STAGE TO SCREENS: Jon Robin Baitz and Keith Nobbs Discuss Their TV Projects

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Jon Robin Baitz and Keith Nobbs Discuss Their TV Projects This month we talk to playwright Jon Robin Baitz, creator of the hit ABC Sunday night drama "Brothers & Sisters", and actor Keith Nobbs, who plays Joey Ice Cream in the new NBC Monday night series "The Black Donnellys."
"Brothers and Sisters" writer and creator Jon Robin Baitz.
"Brothers and Sisters" writer and creator Jon Robin Baitz.

***

With his first kickoff, Jon Robin Baitz (called Robbie by friends) has scored a touchdown in television. "I'm proud of 'Brothers and Sisters,'" he says. "At its very best, it presents a grown-up view of the world, in which there's tolerance and imperfection, and a desire to connect — rather than a highly Botox artificiality."

Many find it appealing to have one of the main characters be openly gay (attorney Kevin Walker, played by Matthew Rhys) and totally accepted by his family. "There's absolutely no issue about that," declares Baitz. "Viewers who write complaining letters are usually addressed by other letter writers telling them, if they don't like it, to watch something else. It's an evolving family, and there's not a scintilla of shame directed towards Kevin.

"He has his own issues to deal with — and, at times, his own internalized homophobia. The network and the studio have been unfailingly supportive, so much so that it's never come up as an issue. I'm really proud of that.

"Kevin is certainly the most like me on the show. I use my psychological state with him quite a bit. [Laughs] Sometimes you can see where I am by watching Kevin flailing about haplessly." I mention a Baitz quote — "I am fueled by self-disgust, but I am not ruled by it" — and ask if Kevin is similarly generated. "Yes, by comedy and self-disgust, as I am." Adds Baitz, "And charm." How does writing for television differ from writing for the stage? "I think it's an act of compression. I'm not able to find the space and depth and breadth in the writing of scenes. You learn to shorten and find that which is necessary.

"But that doesn't mean it's artless. It can be very satisfying writing, artful writing, too. It just doesn't breathe the same slow and steady breadth that a page of playwriting does — at least, in my case.

"Then there are the demands of a commercial network. I tend to gravitate towards a kind of crisis-moment in real drama; at times, in a strange kind of way, that can be at odds with what works best on the show. So there's a balance between dark and light that I'm trying to learn. It's very different [from theatre] in every respect.

"That said, I have to say that being a playwright is fantastic preparation for writing television one-hour drama scripts, because they are dialogue scenes and they are about character. In a show like mine, playwriting is perfect training."

A recent TV Guide cover-article cited the many challenges faced by "Brothers & Sisters," including the making of two pilots, a casting change that had Sally Field replace Betty Buckley as the family matriarch, and the departure of the original show runner. "Getting something wrong is not an unfamiliar feeling to a playwright. So, as difficult as it was, I feel that my training in the theatre prepared me enough to be able to keep going, to persevere."

Does Baitz write most of the scripts? "I've written half of the episodes [thus far], and I try to flesh out stories that I'm not writing. We have a great group of writers. The day-to-day mechanics of those scripts are done by Greg Berlanti, who's the show runner."

Being unfamiliar with the term "show runner," I inquire if it has a stage equivalent. "There isn't one in the theatre. It's someone who is a sort of day-to-day writing boss. He assigns scripts, makes sure they [are completed on time]. It's an incredibly managerial job, but one that requires real talent. Greg Berlanti [also an executive producer, as is Baitz] has been both artist and manager. If I'm the creator of the thing, he runs the company."

Acknowledging a quote — "I write from doubt and confusion" — Baitz explains, "Yes, as a playwright, I do. As a television writer, I write from a structured curiosity and a desire to entertain, while finding what's intelligent and grown up in the inquiry, in the script. I make suggestions, but I like the idea of it being like Esquire in the Sixties, the Harold Hayes [Hayes edited the magazine, 1961-73], where everyone senses their own uniqueness as a writer.

"As well as myself, our writing staff consists of some very good writers and two other playwrights I brought in: David Marshall Grant and Craig Wright. The writers are very proprietary; I'm trying to build that. Next season, I'll try to bring in another playwright, and [in time] try to rescue some more impoverished denizens of the theatre from a life of pennilessness." Television, I interject, does pay slightly better than theatre. States Baitz, "Ever so!"

In the past, Baitz has said, "Plays lead to other plays." Do TV series lead to other TV series? "They could. In my case, I'd like to try another one, because I do believe in the medium — and particularly network television, because it's free [for viewers]. I'm also drawn to cable, because there are less restrictions for the writer. I've learned a lot in the year-and-a-half I've been [writing for episodic TV] that I think would stand me in stead as creator of another show. But it would certainly have to be done in New York. I don't want to be out here in St. Helena-slash-Elba forever." [Laughs]

Born Nov. 4, 1961, in Los Angeles, Baitz was raised there, as well as in Brazil and South Africa, due to his father's job with the Carnation Corporation. His family returned to California in time for Baitz to attend Beverly Hills High School. "It was a very, very different time, 200 years ago." Did any of his classmates achieve success? Baitz responds, "Tina Landau, Gina Gershon, Patrick Cassidy, Jon Turteltaub, Lenny Kravitz — kind of an auspicious group."

When did he decide to write? "In my early twenties," notes Baitz. "I think I felt that I was a storyteller. I had been drawn to the theatre since I was a little boy, and I thought that I could make a life in it.

"All of the living overseas was a good preparation for being a playwright, because it's all about being foreign, and about language, and not understanding the language. You sort of develop an outsider's ear. If you have a tendency to be a bit of an eavesdropper, that's a perfect cauldron for being a playwright. And then there's the discipline and the challenge of facing a blank page. You have to forget about the here and now of it and find your way into the artistic world of purely invented reality — seven hours a day."

Which playwrights did he admire? "I think I was very influenced by a set of British playwrights: Misters [Harold] Pinter, [Simon] Gray, [David] Hare, [Howard] Brenton, [Alan] Bennett, [Tom] Stoppard.

"To me, the athleticism of a David Hare harkens back to Shaw. Going back further, a big influence was Chekhov. Probably because of growing up in South Africa and it being a sort of British colony, [the British playwrights] were slightly more redolent for me.

"Frankly, it was less so with American playwrights — with the exception of Wally Shawn. When I first read [his] Aunt Dan and Lemon, I felt freed up from a rigid naturalism, and into a more lush, densely textured language."

Baitz' plays include Mizlansky/Zilinsky, The Film Society, The End of the Day, Three Hotels, A Fair Country, The Substance of Fire, Ten Unknowns, Chinese Friends, a new version of Hedda Gabler, and The Paris Letter.

Is there a play of his that has given Baitz the most satisfaction? "No, because I see virtue in all of them, even those that failed and didn't particularly work that well. They seem to be steps towards something else.

“Once, I took exception to a review of Three Hotels in the L.A. Times, written by someone I had been friends with. He no longer liked me, because I was a working playwright and he wasn't. He described [Three Hotels] as 'a tapestry of falsity.' That play, in particular, came out of a deeply biographical inquiry on my part [and two of its characters are based on his parents]. In some respects, Three Hotels is a favorite play. Joe Mantello directed it so beautifully, and Ron Rifkin and Debra Monk were so great in it.

"I'm very, very fond of Mislansky/Zilinsky, also directed by Joe Mantello and starring Nathan Lane. I could watch the Manhattan Theatre Club production hypnotically and totemically. It was also extremely personal, even though it was funny on the surface. It was evocative of a specific time for me when I was deciding that I wanted to be a writer. That was certainly the most perfect production I've ever had. It was utterly pitch perfect, a master stroke of Mantello staging."

For PBS-TV’s "American Playhouse" in 1991, Baitz directed "Three Hotels." "I'd like to do more directing. I'm going to start directing on 'Brothers and Sisters,' and last year I wrote a movie [based on the 1952 Japanese film "Ikiru" and called "To Live"] that I threw my hat in the ring to direct — if the studio lets me."

As an actor, he's appeared in the films "Last Summer in the Hamptons" (1995), "One Fine Day" (1996), and "Sam the Man" (2000). Are there plans for a new play? "I have many, many pages of a new play. I'm very eager to find a place to do it. I owe a play to Playwrights Horizons, and I'll probably end up doing it there, on a hiatus from 'Brothers and Sisters.' The working title is What We Want." Concludes Jon Robin Baitz, "It's important to me not to be the boy who turned his back on the theatre."

***

From June to mid-December 2006, Keith Nobbs filmed 13 episodes as Joey Ice Cream in "The Black Donnellys," which premiered Feb. 26. The series was shot "at a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and a lot of location work around the city." As we speak, Nobbs is vacationing in Florida. "One of the benefits of working on TV is that it allows you to do things like this." Is he commenting on Off-Broadway salaries compared to those on TV? "Atlantic Theater Company...NBC — they're kind of similar," jokes Nobbs.

He originally auditioned to play "the main brother, Tommy [Jonathan Tucker], and I also read for Jimmy [Tom Guiry], the heroin brother. They called me back for Jimmy. That's when I met Bobby Moresco [co-creator with Paul Haggis, with whom Moresco wrote the 2005 Oscar-winning Best Picture "Crash"]. 'I like ya,' he said. 'I don't think you're Jimmy, but I like ya.' Then he called me back for the part I'm doing, Joey Ice Cream. It's a great part. You get to have a field day with it."

How would he describe his character? "Joey's the storyteller. He's telling a story in the future from prison. But he's a compulsive liar. So you don't know if the information you're getting is trustworthy. What does he know? What is he being honest about? You never quite know. But in the version that Joey is telling, he wants to be part of the family. The Donnellys represent the family he never had. He's always on the outside, always wanting to belong."

Did Nobbs have difficulty capturing any aspect of his character? "Joey's the comic relief; he lets out the pressure. The environment is so tough. The Donnellys are pushed into the position of doing things they never wanted to do. Joey's not threatening, which is a nice contrast to the other characters. Because he is so different, sometimes it was hard to fall into that. You sort of slip in, be funny, and slip out. That was challenging."

Nobbs' TV debut occurred in 1999 during the first season of "The Sopranos": "I had one line. The director saw me in the first play I did in New York, Stupid Kids, and I got the job just from that."

Does TV require a different kind of acting? "The level of honesty is exactly the same. How you're connecting, the focus of the relationship, the integrity of the story, and how you're talking is very similar. The difference comes in sustainability. "If you make a choice to go a certain way in telling the story and with the character, you have to be able to do that eight times a week. In film, you only have to do it once, or a couple of times. If you can capture that lightning in a bottle, you never have to go back and do it again, which I think allows for a different spontaneity. Like a child, you're allowed to draw on all the walls. The editors can choose what they want in telling the story.

"In theatre, it's the responsibility of the actor to be the conduit of the story or the character, and in how the audience is perceiving it. Film is a director's medium. So they cut and paste, and make a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes it's a good thing; sometimes it's a bad thing."

Born in Chicago, Nobbs is the youngest of four. "I have two brothers, Peter and Craig, and a sister, Kim. When I was three months, the family moved to Houston. I grew up doing musical theatre there. I started when I was six, playing Schroeder in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. My brother, Peter, played Snoopy. My best friends, who are still my best friends, were all in the cast. When I was 15, my family moved to New York, where they were originally from."

A 1997 graduate of Manhattan's High School of Performing Arts, Nobbs claims, "One of the great things about going to high school at LaGuardia is that these kids were just teenagers. Acting and art were part of their life, but there was very little ego involved — just the pure love of doing it and sharing it. Kids that age are more concerned about 'My girlfriend just broke up with me,' than obsessing over a scene."

Growing up, which actors did he admire? "I love actors who can go back and forth from one medium to another. I always liked Ewan McGregor and Holly Hunter. I enjoy characters who are a little off. Those are the kind of roles I like to play. Joey Ice Cream is not the leading-man guy."

Following are some of Nobbs' reflections on his stage appearances.

Stupid Kids: "I didn't really understand the script at first. I played it straight. Then they started laughing; that's when I understood that it was a comedy. That's when I met [director] Michael Mayer. There were four of us in the cast, just starting out. When our enthusiasm met with the enthusiasm of the audience, it was a eureka moment, when you know you're doing the right job."

Hope is the Thing with Feathers: "That was by a wonderful writer named Frank Pugliese. I played a 15-year-old Bronx kid who got his girlfriend pregnant and gave her AIDS. The whole thing is told in a flashback as he's jumping out of a plane and trying to decide if he's going to pull the ripcord, or if it's going to be a suicide."

The Lion in Winter: "It was very exciting, my first show on Broadway. [He played John, youngest son of Eleanor (Stockard Channing) and Henry II (Laurence Fishburne).] I was thrilled to be invited to be part of that experience."

Fuddy Meers: "By David Lindsay-Abaire. A great experience, with an incredible cast —- J. Smith-Cameron, Patrick Breen, Mark McKinney, Marylouise Burke.... Everyone was operating on full cylinders."

Four, for which Nobbs won a Lucille Lortel Award as Best Featured Actor: "By Christopher Shinn, who I believe is the best young American playwright right now. His Dying City just opened at Lincoln Center. His ear for the vernacular of how people interact is impeccable. My character was a gay 16-year-old named June [for the month of his birth], who becomes involved with a professor. In the frame of this sordid story, there's a beautiful Huckleberry Finn element. It's a wonderful play, and is being made into a movie."

Free to Be...You and Me: "It was my first time singing since I was a child — and I was terrified. That was a great cast, too — Daphne Rubin-Vega, Debbie Gravitte, Bob Ari. I had a 15-minute monologue by Herb Gardner, who only allowed two actors to do it before me: Dustin Hoffman and Judd Hirsch. I played a kid reading a composition in front of his class about crossing the street by himself for the first time. It was great to meet Herb Gardner. It was only a few months before he died. When a writer is so great, it takes the pressure off you. It sort of sings for you."

Going Native: "I did that at Long Wharf. It's the only regional play that I've done. It was written by Steven Drukman, who interviewed me — the first interview I ever did — for The New York Times, and then cast me in his play."

Dublin Carol: "One of my favorites. Conor McPherson is the Irish counterpart to Christopher Shinn. Conor also directed the play; he was great. [Nobbs assumes a brogue in imitating McPherson:] 'Just get up onstage and fucking do it. Say the words, get it out.' Jim Norton played an embittered alcoholic. His performance was the most heartbreaking thing I've ever seen onstage."

Romance: "By David Mamet. It was one of those moments when you think: I'm actually sitting at a table with David Mamet. Writing a farce was new for him. He couldn't have been more generous or unfussy. And Larry Bryggman, Bob Balaban, and Christopher Evan Welch were so much fun to play off."

Dog Sees God: "The whole experience was like a party. All those people are still friends. They got together in L.A. to watch the first night of 'The Black Donnellys.' The cast included America Ferrara, who's now on 'Ugly Betty,' Eddie Kaye Thomas, who's in ''Til Death' on FOX, Ari Graynor, who was on Broadway in Little Dog Laughed."

Observes Keith Nobbs, "I feel very lucky in that every medium I've been fortunate to work in, I've always had good experiences. 'The Black Donnellys' is like that. It's great working with people who really believe so much in what they're doing. If we're lucky enough to get picked up [for a second season], we'd start filming in late June or early July. Right now, I'm chomping at the bit to get back onstage."

Keith Nobbs as Joey Ice Cream in "The Black Donnellys"
Keith Nobbs as Joey Ice Cream in "The Black Donnellys" Photo by NBC
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