Achieving an entirely plausible yet unorthodox version of "success" — at least for a playwright — Alexander Woo has settled comfortably into TV as a writer-producer. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama and Princeton University, the Chinese-American scribe has been a staff writer on the Fox drama Wonderfalls and now is a writer-producer on HBO's True Blood. (He was married in 2011 to Whitney Friedlander, who writes frequently for L.A. Weekly.)
Woo's stage comedies and farces were produced at North Carolina's Triad Stage (Debunked, 2004), at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival (Forbidden City Blues, 1999), and in L.A. by Circle X Theatre Company (In the Sherman Family Wax Museum, 1999), but he hasn't had any plays done lately, and that doesn't bother him one bit.
After graduating from Yale in 1997, Woo came here "just to move into another part of the country."
He wrote plays here for six years, with little initial interest in TV. "I was a playwright. I had in my head that TV was the 'idiot box,' " he says.
Since Woo entered TV's environs in 2003, he has become an advocate for TV writing, and not just because it provides a living wage. He believes TV provides writers with opportunities that are shrinking in theater — or at least in commercial theater.
"Commercial theater has moved more and more toward 'museum theater' — finding the most famous play you can by the most famous playwright you can, by the most famous actors you can," he says. "TV still feels like a writer's medium."
That's especially true compared with film, where the director is king. Alexander Woo is not a household name, yet he says, "I'm the writer on the set — that would be unusual in film. The cast and the directors and the production staff all turn to you [the writer], just like in theater, because you know where the story has been and where it's going."
In 2008, Center Theatre Group's literary manager, Pier Carlo Talenti, invited Woo into CTG's playwriting group. They did a private, semi-staged reading/workshop of Woo's play The Murphy Game, about a magician and huckster who performs in yellowface in a potentially lethal attempt to take advantage of the 19th-century Orientalist craze sweeping the nation.
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Talenti remains a fan of Woo's play, though it has yet to be produced."One of the factors that prevents a play from getting on is my own lack of ambition," Woo says. "It takes a great deal of drive and self-promotion to get a play put on, and when you have another full-time job, it's easy to leave that aside."
Plus, while it may sound like rationalizing, Woo insists he no longer needs to see his plays produced. "TV satisfies that urge to see something I write get produced. The plays help to scratch a [different] itch I have as a writer" — to explore territory and forms that might be more restricted by TV.
"The process of writing the play, for me, that was satisfaction enough."