Fade In: A Playwright Moves to Hollywood

by Brett Neveu

FADE IN.

That’s how all of them start, the scripts I write for my LA projects. It’s also how I’ve felt since moving from Chicago to Los Angeles. As if my life were a closed aperture with a really, really long release, my time here has slowly been coming into focus. What remains unclear is what comes after the shot is complete and the first scene begins. But that’s not what I’m looking to discuss just yet. This is about what comes before the shot. That slow fade. That build to first page. The beginning of the story. The how I got here in the first place, what I’m thinking now and what comes next.

When I left Chicago, I had a ten-month old daughter, many Chicago storefront theater productions and a severe antsyness from spending the entirety of my life (up to that point) in the Midwest. I also had a strong desire to try my hand at film and television, something I had only tested and played with during the previous ten years. Heading out, I thought I had more than enough clues about what my future could hold if I only did what I’d done in Chicago. If I continued writing, meeting people and getting better at my job, then surely there would be LA-based writing work to be found.

Then came the writer’s strike.

Then came the recession.

Then came the city of Los Angeles.

Basically—then came life.

If there’s any bit of advice I would give about being a playwright in LA, it would be this: when one moves to LA, life does not suddenly stop. I don’t mean that life itselfwill stop, I mean that your new Hollywood career will not be your only focus. It was a lesson I learned the hard way, my hope being I would be able to dive headfirst into the world of TV and film and let everything be carried away with the current. But life’s current is full of rocks and brambles and discarded plastic bags and who knows what else. Los Angeles is a city, but a different city than Chicago, New York or any place else that I have been to or know of. It has a rhythm that one has to truly root through and discover, much like one of those hidden object puzzles I used to ponder over as a kid in Highlight’s magazine. Comparing this hidden-object lesson to my time in Chicago, my writing life suddenly felt quite different. Perhaps it was the social aspect of rehearsal (and post-rehearsal) that made theater more engaging. Or perhaps it was the hands-on, do-it-yourself determination that can give theater (even in the biggest of houses) a weird, gritty momentum. Or perhaps I hadn’t truly thought of writing as a job, and since moving to LA, it had become just that. There’s a weight to that thought. A heavy weight. A heavy weight that never really goes away and creates a palpable squishing of ideas, thoughts and feelings reverberating through all Los Angeles coffee shops, gyms and bars. But that’s not entirely a complaint. That’s just a fact. LA is full of professionals (those gainfully employed or those “between jobs”) and the production of entertainment in LA is a citywideprofession. Thinking otherwise (and how can you not every once in awhile?) will only make you long for the days when theater could be a playwright’s only focus.

As my time in LA continued, my “fade in” began to open further and I gained more insight into keeping my writing-brain energized and from seeping out of my ears to a puddle on the floor. My mantras became:

1. Expunge the Desperation. After having numerous meetings with executives from across the spectrum of television and film, I learned a desperate writer is an unwanted writer. The suits can spot your “oh crap I need a job” vibe from in the lobby, so maintaining (or faking) ease is your best bet. I’m told often that show runners love playwrights, so know that you’re entering a meeting because you’re respected for what you do. Let that respect carry you. Be seen as a peer and not a just lowly cog in the machine.

2. Keep Writing. The first year I moved to LA, I thought, “Okay! Here I am! I’m a writer!  I’ll go and find me a writer job!” It obviously doesn’t work that way. Just like the rest of the world, Hollywood employers often have all the employees they need and a backlog of friends (or friends of friends) who are just waiting for a slot to open up. The same crop of writers is nearly always looking for a new gig and if you’re new to town, you’re hopping into the unemployment line right along with them. There is a chance you might get a break and have something come along quick or it might be ages until you get noticed. The best solution is to keep writing. Whether it’s a spec pilot, a new play, a daily blog or just some ideas scribbled in a notebook, continue to put fingers to keyboard. Because the moment you stop doing your job, then the frustration and isolation of this company town will start to make you feel you’ve nothing to offer. But you do. There’s a reason a playwright comes to LA (and it’s not to surf). Write, goddamnit. Write.

3. Maintain Theater Relationships. Once you’ve left your city or town of choice and headed west, make sure to keep your theater relationships from dying on the vine. There have been times I’ve backed away from my playwriting career to focus on television and film only to find I needed to get back into the thick of what theaters are doing and think about who I should send a few scripts out to. Because I’m one of those folks who have always considered the theater my family, I felt shocked and lonely in its absence.. Once I realized that leaving town didn’t negate those family ties, I reconnected with the theater artists I care about and enjoy working with. The result is a healthy playwriting career and a burgeoning film and television career, which is exactly what I had hoped for.

4. Question Praise. Before moving to LA, I’d come on a visit and met with a guy from my old agency who told me he was my television agent. He took my wife and me out to dinner and laid on the praise like thick chunks of Philly Cream Cheese. With a twinkle in his eye, he promised money out the wazoo and a house in the hills. This scared the crap out of me, as it should any writer. True praise never comes easy and never comes quick, especially from someone you’ve just met. Only in the rarest situation does a writer “sell the idea in the room.” Often your writing (or your pitch or your staff meeting) passes through multiple brains and hands before it’s either taken on or rejected (most often, like playwriting, rejection is the result—but at least in TV and film, the rejection is quick). Go to meetings, do your best, and always challenge the hype.

5. Have Fun. There are many LA-type activities that your typical new-to-town theater artist doesn’t typically participate in, mostly because your typical new-to-town theater artist was typically at the theater, in rehearsal or at a bar. The beach (seriously, it’s like a freakin’ vacation twenty minutes from your apartment and it’s free), the art museums, the little towns surrounding the city and even LA’s own weird and wonderful history can wrap you up in oddly interesting ways. Ignore your career for a few hours (or days) and go outside. You’ll discover a major reason many people really like living here.

These suggestions come from my experience of learning to “fade in” here in Los Angeles. It’s taken a number of years to semi-understand the ins and outs, but the ability to adapt is a big part of semi-understanding. Just like when a writer begins a script, we know we still have a whole hell of a long way to go. But at least we’ve got our opening shot.

Brett Neveu’s work has been seen at many theaters, including The Royal Court Theatre, Writers’ Theatre, The House Theatre, The Inconvenience, The Goodman Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, TimeLine Theatre Company, A Red Orchid Theatre and American Theatre Company. He is a 2012 Sundance Institute Ucross Fellow and the recipient of the Ofner Prize for New Work as well as the Emerging Artist Award from The League of Chicago Theatres. Brett has been commissioned by The Royal Court Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Goodman Theatre, TimeLine Theatre Company, Writers’ Theatre, Strawdog Theatre and has several of his plays published through Broadway Play Publishing, Dramatic Publishing and Nick Hern Publishing. He is also a proud ensemble member of A Red Orchid Theatre and currently lives in Los Angeles.

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