Written By April | May 2012 : Page 32

Sanctuary A tV writer confesses a passion for theater. WrItten by Mark roberts I t’s six o’clock on a Monday evening and I’m finishing up my day in the writers room at Mike & Molly . We’re near-ing the end of our second season, so we’re all starting to get a little punchy. Laughing hysterically at things that aren’t funny and second guessing things that are. It’s probably not healthy for a group of humans to be locked in a room for 10 months, pitching jokes and eating out of Styrofoam con-tainers. Like some sort of weird NASA experiment, testing stamina and emotional stability. The only thing keeping us stumbling toward the finish line and not gouging each other’s eyes out is the anticipation of our upcoming hiatus and the chance to get reacquainted with our spouses and families. I walk down the hall to my office where my assistant, Isabelle, gives me a rundown of phone calls that need returning and ques-tions that only the showrunner can answer. I return the impor-tant calls and ignore the ones from the studio and network. I offer quick, one-word replies for the production questions, then grab my bag and head to Hollywood to sit in on call-backs for my play Where the Great Ones Run, which is being performed this May in Los Angeles at Rogue Machine Theater. I drive to Santa Monica Boulevard, park under a street-light, and make my way to the theater. It’s one of those weird little complexes with five different performance spaces of varying sizes. One seats 70 people, one seats 50, all the way down to the smallest, which looks like a Parisian water-closet. Hard to imagine what play could be mounted in there. Per-haps a one person version of The Gin Game . I eventually find the theater where the callbacks are taking place. I enter quietly, greet the director, and head to the back of the house, to watch and take notes. The scenes that have been chosen for the final round of auditions are the most dramatic ones in the play. Gut-wrenching and tearful. High family drama. One actor after another, filing in, ripping their hearts out, reducing themselves to an emotional puddle, then smiling at everyone, and saying “Thank you very much.” I’m completely drained just watching. Finally, after about an hour of this, we take a little break. Without thinking, I blurt out to the group, “Why the hell are we putting ourselves through this?” I meant it to be funny, but the fatigue in my voice couldn’t quite sell it. They all stare at me with a kind of shocked bewilderment. Their eyes say-ing, “If you don’t know, how are we supposed to?” Oh, yes. The responsibility of the playwright. Pretend like you know everything. I excuse myself to go outside and take a few hits WG A W Wri TTE n By AP r IL/MA y 20 12 off of my battery-powered cigarette and ponder why I have such a gift for making people feel uncomfortable. It’s a beautiful night in West Hollywood. As I look down the street at the row of theaters, I realize that at one time or another, I have performed in almost every single one of them. One-man shows and sketch reviews. Full-length plays and improvisational comedy. In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t involved in some sort of theatrical en-deavor. Going all the way back to high school drama club in Urbana, Illinois. Carrying around one of those pastel-colored “acting editions” in my back pocket. Dog-eared and high-lighted. Learning my lines for Harvey or The Odd Couple . Seeing the names in the front of the book of the famous ac-tors who appeared in the original productions. Imagining how great it would be to one day see my name there. The Great Escape From a very early age, theater was a great escape for me. I grew up in a house where people yelled a lot, so I needed an extra-curricular activity that kept me away from home but didn’t in-volve physical exertion or any real athletic ability. Drama club, it is. Not as cool as playing football or as sexy as being in a band or even just “in band,” but it was a way of getting attention without learning chord changes or dislocating your shoulder. Plus it was a way for dumpy, socially awkward guys like myself to meet girls. Now granted, the ladies in the thespian troupe were not as polished as the cheerleaders. But they were cute, off-beat, and quirky. And more important, they were pathologically needy. But hey, who else is going to stand in a hallway giggling while you act out Monty Python sketches dressed in high-water pants and one of your dad’s old shirts? In fact, my first real makeout session happened behind a canvas flat, during the first act of a junior high production of Oliver . I’m sure the audience had no idea why Mr. Bumble spent the second half of the play with an inexplicable grin and a missing mutton chop. And that’s not the only time I’ve gotten lucky in a theater. A few years back, I was performing in a one-act comedy I’d written for myself and Jessica Tuck, called Couples Counseling Killed Katie . It was a pretty rough-and-tumble production. Two actors, a couch, and some funny wigs and hats. One night, after one of the shows, this guy comes up to me and says, “If no one has made you rich writing for television, I’d 32 •

Sanctuary

Mark Roberts

A TV writer confesses a passion for theater.<br /> <br /> It’s six o’clock on a Monday evening and I’m finishing up my day in the writers room at Mike & Molly. We’re nearing the end of our second season, so we’re all starting to get a little punchy. Laughing hysterically at things that aren’t funny and second guessing things that are. It’s probably not healthy for a group of humans to be locked in a room for 10 months, pitching jokes and eating out of Styrofoam containers. Like some sort of weird NASA experiment, testing stamina and emotional stability. The only thing keeping us stumbling toward the finish line and not gouging each other’s eyes out is the anticipation of our upcoming hiatus and the chance to get reacquainted with our spouses and families.<br /> <br /> I walk down the hall to my office where my assistant, Isabelle, gives me a rundown of phone calls that need returning and questions that only the showrunner can answer. I return the important calls and ignore the ones from the studio and network. I offer quick, one-word replies for the production questions, then grab my bag and head to Hollywood to sit in on call-backs for my play Where the Great Ones Run, which is being performed this May in Los Angeles at Rogue Machine Theater.<br /> <br /> I drive to Santa Monica Boulevard, park under a streetlight, and make my way to the theater. It’s one of those weird little complexes with five different performance spaces of varying sizes. One seats 70 people, one seats 50, all the way down to the smallest, which looks like a Parisian water-closet.Hard to imagine what play could be mounted in there. Perhaps a one person version of The Gin Game.<br /> <br /> I eventually find the theater where the callbacks are taking place.I enter quietly, greet the director, and head to the back of the house, to watch and take notes. The scenes that have been chosen for the final round of auditions are the most dramatic ones in the play.Gut-wrenching and tearful. High family drama. One actor after another, filing in, ripping their hearts out, reducing themselves to an emotional puddle, then smiling at everyone, and saying “Thank you very much.” I’m completely drained just watching.<br /> <br /> Finally, after about an hour of this, we take a little break.Without thinking, I blurt out to the group, “Why the hell are we putting ourselves through this?” I meant it to be funny, but the fatigue in my voice couldn’t quite sell it. They all stare at me with a kind of shocked bewilderment. Their eyes saying, “If you don’t know, how are we supposed to?” Oh, yes.The responsibility of the playwright. Pretend like you know everything. I excuse myself to go outside and take a few hits off of my battery-powered cigarette and ponder why I have such a gift for making people feel uncomfortable.<br /> <br /> It’s a beautiful night in West Hollywood. As I look down the street at the row of theaters, I realize that at one time or another, I have performed in almost every single one of them.<br /> <br /> One-man shows and sketch reviews. Full-length plays and improvisational comedy. In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t involved in some sort of theatrical endeavor.Going all the way back to high school drama club in Urbana, Illinois. Carrying around one of those pastel-colored “acting editions” in my back pocket. Dog-eared and highlighted.Learning my lines for Harvey or The Odd Couple.Seeing the names in the front of the book of the famous actors who appeared in the original productions. Imagining how great it would be to one day see my name there.<br /> <br /> The Great Escape <br /> <br /> From a very early age, theater was a great escape for me. I grew up in a house where people yelled a lot, so I needed an extracurricular activity that kept me away from home but didn’t involve physical exertion or any real athletic ability. Drama club, it is. Not as cool as playing football or as sexy as being in a band or even just “in band,” but it was a way of getting attention without learning chord changes or dislocating your shoulder.<br /> <br /> Plus it was a way for dumpy, socially awkward guys like myself to meet girls. Now granted, the ladies in the thespian troupe were not as polished as the cheerleaders. But they were cute, off-beat, and quirky. And more important, they were pathologically needy. But hey, who else is going to stand in a hallway giggling while you act out Monty Python sketches dressed in high-water pants and one of your dad’s old shirts?<br /> <br /> In fact, my first real makeout session happened behind a canvas flat, during the first act of a junior high production of Oliver. I’m sure the audience had no idea why Mr. Bumble spent the second half of the play with an inexplicable grin and a missing mutton chop.<br /> <br /> And that’s not the only time I’ve gotten lucky in a theater.A few years back, I was performing in a one-act comedy I’d written for myself and Jessica Tuck, called Couples Counseling Killed Katie. It was a pretty rough-and-tumble production.Two actors, a couch, and some funny wigs and hats. One night, after one of the shows, this guy comes up to me and says, “If no one has made you rich writing for television, I’d Like to be that guy.” <br /> <br /> I’m probably paraphrasing, but those are the words I remember coming out of Chuck Lorre’s mouth that night.<br /> <br /> Being a man of his word, he brought me in to work on the pilot for Two And A Half Men. When that show was picked up, he hired me as a co-producer and by the fourth season, I had risen to co-executive producer and head writer. During the seventh year of that show, I wrote the pilot for Mike & Molly and when that went to series, I left Two And A Half Men to run it. And that has been my career in television thus far.<br /> <br /> I should mention that during those years I also wrote six plays, which are now published in those pastel- colored “acting editions” and being performed in theaters around the country.<br /> <br /> I’m not sure why, with my current workload, I still feel the need to continue writing for and working in the theater.<br /> <br /> I guess because I consider myself, first and foremost, a playwright. That’s why my parking space at Warner Bros. Is painted with the name Barton Fink instead of my own. An homage to the idealistic stage-scribe thrust into the teeth of the Hollywood machine.Not that I’m bad-mouthing television, Hollywood, or anything that would affect my current financial situation. I love writing for TV.Sitting in a room with smart, funny people and crafting 22-minute stories on a weekly basis is one of the greatest jobs in the world.<br /> <br /> But the theater has been my sanctuary for as long as I can remember.A part of my history and what got me excited about the arts in the first place. And it has always been in those dark, dusty little rooms, with broken, donated seating and 20 coats of black paint on the walls, that I feel most alive and most at home.<br /> <br /> I take a final hit off of my faux cigarette and head back inside to watch more people cry.<br /> <br /> Mark Roberts is the creator of Mike & Molly and the playwright of Couples Counseling Killed Katie, which opens June 9 at the Elephant Theater in Los Angeles. His play Where the Great Ones Run opens May 25 in Los Angeles at RogueMachine Theater.

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