For Playwright, TV Gigs Make Theater Possible The play may be the thing, but the hard truth is that theater isn't particularly lucrative. Acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck is just one of many dramatists who pay the bills by writing for television.
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For Playwright, TV Gigs Make Theater Possible

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For Playwright, TV Gigs Make Theater Possible

For Playwright, TV Gigs Make Theater Possible

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We're going to hear now from a playwright whose work can be seen in theaters all over the country. Despite that success, it's her other work that pays the bills.

As part of our series on how artists make a living, Jeff Lunden has the story of the playwright who scripts TV crime shows.

JEFF LUNDEN: When Theresa Rebeck moved to New York to pursue her dream as a playwright, she did what a lot of starving artists do - she temped while she helped personally subsidize her work in funky, little off-off-Broadway theaters.

Ms. THERESA REBECK (Playwright): If you have a play that you wanted to produce, you and the actors and the director would chip in 100 bucks each to sort of cover the cost, and you'd get some back through tickets. You'd get maybe 25 back through tickets.

LUNDEN: So when an agent suggested Rebeck could get some work in television, she leapt at the chance.

Ms. REBECK: At the time, I thought, well, there's money there. I could do that. And so I started writing spec scripts for television while I was simultaneously working in the theater.

LUNDEN: And Rebeck's been shuttling between both worlds ever since. Her plays have been performed at prestigious nonprofit theaters in New York and around the country while she's been on the writing staff of such television series as "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order: Criminal Intent." Rebeck says her television jobs still help subsidize her theater work.

Ms. REBECK: It was sort of like I created my own trust fund or my own grant, and that's what we're kind of living off now.

LUNDEN: Rebeck is no longer a starving artist. She and her family live in a beautifully renovated brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Rebeck has a personal assistant to help her deal with all the projects she's constantly juggling.

Ms. REBECK: Generally, what I try to do is always have a money gig and an art gig. And then whatever moves in front of the other, when a deadline comes up, that part of my brain is what moves to the fore.

(Soundbite of television program, "NYPD Blue")

Unidentified Man #1: What you need to tell us is if everything's okay with the Torah.

Unidentified Man #2: Let me explain. I'll let you know if everything's kosher.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Hasidic comedian.

LUNDEN: A scene from "NYPD Blue" written by Theresa Rebeck.

Mr. DAVID MILCH (Creator, "NYPD Blue"): I bridle a bit about the idea of making a living as opposed to doing good work. I think that that's a false dichotomy.

LUNDEN: David Milch is creator of several TV shows, including "NYPD Blue," where writers are known to do good work and make a good living.

Mr. MILCH: Theresa's is the bravest kind of imagination, and I think she's happiest when she's doing the work in which her unalloyed loyalty is to the character and to the moment.

Ms. REBECK: In television, what you are doing is trying to fit your voice into a particular mold. When I was a staff writer on "NYPD Blue," it was truly my job to hear David Milch's voice for that show and to deliver episodes that embodied that voice.

LUNDEN: Theresa Rebeck's latest play, "Our House," is about television.

(Soundbite of play, "Our House")

Unidentified Man #3: What they are doing over there at CNN, what they have enabled themselves to do is to marry the highest level of journalistic professionalism with a profitability unheard of in today's market. It's very, very seductive, that combination.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: The play recently finished its run at Playwrights Horizons, Off-Broadway, where Tim Sanford is the artistic director.

Mr. TIM SANFORD (Artistic Director, Playwrights Horizons): She's a born playwright. She's prolific. She's great at structure. She has something to say. She's driven to say it. It's not hard for her.

LUNDEN: And she has a certain amount of control over her own vision that she never gets in television: No changes can be made to her script without her consent.

Ms. REBECK: I would rather work in the theater than anywhere else, and it does seem to be a place where stories can and should be told purely.

LUNDEN: But that purity often comes with little pay. Rebeck estimates she might make $15,000 for the run of "Our House" at Playwrights, but the show was written and developed over the course of two years.

Artistic Director Tim Sanford says while the theatrical community was once skeptical of people who, quote, "went Hollywood," it's not surprising that a lot of playwrights are following in Rebeck's footsteps, toggling between the stage and television. They've got to eat.

Mr. SANFORD: But I think it's just become more and more accepted for writers to go back and forth. I don't think there's a stigma on writers to work in both media as much.

LUNDEN: And if you ask Rebeck how she identifies herself, there's no question: She's a playwright, even if, in some years, only 10 percent of her income comes from the theater.

Ms. REBECK: These are questions of culture, I think. Like, is art valuable only if it's got a dollar sign, a significant dollar sign on it? And I think the answer to that is no, that some of the most beautiful things I've been involved with, people were being charged $10 a ticket and nobody was being paid anything, and I'll never forget that evening in the theater.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

BRAND: You can hear about a different kind of theater at our Web site. Theresa Rebeck's war stories from the TV writer's room are at

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