Jennifer Maisel has written for theater (winning, amongst other things, the Kennedy Center’s Charlotte Woolard Award for Promising New Voice in American Theatre), television (Related), film, and TV movies (her romantic comedy Double Wedding for Lifetime re-airs on March 26th). She has also been described as “David Lynch on estrogen.” This is the poster for the Hypothetical Theatre's production of Jennifer Maisel's THERE OR HERE. The Illustration is by Mark Symczak and the graphic design is by Martin Miller
Laura Brennan: You work as a writer in so many fields. How do you decide what the piece should be?
Jennifer Maisel: I think things occur to me as one or the other. The story has the feel of a certain venue – it feels film or theater or TV. There are some pieces where you want that magical experimentation that you have on the stage. And some ideas translate themselves better to film. Sometimes characters come to you that you want to live with for a long time – that would be a series.
LB: Is your process different with each genre?
JM: Yes. I allow the plays to evolve much more organically. I may write a scene without knowing exactly where it goes. I don’t outline, I don’t plan. Sometimes they come out of a dreamstate and I think that’s evident in my writing. They may also take longer, because it’s more finding a sculpture inside a huge rock than building a bridge.
I’ve written features on spec as well as for hire. I much prefer when I get hired for a project and it’s something I want to write – that’s awesome. A lot of projects have started with a pitch; some have sold, a lot haven’t sold.
A lot of the TV work starts life as a pitch. Pitching is key. And a pitch is an entirely different animal: outline combined with a presentation, and using every bit of the actor that I don’t really have in me. Actors are often good pitchers, because they’re performers. A lot of writers – myself included – would rather be writing than talking to people about their writing … but you have to. You have to be a bit of a performer, and you have to practice more than you want to practice.
The TV movies, I haven’t written on spec. I’ve either pitched something, or I’ve been asked to come in and pitch, or I’ve been hired. I actually find them really fun to structure. They’re either eight or nine acts now; it’s like a super-puzzle to put together, because you’re always writing to an act break. You literally have to make people want to come back after every commercial break.
LB: What is it that you do well as a writer?
JM: I’m known for my characters and dialogue, strong women characters, multi-dimensional male characters. That’s a consistent response I get in all the fields. In playwriting, I’m known for being theatrical and out-of-the-box. I don’t want my plays to be something that you can stick a video camera in and voila, there’s your film. We videotaped a highly theatrical play of mine just so my husband could see it and it was unbearable – as it should have been. What’s theatrical and compelling with a live audience doesn’t always easily translate to two dimensions. To me, it’s more important now, in the age of everything being filmed and everything being virtual, that theatre distinguish itself with its ephermerality and its real connectivity between the audience and what goes on on-stage. For me to undertake changing one of my plays to a film, it’s hard, it needs to be completely re-thought.
LB: What’s the thing that jazzes you most when you write?
JM: Probably dialogue, voice. I’m working on the first draft of this indie film. I’m at the point where I’m going from the story that we broke – and I did it with one of the executives and we had a blast – and I’m pumping it out, just getting out the bad version so I have something to revise. Last night I was writing and I suddenly thought, wow, that’s good. It took me 80 pages to get the voice, but now it’s there.
What drives me, what I like the best, is when the scene feels true. Like it could exist in the world, but I’ve never heard it in a restaurant. And it may take 80 pages to get there, especially for plays. Some of them come out better than others. There are so many scenes that just go away in the process. My play Match has been all about writing and writing and writing and writing and then stripping it down to find the story. Then rewriting. The Last Seder, the first draft, that was pretty close. There was still major rewriting of course, but the bones were already there.
LB: Any advice to a woman who wants to write theater?
JM: Don’t! [Laughter]
Everyone who wants to write plays should read Todd London’s book Outrageous Fortune, about how hard it is to make a living in this profession. I won’t really say ‘don’t,’ but go into it with your eyes open. You’re not doing this for the big financial payoff, but you’re doing it for the big artistic payoff. So write it, write it, write it and then have actors read it for you, because theatre is meant to heard, to be alive in your presence. When you hear it you know what works and what doesn’t work in your gut. Then Rewrite. Listen. Repeat.
Check out what Jennifer is up to at http://www.jennifermaisel.com