Theater Issue 2013: Why Be a Playwright in L.A.? 

Thursday, Apr 4 2013

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Haley co-rented a house in North Hollywood with Jen Swain, a friend from Providence who'd come to L.A. before Haley and reported back what a good time she was having. Swain's husband-to-be, Eric Blume Bloom, moved in as well. "The three of us made up a sort of Three's Company," Haley says. (The Blumes Blooms went on to form theater company Santa Monica Rep.)

"We had performance salons in this house," Haley adds. "Making theater in our house the whole time. I think that's an unusual first three years for someone in L.A. I was interested in TV, but I was not running around hunting down that dream."

Two years after arriving here, Haley's play about Internet gaming, Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, was selected for production at the prestigious Actors Theatre of Louisville (Ky.) Humana Festival of New Plays (it eventually was produced here at Sacred Fools). That placed her on the national radar, opening doors to subsequent opportunities — leading eventually to the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for The Nether, awarded to promising female playwrights, and its $25,000 prize, which allowed Haley to take early retirement from her day job in web design.

click to flip through (3) PHOTO BY STAR FOREMAN - Jennifer Haley
  • Jennifer Haley

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It was Center Theatre Group's literary manager, Pier Carlo Talenti, who submitted The Nether for the Blackburn. Haley says he neglected to tell her that he'd done so; she only learned she'd been entered when she won.

Talenti invited Haley into a CTG playwriting group after reading The Nether. "She's very smart but in a way unguarded," he explains. "And she has forthright questions about her own work."

He adds, "Jennifer may be an emerging playwright, but she's not an emerging woman. She's been in the trenches."

She now shares an Eagle Rock apartment with Lover Boy — a cat, so named because of the way he sprawls under her sheets in the winter, with his head on her pillow. Eagle Rock's dusty heat and urban blight don't trouble her. Together, she and Lover Boy gaze from their patio upon the majestic beauty of the San Gabriel Mountains and regard themselves lucky to be here.

Haley says she never stayed anywhere for the sake of a relationship — even a human one. Work and career always came first. These days, with the exception of a "fun and [emotionally] unencumbered" guy who lives in Connecticut, she hasn't been dating much.

"The flip side," she says, "is I have a lot of time to focus on my career and my work." 

With tag-team agents at CAA on both coasts, Haley now is being sent out on meetings for television, "usually with a gatekeeper, and if they like me, they send me to showrunners" — the head writer — for pilots in contention for network series. "In May, they decide what shows they're doing, then they go to their dream teams."

Haley says she was ambivalent about TV for a long time because she wanted to figure out who she was as a writer on her own, not as part of a team.

"Playwriting offers autonomy," Haley explains. Yet with that autonomy, she discovered a certain isolation. When she was asked to start a writers' group at the Victory Theatre Center, which came to be known as the Los Angeles Playwrights Union, she was amazed by the need for "home" it fulfilled — a kind of social/professional club among people with common artistic interests. Today there's participation not only by L.A. scribes but also playwrights passing through from Chicago and New York.

Haley has been lucky enough to be offered commissions by several theaters, including South Coast Repertory, to write whatever kind of play she wants — commissions that generally come with $10,000 to $15,000, and for which the theater generally gets the first right of refusal to produce the play.

She's grateful for the opportunity but points out, "If they choose not to do it, that puts a stain on the play."

Either way, she adds, "It's really hard to make a living that way."

And making a living as a writer is Haley's bottom line. That's why she's now willing to take on television writing — it pays the bills.

Some playwrights, among them Jane Anderson, Neil LaBute and Theresa Rebeck, remain involved in theater after immersing themselves in TV and film. But many more are never heard from in theater again.

Haley insists that won't be her. "I feel I have this nice body of work, and if I go into TV, I won't disappear from the theater community."

The Nostalgist

Michael Sargent writes sexually charged drawing-room comedies that often are tinged with ironic sadness. His genres range from porno and noir to soap opera. His plays often make idiosyncratic references to L.A. of years gone by, like the old Hollywood eateries Nickodell and Tick Tock Restaurant — "poetry that should resonate," he says, but has a hard time landing in the land of collective amnesia. The quality and concerns of his writings peg him as a latter-day Oscar Wilde, extravagant and witty, under the hallucinogenic influences of Sam Shepard and Christopher Durang.

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