Theater Issue 2013: Why Be a Playwright in L.A.?
Toward the end of the new, futuristic play The Nether, a female detective faces the man she's been investigating — a man who has created a sexually deviant virtual reality. "The world is still a place we have to learn to be," she tells him.
After the cast takes its bows during the show's first preview performance, on March 19, The Nether's young playwright, Jennifer Haley, a petite, sharp-witted redhead who declined to give her age but looks like she's in her 30s, is standing in the spacious, neo-modern lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theatre speaking with friends and admirers.
Later, she hovers in the lobby, slightly agitated, listening to the postplay discussion, which follows each performance. She says she wants to hear "not just what they got but what they didn't get."
Haley used to be a freelance web designer, so she knows her way around technology. Her play — not her first dealing with the consequences of online fantasies — debuted last week in a world premiere by Center Theatre Group at the Douglas, the 317-seat house opened in Culver City by the Mark Taper Forum's founding artistic director, Gordon Davidson, for new plays. Such a production in a larger theater is a professional coup for a local writer, and may well be an example of what American Theatre magazine recently described as a revival of interest in new, lesser-known playwrights among larger, institutional theaters.
L.A. is a seductive place to put on a play. The city attracts some of the world's finest actors and directors. Audiences here are reputed to be open-minded and openhearted. Production costs remain a fraction of what they are in "theater cities" such as Chicago or New York.
But compared to those cities, play production here remains an activity, not an industry. There's a comparatively feeble marketing machine, which leaves most L.A. theater productions unrecognized by the nation's premier play publishers and producers. Putting on a play in L.A. has been equated with trying to build a snowman in the desert.
Furthermore, as in the rest of the country, the Herculean effort it takes to get a play performed and publicized still requires that the author have either a patron or some other source of income, just to keep bread on the table.
But dozens of top-flight playwrights have chosen to build their lives in Los Angeles. The main reason these writers remain here might seem at first glance to correspond to that old joke about why people rob banks: That's where the money is. Hollywood work is a great way for a writer to pay the bills.
While movie or TV writing as a means to prosperity may conform to a stereotype of why people stick around here, it doesn't complete the portrait. Other forces include artistic satisfaction, a sense of community, creative opportunities, having a family and friends, and belonging to a place almost all the playwrights interviewed called "home."
Jennifer Haley arrived in L.A. in 2006. She grew up in San Antonio and earned her B.A. at the University of Texas at Austin, where she wrote and performed solo shows and became involved as an actor in a commedia-style theater company, Troupe Texas, formed by a trio of UT grads. Troupe Texas eventually performed in nursing homes and housing projects outside Houston, using no props and often performing with audiences surrounding the actors.
After five years, in 1995, Troupe Texas ran out of steam. "Small theaters are amazing for the monumental effort that keeps them going," Haley explains. "Then we got older and went our separate ways."
Haley spent a couple years writing plays in Seattle before returning to Austin. Her aim was to transition out of freelance web design to making her living as a writer.
"There was something about being in the middle of the country. I didn't feel I could make a career out of it," she says. "I wanted a career where the writing paid for itself, and not because I was a teacher or a web designer."
Haley left Austin to attend grad school at Brown University, where she studied playwriting under one of her idols, Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive). Facing the possibilities of New York and Los Angeles, Haley chose L.A.
"I was in a cave during graduate school, and when I surfaced, I started watching TV and was impressed by the quality of the writing in shows like The Sopranos, and I thought of coming here," she says. "It seemed like less of a cliché than [being a playwright in] New York. I like sunshine and I don't mind driving — those are not things that stop me."
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.
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."
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.
Sargent is a dashing, tall figure, looking considerably younger than his 45 years, with flowing, shoulder-length hair, bushy eyebrows and penetrating brown eyes.
He grew up "all over Ohio," where his dad worked in a various steel mills. His parents moved to Ventura in 1977, when Sargent was still a teenager. His father wanted to make it as an actor.
The elder Sargent was very supportive of his son's writing, attending every play he put on, until his parents' marriage dissolved in the wash of his father's alcoholism. His dad returned to the Midwest, where he died about 12 years ago. (Sargent's mother now lives in San Luis Obispo with her new husband.)
In those formative years, Sargent traveled to L.A. as often as he could to partake of the burgeoning theater scene, engaging in what he describes as a "campaign to get noticed." Where other playwrights might send a script to a literary manager and then wait for months for a response before following up with a phone call, Sargent would walk in, script in hand, and read the play out loud in its entirety, playing all the roles with vivacity, recalls director Bart DeLorenzo, a devoted fan of Sargent's writing.
DeLorenzo staged a site-specific interpretation of Sargent's The Projectionist, starring Hamish Linklater, in the lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2009. That play, set on Hollywood Boulevard, recalled Sargent's days working at Collectors Bookstore, a memorabilia shop in the same area, after he dropped out of UCLA in 1988 on the heels of his parents' divorce and financial implosion.
A playwriting group headed by much-heralded scribe John Steppling took in the young college dropout. Steppling was himself a poster child for a then-new punk brand of playwriting, embraced by Robert Egan, who was running the Taper's new-play program.
According to Sargent, Egan told him, "We're not doing your plays anytime soon. They're too raw. But how can we help?"
Sargent asked him for connections, and Egan obliged, giving him introductions to sought-after directors such as Ron Link and David Schweizer, who would commission him to write a film script. (With Egan's influence, one of Sargent's plays, Torn Between Two Bitches, would eventually make it into the Taper's 2001 New Works Festival.)
Still, Sargent wonders if professional opportunities were stifled by the familial financial crisis that forced him out of UCLA. While a student there, between 1986 and 1988, Sargent's play When Esther Saw the Light, starring then-student Jack Black, won an American College Theatre Festival new play award. His lack of a B.A. certainly curtailed entry into graduate school, which often leads to the teaching opportunities that support artists.
Sargent never wrote for TV, but he did write "a flurry" of commissioned movie screenplays between 1996 and 2000. He wrote a movie for Bill Pullman, I Dare You, about a daredevil. He worked for Ben Stiller and Tim Burton.
"None of my movies got made," he says. "That's the big tease. My agent moved from one agency to another, and then he retired, and [my screenwriting career] was retired, too."
However, the money Sargent earned from those commissioned screenplays allowed him to direct his own play, Steeltown, at the Actors' Gang in 1998. Director Lisa Peterson saw it and invited Sargent to join the Taper's playwriting group, a predecessor of the one Haley had joined.
Though Sargent worked his way into the upper echelons of New York stages with workshop productions at New York Theatre Workshop, Circle Repertory and Atlantic Theater Company (to which he was invited after ensemble member William H. Macy saw one of his plays in L.A.), he's never received a full production in New York.
These days, working largely without an agent, Sargent is the embodiment of what he calls the DIY playwright, often directing and fundraising for his own plays. His playwriting career has been propelled by relationships he has forged with theaters he has called home: the Cast Theatre on El Centro, when it was run by Ted Schmitt and Diana Gibson, Actors Gang, Theatre/Theater, Evidence Room and the Unknown Theatre — along with influential advocates such as Macy, Schweizer and Egan.
Sargent, who has had six plays produced in the past five years, says productions come "in fits and starts" after he lobs his newest writing to anyone he thinks might be interested.
What's made so much of his career possible is a patron. Though Sargent mentors young playwrights at Occidental College, he doesn't currently work in film or TV, he's not a web designer and, for the most part, he doesn't teach.
"Let's just say I don't have another job," he says. "My husband is a behavior-modification specialist, and he keeps us eating. I've been with him since college. We're at 26 years in May. He's done sets and costumes for my plays."
Sargent also wonders if things might have been different if he'd chosen to settle in New York rather than in L.A.
"There's not a lot of continuity between generations here," he says. "People come and go and don't remember who you were."
But L.A. is simply his home. "I have a point of view about my city, Los Angeles. So I don't want to write a play about Philadelphia. ... It's a struggle, but I'm Zen about it. I'm still curious where it's all going to lead. I'm hoping for the big reveal. But I always seem to go up. Over the years, I think I've become a better writer, and to me that's the most important thing."
Over in Los Feliz, Doris Baizley's play Sexsting (co-written with Susan Raffanti) at the 40-seat Skylight Theatre opens with a scene that's like a mirror image of the opening scene in Haley's The Nether.
An FBI agent impersonates a preteen girl in an online chatroom, as part of a sting operation designed to nab pedophiles by luring them into a real-world meeting. Though the perp expresses apprehension about meeting the "girl," several times refusing "her" invitation, the agent has the "girl" chastise him and threaten suicide if he doesn't visit. The scene supports the play's larger point: We all could go to jail if provoked to act on any of the sicknesses residing in our souls.
This is the L.A. premiere of a play based largely on FBI case files. It won the 2004 Guthrie/Playwrights Center Challenge grant for development and was first presented in 2007 by the Salt Lake Acting Company.
Baizley is in her late 60s, with ebullient energy and sparkling eyes. She has enjoyed a prolific playwriting and screenwriting career, lasting decades, from her Venice home, where she's lived since 1984 and reared a son with her architect husband, Ed Woll. Baizley's plays, including Catholic Girls and Mrs. California, have been produced in theaters large and small around the country.
Baizley was born in Portland, Maine, grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Vassar.
"I thought I would never, ever come to Los Angeles. From the fifth grade, I wanted to be a playwright and go to New York. I actually thought I had invented dialogue," she says with the slightest twist of whimsy before sipping from her coffee mug in her kitchen.
Her first play, written at the age of 10, concerned Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh. In Act 1, he offers his cape so she can cross over mud. Then she knights him. In Act 2, James has become king, and he cuts off Raleigh's head.
"We did it at school," Baizley says. "We used a basketball for the head. It was a huge hit. It occurs to me now, it contained everything I would ever be writing about — documentary material and knockout special effects — things I still haven't pursued enough."
Like Haley, Baizley benefited from programs aimed at promoting female writers. Where Haley's Blackburn Prize (given exclusively to women) allowed her to give up her day job as a web designer, Baizley was the beneficiary of the women's movement–driven push by cultural institutions to better include both genders: It directly led to a fellowship in Los Angeles.
Baizley had been part of an exciting arts scene in the East Village, where she'd had a couple of plays produced. But, she says, her career "wasn't leading anywhere."
Then, in 1973, she was given an American Film Institute fellowship — a scholarship to study filmmaking in Los Angeles. "I thought, 'I don't want to write screenplays in Los Angeles.' It turned out to be my nightmare of what I thought it was like. AFI was like a mansion with guys in suits carrying locked briefcases and making appointments to speak to the guest speakers. It was horrible!"
At the same time, as soon as she sent in her application to AFI, she got a phone call from John Dennis, who was running the Taper's Improvisational Theatre Project and was seeking a staff writer of children's plays for $75 a week.
He told her to fill out a questionnaire by the following week. One question: "How would you stage a dictionary?"
"I thought, 'Oh, my God, I really like this guy!' " Baizley recalls.
And he liked her. He toured his productions of her plays Bugs and Guns, which gave the eponymous subjects dialogue.
Baizley's version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was an annual fixture at the Taper from 1976 to 1980. She and Michael Sargent were later colleagues in the Taper's playwrights group.
"When I came out here, I was a total New York snob. 'If it isn't off-off-Broadway, if it's commercial, I don't want anything to do with it,' " she says. "I got off the plane in 1973, I didn't know what L.A. looked like. I saw mountains, and figured I was in the wrong place."
Then she saw ITP's production of The Death and Life of Billy the Kid at a soundstage at Fox. "It was outrageous, just beautiful, this poetic ensemble play."
Baizley has been around long enough to be nostalgic for the Taper's New Works Festival — an annual series of play readings and workshop productions, which ran from 1988 to 2000.
"It's not getting the play on, it's the one time of year, in one place, that playwrights could meet each other," she says. "It gave L.A. the feeling of a literary community, a playwrights' community. It gave a heartbeat to being a playwright in L.A., which I miss a little bit." (This is precisely the hunger that Haley's L.A. Playwrights Union has been feeding.)
In recent years, Baizley has worked with Lodestone Theatre Ensemble as well as on documentary dramas for stage, film and radio on issues of social justice, writing, as she puts it, stories where "whoever stands up for something always gets punished."
Her Mrs. California — a comedy-drama (premiered in 1984 by the Taper and produced at the Coronet Theatre in West Hollywood) about a 1950s beauty pageant for married women — remains Baizley's most produced play.
She went to see a recent production at Smith College, almost 30 years after its premiere.
"I walked in early and I heard the lighting designer shouting, 'OK, we need the Dot special, now the Babs special [lights focusing on the play's principal characters]' and I started to cry. These kids weren't even born when I wrote that play.
"I thought, this is what it's like to be an old playwright with a play that outlives you."
The 34th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards will take place Monday, April 8, at the Avalon Hollywood. For more information, and to buy tickets, visit laweekly.com/theaterawards.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story contained a quote that the story subject believes was off the record. This version was edited on April 4 to remove the sentence in question.