New York City
Playwright, Journalist, Lyricist, Theater Historian
“A lot of it’s happenstance, but it’s also being prepared to take advantage of good luck.”
Thirteen of his plays have been produced by Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, where he was a resident member. His plays include Value of Names, Flyovers, The Action Against Sol Schumann, Berlin ’45, With and Without, Court-Martial at Fort Devens, and Class Dismissed. He also co-wrote a musical, I Sent a Letter to My Love, with Melissa Manchester. He has written hundreds of hours of television, and for a variety of other media. He contributes a regular column to the magazine, Dramatics.
He also wrote Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Compass Players and Second City. He sometimes performs a one-man show You Only Shoot the Ones You Love (photo above) in which he describes “my adventures with Paul Sills, Del Close and other key figures behind the creation of such improv companies as the Compass and Second City.” In 2014, he published, The O’Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater.
Jeff talks, here, about how happy he is to be living his lifelong dream of being a playwright and working in the New York theater, even though it is not always financially sustaining.
When we were in high school, my friend, Todd, and I would read the Sunday Times, (the entertainment section), and he would dream about being able to see all the movies he wanted to see, and I would dream about seeing all the plays I wanted to see. He ended up being the film critic for Variety and then The Hollywood Reporter, and I ended up, at one point, co-editing the best plays annual and being a Tony voter. Maybe we should have dreamt higher, something besides just getting free tickets to stuff. As long as our dreams were going to come true! (Laughs) But that’s where we ended up.
So what do I do for a livelihood? I almost blush to say that it’s a livelihood. It’s a combination of things. I’m primarily a playwright; I’ve written a lot of plays that have been done around a fair amount. I’m not much of a careerist, though. If I were, I would have been further along. At one point, I had an offer to join the staff of L.A. Law, and I said to my then wife, “I’ve got this offer to join L.A. Law.” She says, “Well, why don’t you go out to Los Angeles? If it goes well, I’ll join you.”
I thought, if I go to Los Angeles, it’s probably the end of my marriage. So I turned down the job. Meanwhile, I had been offered a job for less money in New York. [The N.Y. show] didn’t work, but if I’d gone out there, I probably would still be there now and probably would have made more money. But I would be living the life of somebody who’s 60-something out in Los Angeles, which is to say, the walking dead and invisible. Because unless you’re an executive producer, unless you’re a writer who’s an executive producer, past 55 you don’t get hired for anything.
I used to write for television. That was where the bulk of my dough was coming in for years. I wrote pilots, rewrote TV movies, episodes of this, that and the other. Also soap opera. One year on Another World. Another year on One Life to Live. It’sa form that, when I wasn’t writing for it, interested me not at all.
I was hired by Corinne Jacker who was an Obie award-winning playwright and TV writer who’d been brought in as head writer on Another World. When she hired me, she said, “I’m hiring you because I admire you as a playwright, and I want you to make some money so you can write your next play. I want you to learn how to write the TV stuff fast enough and well enough that in your spare time you can write a play, and at the end of the year, if you haven’t written a new play, I will be very upset.”
At the end of the year, I had a play called The Value of Names, which is really what established my reputation. It came out in … ’82? At the time, it felt like a liftoff, like a booster rocket. Shortly after that, I got hired by Norman Lear to write a pilot. It never got shot. They hire you, they pay you money, they tell you how brilliant you are, and that yours was the best script that didn’t get shot that year, and they say, “Well, thank you very much.” So how swell is that?
But scarcely a year goes by without Value of Names being produced someplace. (At one point, a few years ago, Jack Klugman got obsessed with it and ended up doing it in six theatres, so people paid to see Jack Klugman. They still had to pay me royalties, so I was very pleased by that. Also, of course, Jack was terrific.)
When we were young, there used to be what is known as “real” Broadway playwrights. Every two or three seasons, they had another play; they frequently worked with regular commercial producers or actors — people like William Inge, Robert Anderson, and Tennessee Williams, Jean Kerr, Neil Simon. Nobody has that career anymore, nobody writes a straight play that runs for a couple of years. The last play that had that kind of run was, August: Osage County; ran for a year and a half.
I’ve done a lot of teaching. Students or people that I mentored ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony, and you know, on the one hand, how dare they have the bad taste to be more successful than I? On the other hand, they’re my friends, and I’m thrilled for them.
(Funny thing about the teaching: I wrote a book called The Dramatist’s Toolkit, which is a book on playwriting that’s now in its 16th or 17th printing. It doesn’t make a lot of money, but it’s pretty widely used in dramatic writing programs around the country. Because I don’t have an MFA, I’m not allowed to teach in these programs. (Laughs.) They don’t consider me to be academically qualified to teach my own theories.)
The thing about playwrights is that playwrights don’t make money. You know who makes money in the nonprofit theatre world? Artistic directors. The people on staff. Literary managers make more money than playwrights do. The receptionist makes more money than playwrights do. They claim to be in business to celebrate the American writer, but if you took all the money that is paid in royalties for playwrights during a given season, it wouldn’t add up to what the artistic director takes home for an annual salary. Because the managers are the people who’ve got to have a regular paycheck, and they’re also the ones that the corporate interests trust, because they’re managers. Corporate interests say, “Well, you look like us so we trust you. You’re the grownups. These other people are artists. We can’t trust them with money.”
The way to make money as a writer on Broadway is to have a hit musical. The woman who wrote the book to Wicked is somebody I’ve known for a number of years since she was a young improvisational actress. She’s an old friend. And I’m enormously pleased for her, because she deserves every dime of it. She did the careerist thing in L.A. She wrote for Thirtysomething; she helped create a flop series that everybody loved called My So-Called Life. So she did the work, and she’s very talented. It’s not an undeserved success. I have a few friends who’ve made unimaginable sums of money.
How do you feel about that?
Well, how I feel about it is, I would love to have more. More, if you’ve earned it honestly, is nice. (Laughs) My brother works in the so-called straight world doing a job that he’s very good at, and he makes a very good living. He’s put aside a lot, but he doesn’t get much pleasure out of the work. He essentially thinks I’ve led a childish life. But I’ve met or worked with one neat person after another. I’ve had everything that I’ve written either produced or published, or almost everything. I’m very lucky in my second marriage. I would be happier if a couple things happened, you know. Winning the Pulitzer would be darn nice, ‘cause it’d probably mean that they would say, the MFA doesn’t matter, come and teach for us.
But I always have four or five things I’m working on. Sometimes there’s money attached and sometimes I just have the passion to do it. I’m finishing writing this book about the O’Neill Center, which has been the dominant project of the last year. I also wrote a play about William Kunstler which opened in the spring in its first production, and got a good review out of the New York Times in a regional production.
Now I’m trying to figure out how to get it to a commercial run someplace. And also –this is going to sound bizarre — I was hired two years ago to co-write the book to a German musical. I don’t speak German, but I was hired as an advisor on the project, and it turns out that apparently nobody in Germany knows how to write the book to a musical comedy. They asked me to do it. I can’t pretend I think much will happen with it at this point, but it got me to Dusseldorf and Paris!
Another time, I was hired to rewrite two scenes of a [Hallmark Hall of Fame] TV movie [Pack of Lies]. I read the script which was based on a play that I thought hadn’t quite worked but had a premise that I really admired, and I said to the director, here are the two scenes you’ve hired me to rewrite, but I think there are problems with the script throughout. I gave him all these notes. I said, “When you go to London and you’re going to hire somebody to do rewrites, if any of these notes are useful to you, feel free.” He looked at the notes; he says, “You’re the guy I’m hiring in London.” So there I was in Pinewood Studios, which was where all the Bond films were shot. I was writing for Alan Bates, one of my boyhood acting heroes, who turned out to be one of the nicest men in the world.
But the guy who wrote the original play and had written the screenplay that had been put aside still had the right to sign his name to my script in order to collect the royalties and credits and stuff. He hated every word that I wrote. So he signed a pseudonym, and his pseudonym was nominated for the Emmy. (Laughs) My script was nominated for the Emmy under his pseudonym. (Laughs) I was listed as “creative consultant.” I got a bonus and everything, and it won the Peabody Award! People said, “Aren’t you upset?” I said, “Well, I would have loved to have gotten some credit, but I knew I wasn’t going to. And I got to work with Alan Bates! I got something written that was produced on TV that I would actually watch. I was glad to write it, and I wrote it as well as I could.”
I was once hired for a TV show and turned down another job in order to take the show. And then the star of that show looked at the roster and realized that there was only one woman on the writing staff, and she decided to get rid of the guy she didn’t know, and it was me. She had not seen a word I had written, but just because I was a guy and she wanted more women on the staff, she said, you know, “Drop this guy.” And I’d already turned down another job. When she did that, she had no way of knowing that was the end of my first marriage. I mean, there were other reasons too, but the shock of going from the prospect of earning six figures doing something fun to nothing. My wife went into a deep depression and that was the beginning of the end.
When you shift into an economic role, a lot of your character becomes determined by the economic situation that you’re in. It’s one of the reasons why I never wanted to be a producer. Because producers hurt people. They make things possible, but they also, by wielding power, inevitably hurt people. I sometimes view them like Brontosauruses – dinosaurs with big tails. Brontosauruses were fairly gentle creatures, but as they walked through the jungle, their tails went back and forth, and they inevitably decapitated all these creatures that they had no ken of. And I think that anybody who has any kind of power inadvertently makes decisions that ruin lives.
You’ve stopped writing for TV?
At a certain point, TV thinks that if you’re over 40, you can’t possibly write lines for people that are younger than that. There’s a lot of ageism in television, so I haven’t had a television contract in kind of awhile. It was enough to vest me in my Writer’s Guild pension, which I’m now collecting.
But I have to say, I have no particular complaints about how things have gone. I know how lucky I am. Virtually everything I write gets published or produced. It’s hard to be a writer and complain about that. Most of those gigs were really happenstance, with people seeking me out because they’d seen a play or read something or I just happened to be in the place when they panicked and I was the nearest body. A lot of it’s happenstance, but it’s also being prepared to take advantage of good luck.
I am now married to a lovely lady. The first several years that we were together before we got married, I was the one making the money. Now she’s the one who’s making the lion’s share of the money. So it is by dint of her. By day she’s working as a personal assistant to some pretty nice rich people. And by night, she acts and runs a nonprofit theatre company. But if it were not for her, I would not be able to afford to live in New York.
I’ve got some dough in savings, and I’ve got a pension; social security will kick in, and this, that and the other. I don’t pay anything for theatre tickets, because I’m a Tony voter, and I get all my theatre tickets for nothing. Which is great, because who can afford to pay 120 bucks to see a play? I’m very conscious that right now, without her, I’d be living, you know, in a condo in the suburbs, scraping by.
What about the book on the O’Neill Theater Center? It comes out this year.
Oh, it’s a great project. But it cost me to write it. I said to my wife, “If I take this, it’s going to take a year and I’m not going to be bringing anything else in, and the burden of the money is going to fall on you. I’m not going to take this unless you agree to this. I’m not going to put this burden on you.” And she said, “Somebody should write the book; you’re the perfect person.” She says, “I want you to write it, so go ahead and write it.” It’s enormously generous of her, and the next play I’m going to write is going to have a nice big part in it for her.
I’ve just had an enormous amount of fun. I know how lucky I’ve been. And, I know when I kick the bucket, I will end up having a New York Times obituary of a certain size, because I’ve been reviewed in the Times a lot and have gotten mostly good reviews. They keep quoting my book [Something Wonderful Right Away] whenever somebody from Second City dies. So I figure, well, what with one thing or another, I’ll get a few paragraphs. And you know, how enormously satisfying it will be when I’m dead. (Laughs)
Jeff, I can’t thank you enough for taking this time.
Oh, you thanked me more than enough. Are you kidding? You’ve given me attention; what more could a writer want?