A locally successful playwright tries to make the tricky transition from stage to the small screen.
Tracey Scott Wilson isn’t used to getting bad news in the Twin Cities.
Last February, Pillsbury House Theatre’s world premiere of her play, “Buzzer,” a study of sex and the city in post-racial times, drew sold-out audiences and critical accolades. Back in town for a revival of the drama at the Guthrie Theater, Wilson got quite a different reaction last week.
“Do No Harm,” the NBC series that marked her first serious experience with television, was labeled by reviewers as downright painful and less than 1 percent of the Nielsen ratings universe tuned in, making it the lowest season premiere ever for one of the four major networks.
“It’s disappointing,” said Wilson, her arms wrapped around a throw pillow while sitting back on a royal-red couch in the Minneapolis apartment that the Guthrie has lent her while she retools the stage production. “You know most TV shows don’t make it, but unless you’re involved in one, you don’t pay attention.”
By the end of the week, the news for Wilson was even worse: NBC pulled the plug on the series after just two shows. The audience started small for the debut show, and then fell off for the second broadcast.
At least Wilson won’t get the blame for its pathetic showing. She was the greenest of the 13 writers hired and was credited for only the ninth episode, one which will almost certainly not air before the network puts the show out of its misery.
But Wilson hasn’t lost her passion for television. Ask her about her favorite series, and she’ll tick off a stellar list, including “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.” The other thing she’ll mention: moolah.
Joining the Guild
Following in the footsteps of William Shakespeare and August Wilson may be an honorable endeavor, but it rarely pays the bills.
TV, on the other hand, can be quite profitable — even when your show doesn’t get picked up. Wilson has sold two pilot scripts in recent years. Neither got developed, but she did get paychecks and was allowed to join the Writers Guild, which provides health insurance — something that’s even more valuable to a budding artist than a rave review.
“Unless you’re Tony Kushner, you don’t make any money in theater, and if you do it’s very sporadic,” Wilson said. “You can make some cash one year, and none the next.”
That’s why Wilson was so excited to hear from David Schulner, the playwright-turned-TV-writer who created “Do No Harm.” He was a fan of Wilson’s play “The Story,” which kicked off Pillsbury House’s 2005 season, and invited her last May to join his team. Within two weeks, she moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, where she labored in the writers’ room until mid-January, scripting stories about a dedicated doctor who turns into a madman after happy hour.
The experience was entirely new to Wilson. Instead of writing alone in her squeaky-clean apartment, listening to Miles Davis on her iPod, she was bouncing ideas off a dozen other scribes and trying to get into the heads of characters she didn’t create. It can be a stifling change for independent thinkers, but Wilson said she relished the challenge.
“The other writers were so encouraging,” said Wilson, who leaned heavily on co-worker Diana Son, author of the 1998 off-Broadway play “Stop Kiss.” “I know there are other writers’ rooms where there’s a lot of politics and jockeying for attention. But I had a really great experience.”
Notes from fellow writers were appreciated; it’s the other suggestions that could get frustrating.
Here’s how it generally works in TV drama: If you’re the primary author of a script, you put together an outline. The other writers make suggestions. Then the show-runner, in this case Schulner, tells you which notes to ignore. The outline is sent to the studio, then the network. More notes come in. Finally, the writer does a first draft. When the script is complete, the crazy cycle starts all over again.
“It’s very different in theater,” she said. “I can get notes and, even if they’re from the artistic director, I can take them or not take them. You really don’t have that kind of control in television. The network and the studio have a different agenda. All writers are thinking about is making the story better. They don’t have to think about advertisers and time slots.”
Besides having to compromise at times, Wilson also had to make an adjustment: In theater, less is more. In TV, more is more.
“In theater, you never want to explain too much. If you’ve got two characters who are brother and sister, you have to get that information across without the characters saying, ‘Hey, remember that time when Mom …’,” she said. “TV is the exact opposite, especially in the pilot. You’ve got to lay it all out there and hook the audience right away.”
Wilson hopes she’ll get another crack at TV. In the meantime, she’s working on her first movie screenplay, an experiment in film noir.
“It’s hard, man,” said Wilson, a copy of the script for “The Hustler” by the side of the couch. “I haven’t liked what I’ve written so far, so I’m starting over.”
Maybe she can draw inspiration from the centerpiece of her living room, a huge poster for “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
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