on his own family life as the son of a wayward jazz trumpeter. Leight is again mining personal experiences for his latest work, which had its debut in 2002 at Baltimore's Center Stage.
In the story, two American teachers find themselves in a remote Chinese village where "the Beatles are as unknown as personal privacy."
Leight himself taught English in Canton in 1980 and 1981, when he was 23. "I had the chance so I took it," Leight told Playbill.com. He added: "Also, I had a crush on someone I knew would be teaching over there.
"Like in Side Man, I'm trying to capture a world I knew well. Of course, one of the points of the play is how hard a world it is to know. The other teachers, students and one other foreigner, are my usual composites."
His work on the play technically began 20 years ago. During his tenure as a foreign instructor, he kept diaries and wrote letters, which he then packed away until Irene Lewis, the artistic director of the Maryland not-for-profit theatre, offered him a commission to write what became No Foreigners Beyond This Point. The show was workshopped in January and scheduled for the 2002-03 season soon after.
"I knew of Center Stage because two of my close friends, Eric Bogosian and Michael Mayer, had had productions down there," said Leight, "and a third friend, Jill Rachel Morris, was their dramaturg. I liked the theatre on both trips down, and liked the city. Jill introduced me to Irene.
"Irene has begun to commission new plays. And as you know, not many places do that these days. I had two plays I was interested in writing, and she responded to this one. She said she hasn't seen that world on stage before. And she liked the themes that I said I'd be working with. She has strong interest in China, because her father spent time there during World War II."
Aside from Side Man, Leight's other plays include Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, seen at Manhattan Theatre Club. He is currently head writer on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
- Warren Leight - 48 years old - Grew-up in Sunnyside, Queens and the Upper West Side; now lives in West Village - Writer of No Foreigners Beyond This Point"; Tony winning playwright for Side Man; Co-Executive producer and writer of Law & Order: Criminal Intent
Simply based on the description of No Foreigners Beyond This Point -- two young Americans teaching English in China in 1980 -- we feel obligated to ask if this is a modern Chinese version of Anna and the King of Siam/The King and I?
I hope not. There's a struggle when you write anything that's set in China to not have it turn into another white man's burden play. There's a bad tradition of pieces set in the mysterious East, and this is an attempt at … it's a pretty real version of what life was like in 1980s China, when the country was coming out of the Cultural Revolution. It's a pretty stark version. There's very little in the way of quaint Chinese, very little of those bad soundtracks.
But it is also about two cultures learning about each other, right?
Yes, definitely, and can you bridge these cultural gaps, and can you even understand the person that you're living with. The Americans come over as a couple, and I don't know that they're any more able to understand each other as they're able to understand the Chinese or the Chinese are able to understand them. So there's a little bit of that, but it's a harsh story. China in the 1980s was a much tougher place to be than people might suspect.
So 1980 is when you actually went there yourself?
I don't make much up in my writing. I was 23 I guess, and I followed a girl who I'd had a crush on from high school who was going to teach English in China. I mean, the play deviates a bit from there, but we lived in China for eight or nine months. The country was just coming out of the Cultural Revolution, and I'd gone to a good college where they taught us that the Cultural Revolution was a great social experiment. Then I get there, and this country is on its knees. What had happened in China in the '70s, word hadn't gotten out yet, and they weren't supposed to tell us.
Was your primary reason for going actually just following this girl?
I don't mean to sound that shallow, but I would not have gone had I not run into her on the street and had she not told me that she was applying to teach English in China. I had taken a class in China after the Revolution, but I was hardly an expert.
One of the jokes in the play is that the school, they would rather have really skilled foreign experts, but it's a rinky dink school and we were the best they could get. We weren't officially sanctioned as foreign experts; they had to call us guests. They were probably hoping for more accomplished teachers, and we were probably hoping for running hot water.
Did you find a contrast between the obviously harsher "Cultural Revolution" in China and the more subtle but definite cultural shifts here in the US in 1980 as well? The post-Vietnam backlash to a more conservative Reaganite revolution that was about to come?
While we were in China, Reagan got elected. It was the end of an era, but I don’t know that when we left the US we knew that. We were still part of a generation that didn't believe a word our government said. We got to China and found that none of our students believed a word their government said. They looked at Nixon as a hero, and in fact, their government told them that American had lost in Vietnam, and they didn't believe that. There's no way that could have happened. And we would say, "No, no, that's pretty much true there."
The school wanted us basically under house arrest. They just wanted us to give accents and phrasing but not to say anything with any content and never to be alone with any of the students. The students were desperate to find out everything that had happened outside of China since time began because they knew nothing of the outside world.
What prompted you to leave after just eight or nine months? Did the term simply come to an end?
Among other things, I was starving to death. By the time I got home – I'm of average build, I'd say, and I weigh about 165 pounds – so I got home and I weighed 113.
They didn't feed you?
They were doing the best they could. We were eating better than the students. First of all, there wasn't much available, and we were probably supposed to get 80% of our calories from rice. I just couldn't eat popcorn bowl sizes of rice every day. So it was tougher than we anticipated. Meanwhile, they were treating us 10 times better than themselves. The two of us had four rooms in the faculty dorms. The students were eight to a room, and the teachers two to a room. So we felt a little bit in their company like opium traders -- living there like neo-colonialists -- compared to how everyone there was, but I was starving.
Have you ever wanted to go back?
In the last few years I've thought about it. The life we had there was a tough one to have immediate nostalgia for. I wrote a lot while I was there about it, and I came home trying to get a book done. My alleged agent at the time said something like, "China don't sell," and so I put the book aside and didn't look at it for 20 years.
Speaking of this 20 year lag, your last play Side Man was about a time during your youth, and this was 20 years ago; can we expect a story about writer of television procedural crime dramas somewhere around 2025? Does a lot of your work take a long time to gestate?
Well a couple of things have gone on. You have to make a living, and theater doesn't allow playwrights to make a living, really. So you've always got to have a bit of money backed up if you're going to try to work on a play, or you have to be very lucky and be the darling of a theater company. But it's pretty tough to carve out the time you need to work on a play unless you have some money you can run down. One of the reasons it took so long to get to Side Man, aside from whatever emotional issues were involved, was that I couldn't afford to be a playwright.
Was that true even after Side Man and the Tony?
Side Man made me some money but not … playwrights in a different era might make a big haul, or I guess if you wrote Doubt this year, but Side Man was never commercial in a way that I might have dreamt of it being. It ran a long long time, but it was always a bit of a struggle. It was the greatest writing experience of my life, but financially, the best thing about Side Man, I suppose, is that it led me getting hired by Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and the truth is, a couple episodes of Law & Order can take care of you far better than a play can. And that's too bad.
You've written now for all three media, and yet it almost seems like the things you've written for TV, stage and film could come from three different writers. Are you more comfortable writing for one form over another?
Side Man and No Foreigners are both memory plays and that's a more personal kind of expression than The Night We Never Met, Dear God or Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Dear God … that was actually once a good screenplay until Garry Marshall got a hold of it. And you can quote me on that. That's just a tragic example of when bad directors happen to good screenplays.
The bad metaphor is that I think of theater as my jazz. It's my voice. I come from the set of Law & Order where I'm shooting an episode now, and I come to rehearsal at 2 PM, we go to one in the morning, and I'm invigorated by it. That probably doesn't happen going in the other way.
On the other hand, I find writing a Law & Order script one of the hardest things that I've had to do. It's not necessarily my world or my voice. What I have is enough technique to figure out the different jobs and work within the rule book of Law & Order or the rule book of a Hollywood screenplay, or something like that, but a play is yours.
You said that Side Man got you hired for Law & Order. What do you think Law & Order godfather Dick Wolf saw in Side Man that said, "Hey, let's bring him on for a procedural police crime drama"?
I see your point. To give credit, it was this guy Rene Balcer, the show runner of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I guess Dick Wolf knows me, but I don't see a lot of him. Rene likes writers with a voice and people who have some ability to handle themes. Our show is much less of a procedural than CSI. We don't have 18 close-ups of broken bones and … I mean, I can't even watch those things.
He asked to see a TV episode of mine and at that point I had written one TV episode, for 100 Center Street. So I said, "Here's my latest TV episode." I didn't say, "Here's my only TV episode." And that showed him I could write the four-act structure of TV. I suppose he responded to my ability to write characters, which is funny because on Law & Order, it's all plot.
Original series fans are excited that Chris Noth as Det. Mike Logan is returning to the Law & Order universe on your show. How has it been to write a new but well-established character?
He came back last season for a one shot, and I co-wrote that story. He and Annabella Sciorra are paired up now as another team of detectives in the Major Case Squad. What's fun about it is that after three years of Detectives Goren and Eames [Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe], it's fun just to have new detectives to write for. Chris Noth's character is more intuitive than analytical. The note on him is that he can spot the crook in the room. He's capable of being a bit of a bully. It's a different voice. And three years in, that's a godsend.
After making a living as a writer for as long as you have, why suddenly come to TV writing now? Only a couple years ago?
The thing that guided my whole career was that I didn't want to move to LA. I'd rather be here stringing together 85 different jobs in a year than be out there and have to get really excited about a very special episode of Blossom or something.
I actually made a living for a while writing pilots, which I also showed Rene I guess. I had never written a TV episode, but [network execs] kind of liked my voice and said, "Why don't you write a pilot?" So I wrote maybe six different pilots that they would never make, but they would almost get made. I was known as the guy who wrote the pilot that almost got made and was really different. I'd go to another network, and they'd swear they wanted something different. Every year it would come down to me and one other show, and the other show would be seven people, a mom, a widowed mom and a widowed dad and their seven kids in a bed and breakfast in Malibu.
Then there was some point when I turned back to theater in the '90s, and I was at some dinner party. There were all these very successful screenwriters, and they were really bitter and drunk and mean, and they were all making a really good living writing things that didn't get made. Maybe one movie every five years.
And with Garry Marshall, when I finally had a green light and it was Dear God, and I saw Garry Marshall's rough cut, I thought, OK, this is considered good in LA. I'm having a go movie with a name director, and I've never been more miserable in my life. So that's when I went back to writing Side Man.
So between Dear God and the very underrated The Night We Never Met, you haven't had the best experience working in film … It's a nice little movie, and that I never got to direct again is an utter mystery to me. Every now and then I run across people who say, "You know, that's the most underrated romantic comedy of the '90s," and I go, "Thanks." But it flopped.
You just said why you've never been able to direct again. We just assumed that for some reason you had just chosen that you didn't want to direct again.
No I liked directing. I had a lot more control of that than obviously Dear God, and it's a much better movie than Dear God. I find the more involved in a production, the happier I am. Law & Order, the strange thing is that they need you on that set. They're knocking one of those things out every eight days. You get involved every step of the way. Directing a movie was tremendously satisfying.
It took me about 2 1/2 years to put that film together. That cast [with Matthew Broderick, Sciorra and Jeanne Tripplehorn, among others] was very gracious. There was no money in it for anybody. Before it came out and bombed, I was getting a bums rush where everybody was offering me all kinds of things, and I was trying to work on my next screenplay. Then once it came out and bombed, I guess I was in movie prison for a while. It didn't catch, so nobody was necessarily willing to write the next two million dollar check to make a movie.
Is that something that you're looking to do again in the next couple years? Write a screenplay and direct again?
Yeah. The great thing to do would be to do the David Chase thing, where after years of hacking away for other people, he got his own show and turned it into The Sopranos. Also, I have a screenplay of Side Man that when I finish my TV season in May I plan to go back to, and to get to direct that would be … I certainly know that world pretty well, and I don't really want to hand that play over to someone else.
Why do you think Side Man struck such a chord with people? It ran for a long time; longer than most Broadway shows.
People connected. What I inadvertently wrote was a bit of a father-son story and a children of alcoholics story. I knew I was writing in those worlds, but what I didn't understand is that a lot of people would come up to me and go, "Oh I saw that play, and I just cried. I mean that was my dad in the play." And I'd always say, "What instrument did he play?" and they'd reply, "No, he was an accountant. But he would just sit behind the newspaper and I never really knew who he was or how to talk to him." On some sort of basic level – and in a way I think No Foreigners is similar – the inability to connect and the pain that that causes is what people were responding to.
But going back to that waiting 20 years thing, because I took so long to write it, when I got to it, it wasn't the "f**k you Mom and Dad" play that a lot of those things turn in to, and I think people kind of liked the illusion that the writer was at peace with his past.
Was it difficult writing a play that was so emotionally personal for you? Was it even harder to see performed? Was it cathartic
It was all of those. It was absolutely cathartic. It was the end of a certain amount of quote-recovery work-quote in my life. So much of my life has been spent trying to rescue other people, so there was something emancipating about writing the story. Sometimes reading reviews that would describe the play, I would suddenly become aware of how other people perceive it. When you're in the middle of it, you don't necessarily have perspective on it. There were times I would get upset or have a moment of self-pity by reading somebody's description of the narrator's childhood. I would think, "Oh, that sounds bad." It sort of distanced things for me.
Then I lost both of my folks in the last few years, and at the moment, I'm not really interested in watching a production of the play. They just did one in Brooklyn Heights which I heard was quite good.
Did your parents have a chance to see it?
Yeah. Well, my mother, I actually told her not to go. I didn't know that she needed to revisit her more extreme moments. But she read it. Her shrink read it first, which is sort of weird. Her shrink said, "Well you weren't that far out were you?" and my mother said, "Oh yeah, I was way farther out than that. I should have killed him when I had the chance." She was not exactly apologetic about things.
My dad really liked it, but he saw it very much through the idea that finally somebody told "our story," and by "our story" he didn't mean the family – he meant the story of musicians. Over time I think he began to understand the emotional stuff. Interestingly he saw it more as an indictment of my mother. At one point he said, "Well, you know it's very hard for me to relive all those things your mother did to me." So that's how he cushioned himself, I think.
They obviously knew it was about them. But each one thought it very clearly depicted the pathology of the other.
You alluded to this earlier, but, you're working on the new season of Criminal Intent, and you're in rehearsals for an Off-Broadway play. Are you just a workaholic by nature?
No, I'm very lazy. I have friends who say, "If I go a day without writing, I'll fall apart," and I think, That's odd. If something has to get done, I'll do it, so the TV job is suited to me because I'm good on deadline. The great thing about the play is that, you find the play in the room with the actors and the director, and you just keep cutting and trimming and adding and listening to the actors.
With Frank Wood [who played the father character in Side Man], he couldn't eat and act at the same time. There was a scene where the actors had to eat soup, and he had a whole bunch of lines, but he couldn't do that if there was soup in front of him. He could only focus on his food. I thought, that tells me something about his character, and I took all of his lines out of that scene. Everybody else is talking, and he's just binary. He's eating his soup.
What I've learned is that if actors aren't able to make something work, that tells you something, because if you cast correctly, they're right for their part. So if something comes with difficulty to them, that may be a clue that it's not right for their character. To me, we're finding this play as it goes on.
Since you don't describe yourself as someone who absolutely has to write every day, what is it about writing that appeals to you?
You know, I guess there's two kinds of alcoholics; there's also two kinds of writers. I'm a binge writer. I've always been a binge writer. Again, that's why TV is fine for me. You know, I'll have three days to write a whole script, and I'll go 20 hours a day for two days or something like that. There's something about just disappearing into the world and coming out with a first draft that's a bit of a narcotic for me I suppose. Something happens when I get into that world, that I don't have any sense of time. I'll look up, and 14 hours will have gone by, and I'll stand, and my legs are all cramped up. I have writer friends who set the alarm every morning, wake up, make a cup of coffee, and sit down at the typewriter. I don't understand what they're doing.
I love being done with a first draft and then figuring out what I have. The difference between playwriting and TV writing -- TV writing, you never write a word of your episode until you've plotted the whole thing out. In theater, I don't necessarily know where it's going when I start, and so your subconscious does take over, especially if there's a deadline. Usually I'll book a reading of a script I haven't written yet, and as the deadline approaches I have to get there, you know. And then things happen because your subconscious takes over. And then you have all this time to go back and make it into something that hopefully is meaningful.
Things to know about Warren:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street? My whole apartment was furnished off the street until I was 35. [Specifically], a 27 drawer metal filing cabinet, each drawer perfectly sized for holding scripts.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do? The empire of Mario Battali.
NYC confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure? Mister Softee vanilla cones from the truck.
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment? A quiet open northern view of midtown Manhattan … from my high floor terrace.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute. A west coast friend of mine, a successful opera singer, was coming to New York to audition for Master Classes at Lincoln Center. At great expense, she hired one of the best pianists in her city as her accompanist. They worked together for two months, but unfortunately, the day before their flight, he took ill. She arrived without him for her 10 AM Saturday audition. She had just a few minutes to try to walk the rehearsal pianist through the pieces she’d spent dozens of hours preparing. The New York pianist just kept nodding as she pointed to every variation and diminuendo and crescendo. She couldn’t even tell if he was listening to her. She walked into her audition sure all her time and effort had been wasted. The Saturday morning audition pianist would have to sight read as best he could. Then she began to sing, and to her shock, he accompanied her more with more technique, and feel, and empathy, than she’d ever experienced in her musical life.
On her way out, she thanked him effusively, and he shrugged. Just another gig he was pasting together with others to make ends meet. She went home, resumed her career happily, and never tried to sing in New York again.
No Foreigners Beyond This Point presented by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company is currently in previews and officially opens on Sunday with performances through Oct. 16 at 45 Below at The Culture Project (45 Bleecker St., at Lafayette). Tickets are available through TheaterMania by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting www.theatermania.com. Performances are Tues-Sat at 8 PM plus matinees on Sat and Sun at 3 PM. Law & Order: Criminal Intent has its season premiere this Sunday at 9 PM.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei Posted by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei in Interview
Thanks Patcat, for bringing this interview to my attention. It's interesting. A bit surprising to learn that Mr. Leight views his CI gig as a means to finance his playwrighting, but it seems that's where his heart and passion is.
Also interesting to hear him describe CI as all plot, rather than character!!
On the other hand, perhaps the way he views CI as being plot-heavy and light on character is one of the reasons I don't respond particularly well to the scripts he's written for this series. DEATH ROE and INERT DWARF were two of my least favorite episodes -- not only of last season, but of the entire series.
Of all the eps written by Mr. Leight, only PAS DE DEUX stands out for me.
Very interesting interview. It makes sense what he says about theater being a more personal medium for him. And he's quite right that it's pretty near impossible to make a living as a playwright without some kind of income to subsidize the playwriting habit. And he's right, that is sad.
I guess his heart isn't entirely in television writing. He does it to fund his playwriting, and that's fair. But I agree with goreneames that it kind of shows in the episodes. I'm not especially ga-ga over any of Mr. Leight's episodes. Not that they're terrible or anything, but they don't sparkle.
Post by natethegreat on Oct 3, 2005 14:24:19 GMT -5
Responding to episodes by Warren Leight.
of course theatre would be "more personal" for him - no matter what the meduim, based on these articles, it seems that his plays are autibiograpical (and hopefully all the greusome murders on CI are not) so therefore would naturally be more near and dear to his heart.
on the other hand, I disagree with him that CI is all plot, no character. I suppose it is actually to his credit (along with Rene Blacer's) that the stories are extremely character-driven. The criminals are only interesting b/c of who theay are and how they think - and much more complex than most crime shows.
I loved Suite Sorrow- typical CI plot at first (the hotel heiress who killed her mom, not realizing she'd been set up by her dad and fiance) but then she kills her dad in the last scene, becasue Goren screwed up. I thought that was a really interesting break from the formula and brave to show a chick in Goren's armour.
Also loved how, in "my Good Name", Deakins actually became a real person, rather than a cariacture. I think that was the only time I noticed that. What did you guys think of that one?
It is sad, I suppose, that playwrights can't make a living in NY but I like the fact that writers (and actors) cross back and forth among different mediums- not only more interesting for them, but for viewers too.
PS- I poked around and found some reviews to that play. It sounds great. Here are links
I found his abilty to admit his frivolous choices refreshing - as nearly every human makes them & so few admit to it. I liked the interview and have a more positive feeling toward him - I want to note I was never negative towards his work.
WGAE to Fete Leight with Service Award January 10, 2006 By Jesse Hiestand
Former WGA East president Warren Leight has been tapped to receive the Richard B. Jablow Award for service to the guild, it was announced Monday.
Leight took over as president when Herb Sargent died in May after 14 years in office. Leight, who was succeeded by Chris Albers in the September election, also has served on many committees, including those handling negotiations.
Leight, whose screenwriting credits include "The Night We Never Met," "Dear God" and "Me and Him," is set to receive the award Feb. 5 at the WAGE's annual awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
Leight is the co-executive producer and writer on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
His theatrical writing credits include "Side Man," which was a 1999 Tony Award winner for best play and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
The award is given in honor of Jablow, who helped found the union, wrote its constitution and served as its first counsel.
I have been looking for episodes written by Warren Leight and I have to say I think the show is in the best hands it could be with the loss of Rene Balcer. It looks to me like many of both the Barek/Logan and Eames/Goren episodes that were character driven and dealt with the backgrounds of these characters were written by Warren Leight. As much as I hate to lose Rene Balcer, the situation could be much worse if someone who had never worked on the show previously were brought in as show runner. I also think the departure of Rene Balcer would have been worse if it had happened in season 2 when he was the sole writer of some of the scripts. Now at least there is Warren Leight to carry on his vision.
On another note, I think Chris Noth and Annabella Sciorra are more likely to stay with the show with Warren Leight as showrunner. It turns out that he has written their first episode and he also wrote the introduction of the "Whoopi Goldberg" character as Logan's recurring nemesis. A bit of trivia I read was that he worked on a movie "Night We Never Met" that starred Annabella Sciorra.
The Logan/Barek teleplays were written variously by Charlie Rubin, Stephanie SenGupta, Gina Gianfriddo, Marlane Meyer, Gerry Conway and Diana Son. Warren Leight in fact is the only one who has not written for Logan/Barek, though he collaborated on four Logan/Barek stories with Balcer. Whether CN or AS stay or go has nothing to do with who the showrunner is.
You are right he is not credited with teleplay but he is with story just like Rene Balcer is credited with story but not teleplay in most of the episodes that aired after season 3. Thank you for your information. It also made me more hopeful about next season when I saw some of the names like Gerry Conway and Gina Gianfriddo who have also written good scripts and hopefully will be back next season along with Stephanie SenGupta and Warren Leight. I read where many of these writers are also playwrights and Gerry Conway wrote comic books.
I guess I was basing the fact that Barek/Logan were more likely to return on the fact that this writer/producer has worked with their stories in the past including their first one and the "Whoopi Goldberg" one. I guess I just think the current characters/actors are more likely to stay with a show runner who has been working as a co-executive producer during the past few years than they would if a newcomer came on board. I know with Commander In Chief, Steven Bochco brought in new characters and dropped several characters and stories.
If anyone can find a better and more detailed website than IMDB that has a listing of all of Warren Leight's teleplays/stories from season 4 to season 5, please post the address on this thread. I would be interested in re watching some of his episodes this summer. Observer and LOCIfan provided a good list for seasons 1-3.
"He and Annabella Sciorra are paired up now as another team of detectives in the Major Case Squad. What's fun about it is that after three years of Detectives Goren and Eames [Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe], it's fun just to have new detectives to write for. Chris Noth's character is more intuitive than analytical. The note on him is that he can spot the crook in the room. He's capable of being a bit of a bully. It's a different voice. And three years in, that's a godsend."
Last Edit: Jun 5, 2006 18:08:37 GMT -5 by filmnoir5
Season 4: Inert Dwarf (21 November 2004): Co-writer (story) with Rene Balcer, Writer (teleplay) Death Roe (13 March 2005): Co-writer (story) with Rene Balcer, Writer (teleplay) My Good Name (15 May 2005): Co-writer (story) with Rene Balcer, Writer (teleplay)
Season 5: Diamond Dogs (2 October 2005): Co-writer (story) with Rene Balcer and Charlie Rubin Acts of Contrition (23 October 2005): Co-writer (story) with Rene Balcer, Writer (teleplay) Proud Flesh (12 March 2006): Co-writer (story) with Rene Balcer, Writer (teleplay) Cruise to Nowhere (30 April 2006): Co-writer (story) with Rene Balcer, Writer (teleplay) To the Bone (7 May 2006): Co-writer (story) with Rene Balcer
Patrick Roy, 2006 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame
Thank you for this list and website info, now I can look at your list and the ones provided by both LOCIfan and Observer. I think I might catch some of these episodes and re watch them this summer.
It does look like he has written some of the episodes that feature some of the landmark Eames and Goren moments. Zoonotic, Cuba Libre, D.A.W. (eating Kevin Tighe's meal), Pas De Deux (Eames : "It's good to be back") and later Cruise To Nowhere all have humor which is something I hope L&O:CI never loses. I am more optimistic about his being a show runner since it does look like he has worked with Rene Balcer and other writers on many scripts and actually written a variety of scripts in recent years.
As playwrights gravitate to TV from theater, the spoken word takes on a whole new role.
Harlem playwright Kia Corthron remembers being told by her University of Maryland, College Park theater professor that serious dramatists would "never write for television."
Nonetheless, viewers of HBO's The Wire next month will be able to see an episode of the Peabody Award-winning series scripted by the Cumberland native; and it includes some of the most powerful and touching moments of the series' standout season.
Good thing she resisted her instructor's advice
"It's different than it used to be - the feeling about TV," says the playwright whose work has been produced in theaters from London to New York.
"Whereas there was a time when immediately people were said to have sold out if they wrote for TV, the issue is more complicated now because television is changing. There are more playwrights working in television, and I'm one of them. I've been fortunate that all the work I've done is work that I feel good about."
Corthron is part of a major shift in the television industry as playwrights, who once might have balked at writing for the small screen, are flooding the studios. Although the movement has been quietly building momentum for several years, a critical mass has been achieved this fall. The result is a bumper crop of new and returning dramas distinguished by richly-textured characters and multilayered dialogue.
After years of offering an overload of crude reality fare - a genre in which writers are often excluded from the creative process - network executives have stacked their fall lineups with quality dramas scripted and produced by some of the most distinguished writers in American theater.
From newcomers such as NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and ABC's Brothers & Sisters, to returning shows such as CBS' The Unit and NBC's Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the genre has been so enriched by the infusion of playwriting talent that some analysts are calling this a "new golden age" for TV drama.
"Something has flipped: People used to be embarrassed to write for TV, but not any more," says Warren Leight, the Tony Award-winning executive producer of Criminal Intent.
"Television has become a place where the writer has respect and power ... and you can see the results of that shift on the screen."
There is an award-winning group of playwrights now working as writers and executive producers - a combination that guarantees authorship even in the highly collaborative world of television production. In addition to Leight, they include Jon Robin Baitz (creator of ABC's Brothers & Sisters), David Mamet (CBS' The Unit), Aaron Sorkin (NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and Eric Overmyer (CBS' Close to Home).
Leight earned a Tony in 1999 for his play Side Man. Baitz, whose last three plays were produced at the prestigious Lincoln Center Theatre in New York, was a Pulitzer finalist and Drama Desk Award winner for A Fair Country. Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his play Glengarry Glen Ross. And Sorkin wrote the hit Broadway play A Few Good Men in 1989 before coming to Hollywood to write the feature film screenplay.
Overmyer, meanwhile, whose play On the Verge was first produced by Baltimore's Center Stage in 1985, will return to his roots next spring with a new play commissioned by Washington's Arena Stage. The former producer and writer for NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO's The Wire, taught play- and screenwriting for years at the Yale School of Drama.
The list of top playwrights working in television this year also includes Corthron (Breath, Boom) as well as Craig Wright (Orange Flower Water) and David Marshall Grant (Snakebit), both of whom serve as writers and producers on Brothers & Sisters.
Diana Son (Stop Kiss), Gina Gionfriddo (After Ashley), Jacqueline Reingold (String Fever) and Marsha Norman (Night Mother) are staff writers at Law & Order: Criminal Intent, while David Rambo (God's Man in Texas) writes for the CBS drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, network television's highest-rated series last week. Rolin Jones, a Pulitzer finalist in 1997 for The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, is on the staff of the Showtime drama Weeds.
"I don't think there is any doubt that there are more playwrights working in network television," said Baitz, whose Brothers and Sisters attracts about 13 million weekly viewers and is the highest-rated new drama of the fall.
"And if one is looking for an explanation, I don't think you can underestimate the profound effect on the networks of the great writing in HBO series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Six Feet Under. ... If the networks are to be something other than a vast and mildly charged wasteland, if they are to compete with intelligence and vibrance for the demographic that watches television, then it makes so much sense that the executives who run networks and studios would turn to the theater."
(West) Winging it
No one represents the migration of talent from stage to small screen better than Baitz, 45. Like many of the playwrights now working in TV, he was brought into the fold by another dramatist - Sorkin, who invited him to write an episode of NBC's The West Wing.
Titled "The Long Goodbye," the poignant hour aired in 1999 and featured press secretary CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) returning to her hometown to speak at a high school reunion - only to find her father living alone and slipping deeper into Alzheimer's disease.
Friends from their New York theater days, Baitz and Sorkin often had spoken casually about Baitz writing an episode before they teamed up, Baitz recalls. "I remember exactly the phone call. He said, 'Robbie, I'm going to ask you to do something. Don't say no. I'm not going to touch a word you write.'"
Sorkin kept his word, and the experience left Baitz wanting to become more involved in writing and producing TV drama: "It was the moment when I believed as a playwright it would be possible to reconnect as a writer with an audience in a different way than onstage."
Now, with his own series on the air, Baitz has expanded the pool of talent by hiring playwrights Wright and Marshall and plans to bring in at least one additional playwright a year. For many of the playwrights - like Baitz, Wright and Corthron - the idea is not to give up the theater for television, but to function in both worlds.
"I admire the tension in being a playwright and someone who is writing for television as well," Baitz says. "Craig Wright, for example, who worked at Six Feet Under before coming here, has a new play and is going back East in a couple of weeks to do a workshop on the play. We've carved out time for him to do that. I want to bring in working playwrights who want to break a little history themselves in terms of what a network can do - and what you can get away with."
The same thing is happening at Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Since taking over as show runner, Leight has hired Norman and Reingold. Gionfriddo and Son were already on staff. (Leight was brought into television by the pioneering Sidney Lumet for his A&E cable series, 100 Centre Street, that aired in 2001 and 2002.)
The golden ages
Playwrights have worked in television since the medium's earliest days, but the recent wave of theatrical talent coming to TV illuminates a striking pattern: Each time it happens, the quality of the writing inspires talk of a golden era in television.
Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Rod Serling were so successful in adapting and creating plays for television in the 1950s that historians have dubbed their era the "golden age of TV drama." But the infant medium was then still aping the theater rather than developing its own identity.
Another cycle began in the 1980s when playwright Tom Fontana used his success as a writer and producer on a groundbreaking NBC medical drama, St. Elsewhere (1982 to '88), to bring several theater colleagues, including Overmyer, to television. St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues - both of which were made by the legendary MTM production company - re-imagined the hourlong drama as a non-linear, emotionally charged and politically relevant social document rather than merely a diversion. Their work has led media historians to label the era a "second golden age of TV drama."
Now the term is being used again.
Overmyer, who has been writing in television longer than any of the current dramatists including Sorkin, says no one should be surprised by playwrights creating outstanding television - their work in the theater prepares them to succeed.
"Working in the theater gives you a lot of skills for television," he says. "You develop an ear for language and dialogue and character and how to shape a scene. That's all directly transferable to writing for television."
Although most major Hollywood films today are driven by action and special effects, television and theater still share a fundamental commitment to language: "Like theater, a lot of television today is all about talk," Overmyer says, pointing to the witty, rapid-fire banter that dominates a Sorkin teleplay.
Ken Olin, former thirtysomething star and director and producer of ABC's Alias, is not a playwright. But co-producing Brothers & Sisters with Baitz has convinced him that both television and theater are grounded in relationships, character and voice rather than action and plot.
"Film now - especially the big popular movies - is much more about an incident that moves to the next incident and then the one after that. And so it's all about the architecture of plot," Olin says.
"But theater is more about relationships, and language is the representation or evocation of those relationships - just as in TV. Outside of the strict procedurals, television - like theater - is driven by character and relationships."
Voice and tension
The key to developing a new series is finding its voice, says Olin, a Hollywood veteran who has worked as actor and director with celebrated writers ranging from Sorkin to J.J. Abrams (Alias).
"How do we a find a voice? - that's the question," he says. "Most playwrights, because the theater is so dependent on the dynamics of the language, have already developed a voice. That makes them very attractive when you're trying to create a new TV series and give it an identity. When you have a writer like Sorkin or Robbie Baitz, you are way ahead of the game, because they have a voice - a sound to their writing that is unique to their perspective on the world."
In writing for theater, Baitz says, "Your North Star is character. Character is fate." In learning to write plays, he explains, "You learn to trust your voice and your sense of argument. You learn how a good argument has a sense of athleticism to it. You learn how to shape and run through a conflict."
In Baitz's view, the hourlong network drama is becoming a "form with enough room for the real poetry of the way people speak, for real conflict and real subtext."
All of which are on display in tonight's episode of Brothers & Sisters.
Now in its third week, the family drama features a stellar cast, including Academy Award winner Sally Field, Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal), Patricia Wettig (thirtysomething) and Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under). After the patriarch and head of the family business (Tom Skerritt) dies of a heart attack in the pilot episode, his survivors then must grieve while coping with a slew of startling revelations about the dead man.
The big scenes throughout the series possess a decidedly theatrical staging and sensibility - typically occurring around the family dining table. In a scene that will air tonight, Field's character, matriarch Nora Holden, presides over a dinner party that includes her dead husband's mistress (Wettig).
The tension is exquisite as family members strain to make conversation. Thanks to a great script and Field's deft performance, the scene builds to the kind of highly charged, cathartic moment that sends dazzled playgoers into the lobby at intermission buzzing about what they just experienced.
Making 'a connection'
A playwright's understanding of how to elicit that kind audience reaction enhances television writing, says Shawn Ryan, a non-playwright who created The Shield for cable channel FX and now produces The Unit for CBS with Mamet.
"The great thing about Dave is that he has a lifetime of work under his belt where he sat in the back seats of theaters and watched people reacting to what he had written," Ryan says.
"When you work on a TV show, you finish it, and three or four weeks later it's on the air, and you don't really see people reacting directly to it. That lifetime in the theater gave him a real connection to and sense of audience that few people in television have."
Mamet also has little use for some of the conventions of writing network drama, which has allowed The Unit to take chances in its storytelling. "He really challenges notions that the television industry tends to drill into you," Ryan says.
"Let's put it this way, you're encouraged to make things brutally clear - to sort of double and triple explain things so that your bottom 10 percent of intelligence in your audience will understand what's going on. And David really hates exposition - hates explaining things for a second or third time - and wants to cut straight to the drama. He taught me that sometimes you have to resist what the industry has taught you."