The Female Playwrights Transforming Television

Character and dialogue? We got this. A new generation of female playwrights is shaking up television writers’ rooms across Hollywood.

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter at a rehearsal for her work Miss Lilly Gets Boned at the Electric Lodge theater in Venice, California.
Playwright Bekah Brunstetter at a rehearsal for her work Miss Lilly Gets Boned at the Electric Lodge theater in Venice, California.
CHRISTINA GANDOLFO

In the theater world, a playwright can take months to write a piece and spend years in readings and workshops before, if ever, seeing it onstage; in television, that same playwright can dash off an episode in a week and have an audience of millions that fall. A decent writer can make a solid living in TV (sometimes more than solid), whereas only a handful of playwrights in the entire country make a living solely from writing plays, with everyone else supplementing their income as a teacher or a teaching artist or, yes, a TV writer. And with the steady and ongoing growth of streaming—last year, there were nearly 500 scripted shows on television, an all-time record—the jobs are there. Factor in the perks (travel per diems, superior craft service grub), and it’s easy to understand why so many playwrights are making the move, whether as writers or producers or even showrunners.

Playwrights have famously toiled in television before: Arthur Miller adapted Death of a Salesman for the small screen; Clifford Odets worked himself to death (see: Barton Fink) after making his hard break from Broadway for Los Angeles. Many of their cohorts arrived on the West Coast when the New York–centric theater establishment still looked down on the fledgling medium. Nearly all of those playwrights were men. In the past few years, both of those traditions have been turned on their heads.

Driven by peak TV’s seemingly wide-open opportunities as they are driven away by the lack of work in the American theater, many female playwrights are now supplementing their income in the writers’ rooms of Hollywood. Since 1903, of the thousands of Broadway musicals—by far the industry’s biggest moneymakers—and musical revues, less than 60 have been scored by women; today, of all the plays produced anywhere in the United States, tune-filled or otherwise, less than a third are written by female playwrights. Things are even worse in feature films, where women make up less than a fifth of all screenwriters and less than 10 percent of the directors. By contrast, more than a third of the writers in TV are women, in a medium where credits are cast in plurals—instead of writers, for instance, there are writers’ rooms.

The migration hasn’t gone unnoticed by individuals within the industry—or by others hoping to break into it. Last year, producer Kelly Miller joined Paradigm Talent Agency in Beverly Hills solely to rep playwrights who want to cross over into TV, focusing on a clientele of female, transgender, and writers of color. There are panel discussions about the phenomenon (the Austin Film Festival’s “Playwrights in the Writers Room” was one) and classes offering how-to tips (Primary Stages’ TV-writing course for “playwrights who want the tools to transition from stage to screen”). But despite the challenges of the theater, not to mention the siren call of TV, many female playwrights are still drawn to their local playhouse, creating new works (or supervising old ones) even as they pitch their latest pilot. Here are four writers who’ve made the leap—all founding members of the Kilroys, an L.A.-based theater collective dedicated to gender parity—navigating between two worlds.

Despite steady writing staff positions for popular shows like This Is Us, Bekah Brunstetter has never given up on theater and uses her plays as writing samples to secure new gigs in TV.
Despite steady writing staff positions for popular shows like This Is Us, Bekah Brunstetter has never given up on theater and uses her plays as writing samples to secure new gigs in TV.
CHRISTINA GANDOLFO

THIS IS THE NEW US

Bekah Brunstetter was at the Electric Lodge theater in Venice last July, listening to a table read of Miss Lilly Gets Boned, which premiered in 2010. The play’s main characters include a virginal Sunday school teacher, Miss Lilly, and a life-size elephant named Harold. At a conference table littered with snacks—trail mix, Altoids, a peach—and laptops (no paper scripts here), Brunstetter watched intently as the actress Kavi Ladnier, as the Elephant Doctor, spoke to Harold, the elephant, who was not in the room that day, about raping a rhino. “Do we really want a rape joke here?” Brunstetter wondered aloud. (“Less rape is always better,” she ultimately decided.) The playwright went through each scene with the director and assembled actors, tweaking lines here and slashing chunks there. “Rewriting this play is really hard,” she said.

Brunstetter was struggling mightily with Miss Lilly because she’s something of a perfectionist, but also because changes in the world since she’d first staged the play nine years earlier—the #MeToo movement perhaps most of all—had made some of its elements noticeably problematic, or at least worthy of a second look. So she was taking one. Also over those nine years, the playwright had established a career for herself in TV, writing scripts for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the NBC hit show This Is Us, for which she received three Emmy nominations. For the past decade, Brunstetter has moved between theater table reads and TV writers’ rooms and back again, from the La Jolla Playhouse and New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club to Paramount Pictures Studios in Hollywood. In fact, after Brunstetter finished up at the Electric Lodge, she would catch a flight to Oklahoma to conduct research for a TV pilot she was working on, based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the same name.

Scene from the television program This Is Us, on which Bekah Brunstetter worked as a writer.
Scene from the television program This Is Us, on which Bekah Brunstetter worked as a writer.
VIVIAN ZINK/NBC

Born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Brunstetter began writing plays as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Many of her works reflect her roots in the South. Oohrah! is about a soldier in Iraq who returns, early and unexpectedly, to his home in Fayetteville (chaos ensues); The Cake is a topical tale about a baker in Winston-Salem who refuses her services for a gay couple’s wedding. Brunstetter came to L.A. in 2012, for the presumably steadier work of a TV writer. Gigs on MTV’s I Just Want My Pants Back and Underemployed led to staff positions on ABC’s Switched at Birth and, most recently, the Emmy-winning This Is Us. But Brunstetter never gave up on the theater. As her list of TV credits lengthened, she continued to write plays, sending them out as writing samples to get her next TV gig. “I actually don’t have a TV sample,” she says. “I usually just send out whatever my new play is.”

In September, Brunstetter returned to the Electric Lodge to take in a full rehearsal of Miss Lilly. In the two months since that initial table read, the show had lost two of its leads—Miss Lilly and her cad of a lover, Richard—to, what else, TV, only to replace them with two other actors with extensive TV and film credits, Larisa Oleynik (Pretty Little Liars) and Iman Nazemzadeh (NCIS). All was going swimmingly: the actors were riveting, the sets (a Sunday school room, two bedrooms, and a large elephant cage in Nigeria) convincing, the snorting, stamping elephant, controlled by three pro puppeteers, a living thing. Brunstetter was enjoying herself, smiling at the performances and scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad.

Despite her busy TV schedule, Brunstetter recently began work on yet another new play, one of four theater commissions she has pending. Finding the time to write those while working on her assorted TV projects and pilots will take some doing, but it’s all about prioritizing, she says. TV comes first, because that’s what pays the bills. TV has allowed her to buy a house, to work on plays, and to travel to productions of those plays if the spirit moves her. But her creative juice still comes from the theater. “If you love it, you love it, and you can’t not love it,” she says. “Oftentimes when I have an idea, it’s ‘Ooh, I want to write a play about that.’ I’m not like, ‘Ooh, I want to write a movie about that’ or ‘I want to write a TV show about that.’ My ideas begin with plays.”

A poet and a playwright, Carla Ching had to be a quick study when she landed her first TV gig on the USA drama Graceland. Now she writes for shows like Fear the Walking Dead.
A poet and a playwright, Carla Ching had to be a quick study when she landed her first TV gig on the USA drama Graceland. Now she writes for shows like Fear the Walking Dead.
CHRISTINA GANDOLFO

REWRITING THE VERSE

After growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Carla Ching moved to New York to attend Vassar, eventually teaching high school English to fund the life of a poet. But a stint with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York sparked her love of playwriting, and on the strength of the small, intimate works she created there, Ching got a gig on the USA drama Graceland, a splashy procedural about a team of improbably beautiful undercover federal agents based in a Southern California beach house. “My plays would not have indicated that that would be an awesome fit,” she remembers with a laugh. “But the showrunner took a chance on me.”

Ching admits that she knew little about the nuts and bolts of TV writing when she first became a TV writer. “My beloved coworkers, these young dudes who were, like, 10 years younger than me, all had to teach me, from the ground up, how to write for TV,” she says. When she was assigned to write her first script, she didn’t know where to start. “I showed it to one of my colleagues, and he goes, ‘Carla, this is an outline with dialogue,’ ” she recalls.

She was a quick study, however, and soon moved on to shows like I Love Dick and The First. She learned to match the voice of the show with that of the showrunner (job one for any series writer); to “talk all day” in writers’ rooms when she was more used to the solitary life of a poet and playwright; and to get along in rooms filled with dissimilar, sometimes clashing personalities. The money, she admits, was a big draw. “I was $24,000 in credit card debt and looking down the barrel of not knowing how I was going to retire,” she says.

Cast members from the AMC series Fear the Walking Dead.
Cast members from the AMC series Fear the Walking Dead.
AMC

Despite the relatively poor pay, thanks to her TV paychecks, Ching continues to work in the theater. On a recent production, she worked for six weeks (“not counting the six years it took me to develop the play”) for 10 to 12 hours a day, sitting in on table reads and rehearsals and previews. Her total paycheck for the month-and-a-half project: $5,000. “That’s less than I would make in a week as a television writer,” she says.

With that sort of pay gap, it’s easy to see why many playwrights who make it in TV never go back. “I know a lot of people who just said, ‘I quit theater,’ ” she says. “And I understand. People have families, or they get frustrated because they’re not getting produced. And if you’re a person of color, it’s even harder. I don’t blame people for leaving.”

Even so, Ching has seen many of her colleagues keep their feet in both worlds, enriching both. “Some of the most interesting playwrights of our time are working in television,” she says. She begins a recitation: Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, Nick Jones, Sheila Callaghan, and “some of my favorite Asian American writers, like Lauren Yee, Hansol Jung, Jiehae Park. Everybody’s doing it, and many of them are finding ways to work on really cool, interesting shows.”

And the theater? “We do it because we love it,” says Ching, who writes and produces for series like Fear the Walking Dead and Preacher. “It’s the theater. But I also think there’s this weird suffering mentality that I know I fell into. I was like, ‘Oh, it’s just supposed to be this hard. I’m supposed to be this broke.’ You’re supposed to suffer and pay your dues just to maybe get onstage, if you’re lucky.”

In television, Tanya Saracho started writing for hits like How to Get Away with Murder before creating her own series, Vida, on Starz.
In television, Tanya Saracho started writing for hits like How to Get Away with Murder before creating her own series, Vida, on Starz.
CHRISTINA GANDOLFO

THE SHOWRUNNER’S VIDA

Before she was 10, Tanya Saracho had lived in nine different places in Mexico, mostly port towns. A self-described extrovert—“kind of like I am now, but louder”—Saracho took to her school’s performing arts program when her family relocated to the border town of McAllen, Texas. Later, in Chicago, she wrote and acted in plays and founded the all-Latinx theater ensemble Teatro Luna. During the run of her 2002 play Kita y Fernanda, she cleaned the toilets, worked the box office, played Fernanda, and directed the show. The set had a budget of 500 bucks, she recalls, and was cobbled together from “trash, or borrowed things.” Soon after Kita y Fernanda, she wrote The Maria Chronicles, about the theater experiences of Latina actors like herself. “Every role we were going out for was named Maria,” she says. “And you’d see a lot of OGs that were amazing, you could see they were amazing, but they’d keep getting cast in plays in these one-line roles. You’d see them in these ‘Jes, Mr. Johnson’ roles and go, ‘Oh my God, what a waste.’ ” When Saracho came to L.A., her plan was to use TV to feed her theater habit. “TV was just for the paycheck,” she says.

Viola Davis on ABC's series How to Get Away with Murder.
Viola Davis on ABC’s series How to Get Away with Murder.
ABC

Then an unsettling thing happened in 2014 or 2015, around the time she was writing for HBO’s LGBTQ-centered Looking and the Emmy-winning series How to Get Away with Murder. “Some light turned off in me for plays,” she says, sounding frantic at the memory of it, even years later. “I was like, ‘Oh no, I lost it, I lost it.’ ” She had also become disillusioned by how little the needle has moved in the theater world, how so many of the same people are in the same positions of power, how tickets that start at $70 dictate and limit what sorts of audiences are going to see shows. “I was so nervous about this conversation,” she tells me, getting worked up, “because I was going, ‘I’m just gonna do therapy, I bet.’ ”

Right now, Saracho is committed to TV in a big way, as the creator, writer, director, and showrunner of the Starz series Vida. She credits her time in the theater with giving her the aptitude for character and dialogue that she employs in her show. “I wrote little plays,” she says. “My plays were not usually, like, big things. And that’s how my TV show is. It’s about people talking and people fucking. It’s just people.”

With her playwriting mojo temporarily on the fritz, Saracho marvels at her colleagues who still find the time and energy to do both theater and TV, and do them both so well.

“There’s nothing more magical than sitting in a room and sharing an experience,” Saracho admits. “That never goes away.”

A master’s degree in playwriting led to a career in television for Daria Polatin, who writes and produces for shows like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and Castle Rock.
A master’s degree in playwriting led to a career in television for Daria Polatin, who writes and produces for shows like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and Castle Rock.
CHRISTINA GANDOLFO

A SHARED SKILL SET

In 2013, when Daria Polatin became a founding member of the Kilroys collective—creators of the List, an annual roundup of unproduced (or underproduced) plays by female, trans, and nonbinary writers—few playwrights in the group worked in TV. Among the current crop, many do—as do most of the group’s founding members.

“I’ve found my voice more valued in television,” says Polatin, who grew up traveling on five continents and received her MFA in playwriting from Columbia in 2007. She’d been driven by a lifelong dream of writing for the New York stage, but even before her graduation, TV executives were wooing her based on her college work. The writers’ rooms of L.A. started to look more attractive. “There was a little bit of a stigma before, like, ‘TV is selling out,’ ” she says. “Or, ‘Oh, L.A., it’s so shallow.’ But I came out here, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s really nice! People are really nice.’ And there were just so many more opportunities to tell stories. I found the medium of television was expanding, while I found the theater industry was, if not contracting, staying the same.”

Many playwrights like Polatin get their first opportunities in TV because a producer saw how they made a character come to life on the stage (or, as it happens, on the page), whether in a play about Asian American kids growing up in McMansions and motels in Anaheim (Ching’s Nomad Motel) or in a Latinx take on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard set in northern Mexico (Saracho’s El Nogalar). Ask a playwright why they’re valued by TV creators and producers, and they’ll say, “Character, character, character”: the ability to make a hero or heroine come to life within 90 minutes and 80-some pages, sometimes on the barest of sets. And then there’s the gift for dialogue. “Theater is a dialogue-driven medium, and television is too,” says Polatin. “If you look at film, that’s more of a visual medium, which lines up more with novels. So there’s a real kinship between playwrights and TV writers.”

John Krasinski is the latest Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan season.
John Krasinski is the latest Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan season.
AMAZON PRIME VIDEO

Polatin divides her time between writing plays and working in TV as a producer and writer (on shows like Castle Rock and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan). She’s developing two new TV projects, including a series for Netflix based on her 2017 mystery novel Devil in Ohio. For years, between gigs she worked on Palmyra, “a play I’ve always wanted to write,” about the relationship between an American photographer and her captor, a young British girl who joined ISIS. She wrote some of the earliest drafts of Palmyra at L.A.’s Center Theatre Group and developed it at New York’s Primary Stages; it’s the writing sample her manager sends to TV producers thinking of hiring her. Even so, “I have a better chance of getting Palmyra made as a film or a TV series than as a play,” she says. “I could self-produce it, do Kickstarter, sure. But why would I want to do that?”

“I’ll never not be a playwright, because that’s how I started, and that’s the foundation for my work,” says Polatin, who still dreams of someday staging Palmyra. “Playwriting was how I made my way in and how I learned a lot of the skills that I now bring to TV. But before, I probably was a playwright who writes for TV. Now I’m really a TV writer who writes plays. It’s flipped.”

CURTAIN UP

One can see why these playwrights keep returning to the theater. The actors are here, right here, not on some screen, so close you feel like you could reach out and touch them. There’s the nostalgia and familiarity of being back where all four of these women started, sure, but there’s also the joy of seeing this thing come to life before their eyes, live, now, not after a team of editors have had their way with it. “This specific moment has been in my head for so long, and then here it is, realized in front of me,” says Brunstetter. “That’s such a magical moment.”

Robert Ito is a journalist based in Los Angeles. He wrote an oral history of the San Francisco revue Beach Blanket Babylon for Alta, Fall 2019.

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