Where have the playwrights gone?

Playwright Kelly Stuart is frustrated.

Three regional theaters turned down her recent play, "Mayhem," calling it "too challenging for our audiences." She already has to rely on teaching to bring home a steady paycheck. And after 20 years of writing, she'd like to support her family with her craft. Wearied by the theater, she's decided to look westward for help.

"Usually in my career, I've written a play every year. But now I'm going to also make sure I write a screenplay every year. I have to," says Ms. Stuart, who teaches at Columbia University in New York.

Playwrights have shuttled between Hollywood and the theater for decades. But the commute is looking more attractive lately, with the poor economy affecting the arts, and mass media growing in influence.

Last week, the University of Southern California (USC) announced it plans to expand its graduate program in playwriting next fall to include required courses in writing for film and TV. It's just the latest indication that spotlights alone are not enough to light up a career.

"It's a contemporary reflection of what dramatic writing is like," says Velina Hasu Houston, a playwright and director of the USC dramatic writing program. Any young writer who plans to make a living as a dramatic writer, "should have as extensive a portfolio as possible," she says.

On the East Coast, the dearth of staged drama is perhaps making the case for cross-genre experience. During the month of September, only one play will be on Broadway - "Take Me Out," the Tony-winning tale of a gay baseball player.

It's a temporary situation, as at least six plays will arrive in October. And playwrights say that Times Square doesn't always equal high theater - pointing out that top talents from Arthur Miller to Edward Albee recently have picked regional theater and off-Broadway over the Tonys' stomping grounds.

Even so, with the economy not exactly booming, now is not a great time (if there is one) to be trying to earn a living from the theater, note observers - making Hollywood look all the more appealing. In New York, for example, several theaters that focus on new works are doing fewer plays than they did 30 years ago, dropping from two dozen a year on average to six or eight today.

Playwrights report that some regional theaters are taking fewer risks on the plays they do produce, sticking with classics or nationally tested works. Several of those theaters have also closed their literary offices - their liaison to the playwriting community.

"It does feel like a very conservative time.... It's very discouraging," says Todd London, artistic director at the New Dramatists, a laboratory group in New York that helps playwrights hone their work.

About a quarter of the 40 artists he works with also write for Hollywood in some capacity, but he says that's hardly new. It takes too long between the time a play is written and the time it is produced to expect to use the money to cover rent. Instead, teaching at a university or writing for "The West Wing" or Paramount Pictures typically helps pay the bills. Hollywood can also help finance the time needed to concentrate on a playwright's first love, says Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel.

"[As a screenwriter], one makes in four to five weeks the same salary as an assistant professor in a year," says Ms. Vogel. "In four to five weeks, you gain the independence of a year."

Those who choose to do so follow in the path of famous writers like Horton Foote and even earlier masters such as Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. Modern luminaries include Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love") and David Hare, who adapted "The Hours."

In return for the chance at a heftier paycheck, playwrights offer TV and movie audiences more character-driven stories and, perhaps, greater creativity in the writing (think "Six Feet Under").

That HBO hit counts five people from the theater among its writing staff of eight, including Kate Robin. She, for one, dismisses the idea that having a playwright on staff automatically equals edgy, genre-bending material - saying that every writer brings something different to the script.

Nor does every playwright thrive in the chop shops of Hollywood. But if one does want to take the trip to L.A., she says, there's now less stigma attached, as far as the theater world is concerned. "It's more organic," explains the "Six Feet Under" writer. "Making a living in TV no longer precludes working in theater."

That's how it should be, considering today's media synergies, say some playwrights. Journalists often write for radio, TV, and print, says James Garcia, a freelance journalist and playwright in Phoenix, so why limit the possibilities for dramatic writing? "There's no reason why there needs to be so much segmentation in terms of ... dramatic storytelling," says Mr. Garcia, who is also working on a screenplay. "It could be on stage, it could be on television, it could be, for that matter, on the Internet."

And some suggest that playwrights ignore the structure of modern mass media at their own peril. With audiences now trained to think cinematically, working in Hollywood gives playwrights the understanding they need to translate that vision to the stage - offering live theater the structure and timing of the visual age.

"It makes American playwriting somewhat different from English and continental new plays - we are thinking cinematically," says Vogel, who also teaches at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

The cinematic style so informs the current generation, that Vogel guesses if she were a decade younger, she might have been an independent filmmaker instead of a playwright.

One name that often comes up as an example of a writer successfully crossing genres is Suzan-Lori Parks. She won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama for her play "Topdog/Underdog," and this year released her first novel, "Getting Mother's Body," inspired by William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." She's said in interviews that she's also working on a musical about the Harlem Globetrotters for Broadway, and screenplays and teleplays for Oprah Winfrey's production company.

"What's happening for all of us, but certainly for the younger writers, is a total disregard for barriers," says Madeline Puzo, dean of USC's School of Theatre. "Suzan-Lori Parks, she is a genius. So what she will do in film and television will be fascinating." If producers commit to making it, she adds.

For all the frustration that playwrights feel in getting their ideas - particularly the more political ones - to the stage right now, the reality is that theater is still the place where they have the most control. Vogel points out that screenwriting in America is done on the model of Henry Ford's Model T - with the writers being craftsmen, not creative people. "Screenwriting is the worst," notes Robin, who is currently working on an assignment for a movie studio. "You're the least empowered."

That doesn't stop people like Ms. Stuart from being interested in trying it. Much of her frustration with theater stems from the rejection of her play "Mayhem."

Timing was partially to blame: Written before 9/11, the play is a black comedy dealing with American women discovering political issues, including the oppression of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Stuart was in the position of pitching it shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center. It was eventually produced by a small theater in Los Angeles, but the experience of being turned down by regional theaters who could have furthered her career left her jaded.

"I was like, 'I've had it with theater, I've had it!' " she says. Even though she plans to split her time now, she says she could never leave playwriting entirely. "The actual experience of doing theater is like doing nothing else," she says. "It's a great unifier of people. TV and film can't replace it."

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