Being famous doesn’t guarantee success in playwriting, but it certainly gives you opportunities. Just ask “Scrubs” actor Zach Braff. In 2010, he performed in “Trust” at the Second Stage Theatre in New York. In swift order, his play, “All New People” debuted at the same theater in 2011.
It was his first play.
Then there is Zoe Kazan. In 2009, her first play, “Absalom” debuted at the Humana Festival of New Plays. While the Louisville Courier-Journal gave her work a positive review, the notice began with the following:
It’s highly unusual for a 25-year old writer to have her first play produced on the main stage of the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The annual festival, now in its 33rd year, is the country’s leading producer of new works.”
Deep in the article, reviewer Judith Egerton noted Kazan’s lineage. The playwright is the granddaughter of Elia Kazan and daughter of Oscar-nominated screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord.
And then, there is Amanda Peet. The actress, known for her TV and film work, recently debuted “The Commons of Pensacola” at Manhattan Theatre Club. Again, it was her stage debut as a playwright.
It is only natural actors might try their hand at writing for other actors. And some stage actors make excellent playwrights, such as Tracy Letts, Harold Pinter and yes, William Shakespeare. But what is the average playwright to make of new celebrity playwrights – these celebwrights?
Are we to believe Braff, Kazan and a handful of other well-known TV and film actors have written such astounding new debut plays that they deserve top spots in American theaters? Or are the theaters simply cashing in on a famous name, fan base and bragging rights?
Stunt Casting and Celebwrights
Decades ago, when TV and film actors/entertainers wanted credibility, they looked to the theater. Usually, the celebrity would announce their humble intention to “practice their craft.” The appearance of a celebrated person onstage was often met with guffaws from critics, and theater denizens greeted these newbies rather coldly.
One famous example is Madonna’s Broadway debut in David Mamet’s “Speed the Plow” in 1988. New York critics wildly panned her appearance. In New York magazine, John Simon wrote that “she could afford to pay for a few acting lessons.” And Simon was being kind compared to other critics. A year later, Madonna would tell Interview magazine that co-stars Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver were supportive, but not very generous. She got no special treatment or, as she put it, “training wheels.” It seemed to surprise her.
Even before Madonna, there was Elizabeth Taylor in a 1981 Broadway production of “Little Foxes.” And post-Madonna, there have been others, such as Nicole Kidman, Ashley Judd, Katie Holmes, Jennifer Garner and Anne Hathaway.
A few perform surprisingly well onstage; many others do not.
We used to call it “stunt casting,” an obvious attempt by producers to recoup their money. Now it’s the new normal on Broadway. Maybe it’s only natural that leading nonprofit theaters would take a cue from their commercial counterparts.
Many actors are beginning to realize the two mediums aren’t the same. What works for the camera doesn’t translate for the stage. And writing for the stage is far different from screen and TV writing.
Good for Me and Good for Thee
Celebrity actors/entertainers who perform onstage will usually finish the run by issuing a kind of statement about “new-found respect” for stage actors. They note how performing the same role every night is exhausting. But how do famous folks feel about writing for the stage.
Let’s take a look at Kazan, who after “Absalom” received a commission from Manhattan Theatre Club for her next play, “We Live Here.” She told The New York Times in 2011:
I always wrote. My parents are writers. It just seemed like something people did. I took a writing class in college, liked it, and my first year out of school I couldn’t get a job, so I wrote a play. I never wanted to be a playwright. I just didn’t say no to any of my interests.”
It’s an interesting statement, considering that Kazan began writing at Yale. In fact, “Absalom” was a college assignment, according to NPR. Her play did receive some development – a staged reading at The Yale Playwrights Festival.
But there is the appearance that Kazan simply decided to pursue playwriting as a kind of hobby. It rankles playwrights who give their life to the theater and may never get her opportunities.
The average playwright’s journey is far different from that of a celebwright. The unknown playwright’s road is filled with MFA programs, student loan debt, rejection after rejection, and self-productions. The non-celeb playwright might get caught in a development hell or write plays that never get a professional reading. It’s an arduous path, one with no guarantees.
And many stage writers can name at least five other writers who have written brilliant plays that will never get the consideration of a celebwright’s first play.
Theaters tell writers that struggling is necessary to hone their voice, to understand the boundaries of the stage. And even when playwrights don’t achieve a connection with an audience, they should be writing for themselves, for their own soul, to have a good life.
When playwrights see celebwrights getting what they consider a free pass, it opens theaters up to the charges of “double standard” and hypocrisy. And it naturally makes the average playwright wonder what’s more important to theaters: business or art?
Art and Money
Braff’s fan base is often described as cultish, and the box office surely benefited from the actor’s brand name. A lot of these fans don’t necessarily care about the quality of the work, only that their hero had a hand in creating it.
In precarious economic times, theaters are more likely to be open to celebwrights, believing that a famous name will create good box-office receipts. Theaters can also have bragging rights, something Todd London noted was important in “Outrageous Fortune.” Board members will likely respond positively if they have a famous celebwright in the season.
Does a famous actor’s play contribute artistically or financially to theater? At the very least, the play will give the theater fantastic media coverage. And financially, it will pay off. Kazan’s second play, “We Live Here” got a one-week extension at Manhattan Theatre Club due to ticket sales.
But what about artistically?
Out of all the celebwrights, only Kazan seems to have earned notice for having potential, but potential isn’t reality. Kazan has also been allowed a little more time and room to develop her skills. While other celebwright plays may be enjoyable, critics have noted that these first-time playwrights have often made the typical neophyte mistakes. These errors could’ve been avoided if the celebwright had more of a chance to develop their craft.
The Present for the Future
Imagine getting your first play produced at a top theater in New York. Not much development, not much room for failure. Not much time to develop your voice or experiment with pushing boundaries.
Which brings us to Amanda Peet, who apparently really wants to be a playwright. The actress applied to rigorous playwriting programs at UCLA and Columbia. No hobbyist does that. Like average playwrights, parenting and family obligations ultimately prevented her from entering those programs.
Last month, she had her first production. It wasn’t in a small Los Angeles theater, nor in a place where she might be able to see what worked and what didn’t work onstage. Instead, her first production was at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Peet’s profile in The New York Times was fascinating and nightmarish. Rather than focusing on her writing ability, the article kept mentioning her beauty. That’s an ugly scenario for any female writer. It’s also terribly unfair. And the article ended with Peet’s insecurity about the process of previews:
During previews we’ll have audience talkbacks,” Ms. Meadow said, “so we’ll learn if people are unclear.”
“Oh my gosh, it’s like focus groups,” Ms. Peet said, covering her face with both forearms.”
No one knows what Peet’s experience was during the play, or her reaction to the mixed reviews of her work. Will she continue to write plays, or has this high-wire experience completely turned her off from theater?
Some playwrights were very critical of Peet’s opportunity, accusing her of stealing a slot from a more deserving playwright. But Peet didn’t steal anything that wasn’t freely given to her. Actors, famous or not, should be able to express themselves as much as the rest of us. Having success in the public eye doesn’t negate talent or ideas.
But what’s sad is that some of these celebwrights might actually have the chance to turn into solid playwrights, if only they were allowed to develop their potential. Then they could get by on their talent, rather than just their famous names. Maybe these famous actors aren’t stealing from theater; maybe these top theaters are stealing from them.