Writing For LA Theatre-Land

footlightsDuring a shoot from the hip’ L.A. theatre chat, TV writers (also producer & director respectively), David Castro (Married with Children, Bobby’s World, HBO) and Stan Zimmerman (The Golden Girls, Roseanne, Gilmore Girls) opened up about what it’s been like writing for stage after having lengthy and successful careers in network television. For David, theatre has been a life-long passion since attending Broadway matinees as a young boy, with his mom. Of course, being taken under the wings of a couple of comedy TV icons helped…a little.  In Stan’s case, (or so he kept telling me) writing for stage involved a lot of Martinis, great mentors and encouragement from some local friends.  The truth is…theatre is hard!  And as you’ll see, navigating the scene is just as difficult for a well-credited writer as it would be for a newbie coming out of school. It’s also, incredibly satisfying.

On The Hollywood Fringe Festival:

david castroDavid:  I was in an association of playwrights. You’re sitting in a room with [all these] people who are not getting their stuff produced.  It’s a cross section of L.A. like the cantina in Star Wars and thank God there were older people than me!  And you say you’re doing the Fringe and they’re all going, “I would never do the Fringe.”  And I just said, “Well then your play will sit in your drawer and no one will see it.”  Far too many people who aren’t getting their stuff seen are poo-pooing the idea of having it produced at a venue like the Hollywood Fringe.  So yeah, I’m a firm believer of the Fringe.

stan zimmermanStan:  I think Fringe is a great way to get something up there.  You just try it out. You can hear it.  I’ve been very lucky. The Blank Theatre also did a reading of my 2014 Fringe play Meet and Greet which went from Fringe to a full production.  They opened their arms and that helped to further develop it.  We now have two producers in New York who want to do it there. We also need to have more festivals here.  I’d like to start a comedy play festival. I’ve been dreaming of it. I think when you get people laughing and feeling it’s pretty powerful. 

On the subject of the Los Angeles Media:

Stan: I think a huge problem in L.A. is that the media doesn’t support theater. They don’t come out. They should be doing more pieces. In New York, for instance, it’s a different culture. A small theatre will get covered by local media and a show becomes something and people do go.  L.A. can be a theatre culture and I hope this can be forged. The new media and the old media, they’ve all got to be brought into the discussion.

Los Angeles Theatre Isn’t Always a Picnic:

Stan:  But it’s so difficult, as you know to make theatre in L.A.

David:  Well let’s face it, far too many people still think of theatre in Los Angeles as three shows that come in from New York after appearing for a year and a half on Broadway.

Stan:  I’ve been attempting to get my plays to larger Los Angeles theaters.  But I mostly write very commercial pieces, except for my last play, which was about suicide.  Many theaters want to do “important” plays and draw people in on that level.  It’s not quite the thing that I write so it’s very difficult to get in the door.  footlights But I’m going to keep knocking.  This is my home. I want to support it. That’s why I got involved with the Ovation Awards for instance. I want to get involved with theatre in L.A. 

David:  I’m in a different category. Stan has written a show that has more than two people and can go on for more than an hour. I’ve written three Fringe shows that last up to 60 minutes.  I’m in the process of adding a half hour to the show from this year, called  “Orson Welles and Scatman Crothers in A Hollywood Ending”.  I know after speaking to people, that I have to make it 75 to 90 minutes.  Of course, that still doesn’t mean that anyone will even read it, because I’m also an older writer.  That’s just the way it is.

Stan: Another challenge is getting the plays published. After Meet and Greet, I wrote to Samuel French, The Dramatists Guild and Stage Rights, even a new Broadway publishing company I found on Facebook, and the response was, “unless it’s done in New York…” Without the New York credit, they really weren’t interested.

Tracey:  Coming  from a totally different genre, what is writing for theatre really like? 

footlightsStan:  I was so tired of writing for network tv, having the studio come down every day and for whatever reason say, “Rewrite the whole thing. So when I got my first directing job at Celebration Theatre, I was so excited because the play couldn’t be touched.  It was just me and the cast and I just loved that part of it. And then I was in New York having drinks with Broadway producer Larry Hirschhorn who said, “You’re a writer! Go write! Neil Simon writes about his life – you should write about yours.” I didn’t want to hear that. Then I thought well, not about my life but what we do to actors to audition them for sitcoms.  And that’s what made me think of Meet and Greet.  We put four actors up for the same part in the same room having to deal with each other.  I just started laughing. 

David: For me it’s like I went through a worm hole and came out where I started.  I went to City College in New York and studied playwriting. I majored in theatre and journalism but wanted to write specifically for Broadway. I studied a year with American film and theatrical playwright, Israel Horowitz and with other great writers.   I was in the Musical Comedy Society. I had a cousin Benny, who was a violinist in the Broadway pits. On Sundays I’d see theatre with my mother. Every show. Twice.  I moved to San Francisco and got into standup comedy. Then I got into television and that all went sideways. 

Tracey: Because television was easier to get into?

David: It wasn’t easy. I got in because I had written for every comic in San Francisco, and because I knew how to write a script.  I wasn’t from an Ivy League school, you know. I didn’t have any relatives.  I just got in the business.  Harry Crane a 75 year old comedy man (The Honeymooners) read some material of mine, hired me in a day and I started working.

Stan: What was your first tv show?

David: It was an Alan King Special.  I was brought on by the very same Harry Crane who said, “For the first three days don’t say anything just watch and listen”. So Alan King (comedian, Hit the Deck) takes us all to Vegas. We’re all sitting in a cabana at Caesar’s Palace and I’m listening to these horrible jokes, so out of touch with everything.  On day three they don’t have anything and Alan says, 

footlights“I’m hearing the same crap every day from you guys!”  (Then turns to me)
“Whaddaya got kid? How come you haven’t spoken? What’s the matter with you? We’re payin’ ya good money.” 
“Harry said I shouldn’t talk for three days.”   
“Forget about Harry Crane! Whaddaya got?!” 
So I pitched him every joke I had and he yells, “Everybody leave the room! The kid and I are doing the tv board!” 

After that, I just keep working. I wrote for Variety, Not Necessarily the News and HBO and that led to sitcoms.

Stan: Did you write or go to theatre during that whole period?

David:  Absolutely. In fact, I remember seeing Morgan Freeman and the Blind Boys from Alabama in the Gospel at Colonus, and that’s old school L.A., the Aquarius Theatre.  It was maybe the greatest theatrical experience I had ever had.

Stan:  I wanted to be an actor. But I always loved television. Growing up I made my own little TV boards and counter programed seven days a week.   I dreamed of writing for television. Then I met my writing partner James Berg in New York and we started writing sitcoms scripts. L.A. people started responding and luckily we got a job very, very quickly.  It just kind of snowballed.

Tracey: So if you guys were so successful how did theatre manage to seduce you?

Stan: You never lose your love for it.  I always wanted to direct. So artistic director Michael Matthews and Todd Milliner and Sean Hayes of Celebration Theatre suggested I direct a play for them. The first thing out of my mouth was, “YES I’LL DO IT!”  I found Gemini. It was the 30th anniversary of it.  We put it up and I was bit by the bug.  What I didn’t know at the time was that there were all these Equity rules like the director can’t give notes once a show opens. In television, as a writer, giving notes is your stock. And I was like, “What do you mean? I have so many thoughts in my head!”  

Mans DominionDavid: See for me it’s actually a very different story. I moved to Asheville, N.C.  The story that became Man’s Dominion was in the paper because it was the anniversary.  The lynching of the elephant. Man’s Dominion took place 44 miles from Asheville. I said, “This is horrible I have to go to this town”. I saw the plaque in the ground, the gift shop that sold the T-shirts with the picture of the lynched elephant, and I just got angry.  When I returned to LA, four years later, I started writing monologues for characters that had been percolating and realized, “This is a one man show.” I had never written a full length or even a one hour play. But it was anger that made me do it and the art took the oldest form that I loved.  

Writing for TV Versus Writing for Stage

Stan:  Why I’ll just keep writing plays to get them better and better is that “every word is mine.”

David: On Married with Children, a great experience for me, the deal that show made was: no notes, no notes, no notes, no notes

Stan: That is very rare.

David:  It was. But the beauty of being on a show with no notes after being on a show for 12 years with notes, it’s like, “This is our show now”.  It’s the writers’ and the actors’ show. It’s not a network show. It’s not a guy-in-a-suit show.  It’s us.  It’s me.  I love it. I want that weight.  Because when I sit in the back and I hear the people, sometimes they are on the edge of their seats and they’re laughing or their sobbing — I get this incredibly gratifying feeling, like nobody else had that line.

Stan: It’s me and the actors making a pie. And right before the opening we say to ourselves “What have we done? Why are we doing this”?  We get so nervous.  Then you hear the laughter.

David: Thanks (then) to Matt Quinn at Theatre Asylum we got to do Man’s Dominion several times and we got picked up this year for pre-Fringe by Studio C on Hollywood Row. What we built in after that first six shows was a Q&A at the end and THAT is the single most gratifying thing – going up on stage after. I mean people didn’t want to leave and they shared some intense stuff.  This young African-American actor said to Tim Powell (my actor), very honestly, because Tim does one black character within the ten, “I gotta tell ya, when you started talking I was ready to go up there and punch you in the face, ‘cause I’m hearing Uncle Remus.  But then I heard what you were saying…” And he’s crying and I’m thinking, “My God we’ve got something.  We made this guy feel.”  In TV, I make people laugh. What we’re all doing I think in LIVE theatre especially, it’s much more “human”. 

footlightsStan:  I loved when back on Golden Girls, four of the most amazing actresses in the world would be laughing at what they were doing – that came through my crazy little head.  It was like LIVE theatre to me, doing it on multi-cam.  So in a way we never gave up on the theatre.  There’d be a LIVE audience and you’d get to hear people laughing at the jokes. I did a Q&A with my 2015 Fringe play, Suicide Notes, and people did NOT want to leave.  We went out onto the street sharing stories. I would turn on my computer the next morning and people would be writing me and saying, “You know I didn’t want to tell you then, but this happened…”

It was very intense but so rewarding.  In these little theaters here, a play can grow.  My dream is to get this play into schools and especially universities, do it in a kind of Vagina Monologues style.  Once people know the title, the more people know about it, the more places it can go.

Tracey:  Biggest difference between writing TV and writing Theater?

Stan: We have to write fast.  TV shows we do every night – we have to write a whole half hour.

David:  If you’re trusted by the show runner he’ll say, “This show you wrote is crap.  Go home and bring it back tomorrow at 7am”.  And that’s what we have to do.

Stan:  And we do it.  You get a note on a Tuesday night, and you’re staying until Wednesday morning. You don’t have a choice.  It’s a great training ground to write quickly. 

David:  I used to say to every executive producer that I was friendly with over the years, “Don’t hire kids from Harvard who wrote their spec scripts in a garage with a bunch of friends in three months.  Give a kid an outline or a note on Monday and say, “Come back on Wednesday.”

Stan: But I don’t want that schedule in theatre.  I like the fact they we get to nurture pieces now. 

David:  Also, on every sitcom I was on, there was a struggle in the writers room because writer/producers would complain that actors ruined the joke.  I came from a background of going to Broadway shows and seeing actors and saying, “I love actors.  I love what they do.” I used to say, “You guys are insane! These people are why we have jobs. We can write all we want, if no one does it, it’s meaningless.  They make it sing!”

Tracey:  What do you think is the future of L.A. Theatre? 

Stan:  I think we’re a creative, exciting, community.  No matter what, we’re going to create theatre. You can’t stop artists from doing their art.  I’m excited to see what comes of it.

David:  I’ll just say, from the age I am, to see people half as young as me doing theatre in LA, and excited about theatre…that’s not just hope for the future, it’s the reality of the future. If not in a theatre, then on the street.

About Tracey Paleo

Tracey Paleo is Associate Editor at FootLights Magazine. She's also the Founder and Chief Editor of the arts and culture site, Gia On The Move, where she often reviews live performance events.

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  1. Very cool read and is inspiring me with my own one act play I’m hoping to submit to the festival!

  2. Insightful! It is always interesting to read how folks got into the business that we all love and dread at the same time. Keep up the great coverage1

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