From Whence You Came

May 16th, 2011 Comments Off on From Whence You Came

Reading announcement after announcement about new commitments for TV series for the fall, I have manufactured a vision of Oprah Winfrey running around the theatre district with a magic wand, anointing stage talent saying, “You get a series! You get a series! Everybody gets a series!”

I exaggerate, to say the least, and my imagination has run rampant. Certainly we see theatre folk getting TV work all the time. But in recent days, we’ve learned that Laura Benanti will be on NBC’s The Playboy Club. Cherry Jones and B.D. Wong will play therapists on a new program. Kristin Chenoweth is on her way back to ABC. Jennifer Ehle and Jenna Stern appear to be headed for our home screens, if I interpret their veiled Twitter chat correctly. Kate Burton has a recurring role on not one, but two new series (plus her intermittent appearances on The Good Wife, which is already chock-a-block with legit vets like Alan Cumming and Anika Noni Rose). I read that there may be a new sitcom in the offing for Nathan Lane. And in a class by itself is Smash, a mid-season series that is all about the creation of a Broadway musical, written by playwright Theresa Rebeck and featuring, among many others, Brian d’Arcy James and Megan Hilty.

I have had a complex series of reactions to all of the news.

My first response was to be thrilled for all of these people, because I know that TV work can bring financial security far beyond that afforded by theatre. Among the names I mentioned above are people whose work I’ve admired from afar, people who I’ve met and grown fond of in recent years, and one good friend who I’ve known for more than half my life.

My second reaction, although immediately recognized as ridiculous, was, “Jeez, who is going to be left to be on stage in New York next season?” I point out the foolishness of this reaction because of course the city is filled with so many talented actors, that there’s really no reason to fear for the integrity and variety of performers we’ll continue to see. I also have no doubt that the folks getting TV work will return to the stage again and again. They are not lost forever.

But with this seeming exodus, this flurry of decamping for the electronic medium, I hope that all of these theatre veterans will use their newly found or increased clout in the service of an excellent cause. And so I offer this form letter, which I hope to share with many of them in person.

Dear [name of wonderful stage actor with a new series]:

I am delighted to learn about your new TV series. I have already set my DVR and despite my constant theatergoing schedule and ongoing devotion to every iteration of Law & Order, I promise to watch every single episode of your show.

I’m writing because as you commence your new TV project, whether it’s shooting in New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver or Chicago, you’re also going to be trooped in front of a whole new cadre of entertainment reporters, namely the TV writers and reporters for print, broadcast and internet. I should remind you that these are not the dedicated folks who have followed your every move, like or The New York Times theatre desk. These are people who spend most of their time watching DVDs of new series, continuing series and, for research, even series from the past. You’re going to be quizzed by them over the phone, in person and at big junkets run by your network, or the networks working together.

These people, by and large, share one common trait: theatre for them is an afterthought. They probably haven’t seen your brilliant performance in [great play or musical]. They only know you from prior TV or film work. When they research you, they will use the IMDB, not the IBDB, IOBDB or, so your acclaimed stage work will be little known to them, if it is known at all.

So I ask you, as you submit to fierce rounds of promotional interviews, don’t let your theatre work be a footnote in their reportage. Take control of the interview and make damn certain that they understand how important the theatre was to you growing up, how essential the stage was to the development of your craft, how special and unique it is to perform in front of a live audience eight nights a week, and how you’ll use every break and hiatus to return to the stage, be it Broadway, Off-Broadway or regional theatre.

You are about to be given a platform that goes far beyond the rather insular world of the theatre and the people who love it. After all, even if you were in a smash hit Broadway show for a year, perhaps 600,000 people could see your work. On TV, no matter what your ratings may be (and I know they’ll be stellar), millions of people will see your very first episode, let alone a whole season. What you say will carry a lot more weight than it did before.

So beyond talking about what theatre has done for you, commandeer the microphones, the digital recorders, the note pads in your midst to also declare how essential the arts are for the quality of life in America. Absolutely stump for sustaining or restoring arts education in our schools, but also talk about their importance for people at every age. It won’t be as if you’re politicking for your own employment – after all, you’re on TV. Instead, you’ll be using the bully pulpit that has come to you as a result of your talent and your opportunities to make the case for why the arts matter, for why theatre is a perfectly acceptable reason to record your very own series for later viewing and get out of the house and into a live audience.

Only you can insure that theatre is not a passing mention in your story, or the story of entertainment in America. When you’re not learning lines, shooting or retaining some shred of a personal life while on the treadmill of a TV shooting schedule, please speak up for those of us who remain at work on stage and behind the scenes.

I really am so excited to know I’m going to see you every week (even though I won’t be able to go behind my TV after each episode and tell you how great you were). And I’m so glad that you’ll be in a position to fly the flag of theatre far beyond any single stage.

With affection and appreciation,

P.S. Please don’t change your e-mail when you get “big.” Otherwise I’ll only be able to reach you through your publicist or agent, and you can’t imagine what a pain that can be.

This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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