Sarah Treem: On a different path

Playwright, screenwriter and producer Sarah Treem takes the triple-threat road to success.
By Kinney Littlefield | Published: February 28, 2014


Image2As writers’ careers go, Sarah Treem’s has a rising arc close to superpowered. This fall, Treem, 33, will pen and executive-produce her own Showtime series, The Affair, a drama of tangled romantic relationships starring Maura Tierney, Dominic West, Joshua Jackson and Ruth Wilson. Her latest play, When We Were Young and Unafraid, with drama diva Cherry Jones, makes its world premiere June 17 at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club. Plus Treem is adapting Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy, Susan Spencer-Wendel’s trenchant memoir of terminal illness, for a Universal feature film.

This professional triple-play seems well distanced from Treem’s graduate study in playwriting at Yale School of Drama barely a decade ago. Yet in that time, Treem has written, rewritten, slogged and persevered her way to increased prominence in Hollywood and New York. Indeed, her personal throughline could be a model for aspiring writers eager to turn creative passion into a sustainable, if over-full, way of life.

Treem’s toehold in the TV industry began with an initial writing assignment for the HBO series, In Treatment (2008-2010). Based on the Israeli series Be’Tipul, created by Hagai Levi with Ori Sivan and Nir Bergman, In Treatment was a talky 30-minute drama about emotionally conflicted therapy patients and their equally conflicted therapist, played by Gabriel Byrne. Treem’s well-honed words made Hollywood take notice. “One of Treem’s particular strengths, which was invaluable on In Treatment, is that of being able to dig very deeply into a character, deeper and deeper through layers and layers, always looking for the unexpected,” says writer, producer and director Rodrigo García, who directed the 2011 Glenn Close movie Albert Nobbs and, as first-season showrunner of In Treatment, oversaw its creative direction. Adds Anya Epstein, who showran In Treatment in its third season, “There’s a vibrancy and ease to Sarah’s writing you sometimes find elsewhere, but never combined with the depth and heart she’s got to offer.”

Such skills led Treem to writing work on the first season of Netflix’s award-winning 2013 online series House of Cards, an adaptation of the acclaimed British series about amoral politicians and their evil deeds. Now Treem is prepping for her high-profile debut as executive producer, showrunner and co-creator with Levi of The Affair.

Still, Treem stays committed to playwriting. Her burgeoning body of stage work is female-centric, capturing compelling women and life choices in intimate plays including A Feminine Ending and The How and the Why, in addition to When We Were Young and Unafraid. She’s “a smart, passionate playwright,” says Mandy Greenfield, artistic producer of Manhattan Theatre Club. “She writes bold, complicated, imperfect and, often, heroic women with great humor and compassion.”

To further complicate her current clutch of projects, Treem is also immersed in mothering Henry, her 1-year-old son. Somehow she makes it all sound possible, doable, as she candidly talks television, playwriting and how the interplay of stage and screen has informed her writing career.

Simultaneously writing for stage, film and TV – is this a new form of extreme sports?

This is way too much right now. I didn’t mean for these three things to happen at the exact same time, and with a new baby. I’m just trying to stay one step ahead of deadlines – and promise myself that when this year’s over, I won’t do this again.

I had this great fear before I had a child that having a baby would make it impossible to keep working or deplete my creative energy or marginalize me in some way. And I wish somebody had said, “No, no, no it’s actually just the opposite. It changes everything and then you have a whole new world to write from.”

Motherhood, careers, family, sexuality. Your plays delve deeply into the choices women are often forced to make. What draws you to these issues?

For writers, there’s one dramatic question in their lives that they just keep writing about. And I have this philosophy that all good writing stems from a really deep anxiety in the writer. Not the kind of anxiety that’s like, “Do I look fat in this t-shirt?”  But the kind of anxiety that keeps you up at night.

My anxiety has always had something to do with gender relationships or gender differences. I was aware when I was young that a lot of the canon that was taught was geared towards men, that the stuff we were learning about in biology was geared to the male body. I was aware of that at an early age. I felt when I was a kid that things were supposed to be equal but when I got out of school, that just wasn’t true.

It was confusing to me because I thought, yes, I’m really alone because we don’t talk about sexism as much anymore. We don’t talk about the differences in the way men and women are perceived. So I started writing about it. That’s how I’ve always dealt with anxiety.

Your play, When We Were Young and Unafraid, is about pretty tough stuff: women who are damaged by relationships and who interact in a kind of underground women’s shelter. Yet the title is ironic, yes?

Yes, it is. The irony is, basically, that 1972, when the play is set, is the time – from what I understand, I wasn’t alive then – that people were more innocent than now. But these characters were never innocent, and they were never unafraid. The teenaged character, Penny, grows up afraid. She grows up in a house [and women’s shelter] where she’s fearful, and she just wants to be happy. She just wants to fall in love and live a life. But that is not always possible.

The Affair

The Affair

Is your upcoming Showtime series, The Affair, an extension of your exploration of women’s issues and life choices?

Not directly, but the idea of the show is to tell the same story from two sides or two perspectives. And each perspective has valid weight. I think that’s radical in a love story because so often the woman is written as the object and the man as the subject. But in this show, they are both the subjects of their own story and the objects of each other’s. And the story changes depending on whose perspective we are in.

As a woman, I’m very cognizant that I experience the world differently from men. And because I’m a woman who has worked in a male-dominated field for so long, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time training myself to “think like a man” in order to survive. When telling this story, I actively thought about how men and women experience the same scene differently. Which was a lot of fun and very liberating for me personally.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I’d always known. When I was 8, I was writing poetry. I started writing plays when I was 12, and kept writing plays all through high school and college.

How does playwriting compare to screenwriting for you, as a process?

Playwrights, more than screenwriters, are really expected to keep reinventing the wheel. You can’t write a great play that’s very similar to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That’s considered derivative in theater. But in film, they want to know how similar your script is to another movie that’s made a ton of money. That further you are from the norm, in terms of both form and content, the harder it will be for your movie to get made.

How do playwriting and TV writing inform each other?

Actually, everything I know about writing for television I got from writing plays. And subsequently, everything I know about writing plays I learned from writing for television.

On the stage, language is all you have. So when I’m writing plays, that’s my comfort zone, and that’s great. I love putting two people in a room together who have a reason to be in conflict and not letting them leave. I think that’s where drama starts.

In theater, you can have a play where quote-unquote nothing happens but the characters evolve. A really good example of that is the Sartre play No Exit. And you can have a screenplay where there’s no character evolution whatsoever, but the story is so great that it’s a great screenplay. A good example of that is one of my favorite screenplays of all time: Speed. The Keanu Reeves character does not change. The Sandra Bullock character does not change.

So screenwriters and playwrights are inherently on different sides of the spectrum, and television writing is somewhat in the middle. If your characters are not primary and not evolving, you don’t have a television series. But it’s not only about character. There also needs to be a story that the audience is following from week to week. And so TV writing is a marriage of the two worlds.

Just how hard was it to gain notice as a playwright – and as a woman playwright?

It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as hard as I think some other people’s paths have been. I put in my time in New York tutoring rich kids in SAT prep (its own weird circle of hell, which only people who’ve done it can relate to) and having panic attacks. [In 2007] my first play in New York, A Feminine Ending, was ridiculed in the New York Times and that was devastating for me at 27, because I thought my career was over. After it was savaged by the critics, I talked to some producers and said, “I’ve wanted to be a playwright my whole life. How do I sustain a career in the theater? What am I going to do?” And they said, point blank, “Stop writing about women. If you want to be successful, stop writing about women. Stop writing about female issues. You’re going to ghettoize yourself.” I had some professors in school say, “It just takes women longer. Women are on a different path.” There was just this attitude that that was the way things were.

I didn’t have another play produced for another three years after that, and now my latest play, When We Were Young and Unafraid, is happening three years later.

And that’s part of the reason that, when I started writing In Treatment, I stayed, because there did seem to be more opportunities for girls in television. In the beginning, I was just kind of doing it as a day job to support playwriting.

Actually, I think a lot has changed in the 10 years since I came out of school. Especially in film and television, shows like [HBO series] Girls, and [Fox series] New Girl have taken young female stories and made them significant and relevant and part of the cultural landscape in a way that didn’t exist then.

Have you experienced sexism in the TV industry?

TV has its own brand of sexism. I’ve been in writers’ rooms where I’m the only woman, where there’s a tremendous amount of outright chauvinism – like “you can’t come to work in a skirt because I can’t concentrate,” or “tell us about your all sexual partners because we need it for the show.” The stories you hear about writers’ rooms and women in TV writers’ rooms are real.

How did you land a position writing for In Treatment?

I had just gotten signed with Endeavor [William Morris Endeavor talent and literary agency].  Endeavor sent my play Mirror, Mirror, about high school students in the South, which I’d written in graduate school, to HBO. And HBO sent it to Rodrigo García, the showrunner of In Treatment at the time. He read it, and he liked the voice.

My first experiences writing for television were awful. The pressure was enormous. I had no idea what I was doing. When the season was over, I flew back to New York and swore to my agents I’d never work in TV again. I know that all probably sounds impossibly naive, but television is not an easy business. You’ve got to be really tough. I started young, and it took me a while to develop my skin. So the first years were very painful for me.

House of Cards

House of Cards

Did you have any specific mentors when you were writing for In Treatment or House of Cards?   

Hagai Levi has been a great supporter, mentor and friend of mine since the early days of In Treatment. I think he, more than anyone else, has had the most influence on my writing style. From him, I learned to trust the characters – to let them speak for themselves – and that you don’t have to rely on pyrotechnics to advance plot. You just need desire and despair.

On In Treatment, did you end up writing with Gabriel Byrne, the show’s star, in mind?

Oh, yes. One of my favorite things about TV writing is that the writer and the actor get very close, and there becomes a real sort of marriage between you and the artist. Gabriel was the heart and the soul of the show. If you don’t write to the actor’s strength, you’re limiting the scope of the character severely. And if you do, you’re tapping into the humanity of the actor and creating a richer, grander character.

How difficult was it to write the largely despicable characters on Netflix’s House of Cards, which depicts Washington politics as poisonous and murderous?

With House of Cards, the whole point of that world is that everybody is a cynic. And it’s satire, on a certain level. So as a writer, you’ve just got to tap into what the essence of the show is and write from there.

And now you’re adapting Until I Say Good-Bye, a memoir about dying, for a feature film.

It’s a memoir by a genius of a woman, Susan Spencer-Wendel, who has ALS. It’s about coming to terms with having a terminal disease, and dying before her children become adults, and making peace with her life. She knew only my House of Cards work. And she was like, “You’re very good at writing vitriolic, mean people. Can you write sympathetic characters?” And I was like, “No, no, no, I promise, I can do that too.” I fought really hard for the job because it’s about things I’d been thinking about anyway – the anxiety of motherhood and being able to protect your child at all costs – that have been on my mind the last year.

Will you be revising When We Were Young and Unafraid right up to its opening night in May?

Yes. Plays are complicated beasts. That’s the great thing about theater that doesn’t exist in film or television. It’s an art form that literally has blood pumping through it. A play exists on the page, but it doesn’t really happen until it’s performed on stage and there’s a live audience to receive it. There’s this symbiosis. You literally need the audience to complete the experience. So I find that you can change a line one night and make it seem better, and then the actor performs it slightly differently the next night and you wish you had left the line in. You have to make peace with the idea that it is a perfectly imperfect art form.

Since playwriting and screenwriting are so solitary, is it hard for you to work as part of a group in a TV writers’ room, where all the writers on a show hash out plot and character?

We had a great writers’ room in Venice, Calif., on House of Cards. In the first year of In Treatment, there was no writers’ room. The way it worked, there was one writer per character. In the second year, we had only a brief – only a few weeks – writers’ room, and then we went off individually to write our characters. In the third year, each writer met with the showrunner for two or three weeks to break story [plot out what happens], and then we went off to write our characters.

But I don’t love writers’ rooms, which is something that I have to come to terms with when we start The Affair. I’m the kind of writer who likes to be alone more than in a group of people. For me, writing really has to come from an unconscious place, and then the act of writing is bringing the unconscious into the conscious mind and surprising yourself.

But when you’re in a writers’ room, you don’t do that because everybody has to talk about every scene and then agree on every scene and agree on all the characters’ motivations. That to me takes the magic out of writing a little bit. But I’m grateful for that experience on House of Cards because I learned a ton and I’m going to integrate that as I create my own writers’ room.

Will it be hard for you to give up a certain amount of hands-on control to other writers on The Affair?

We’ll see. I haven’t done it yet. I’ve worked for, at this point, five other showrunners, so I’ve been on the other side of the table quite a bit. I know what it’s like to be rewritten – putting your heart and soul into a script and then being told that it’s not any good and, you know, that you have to start again from scratch. I feel deeply for the writers as a result of that experience.

What qualities will you look for, as executive producer, when you’re hiring TV writers for The Affair?

When Showtime was asking me who I wanted to hire, I said I want to hire playwrights. When people start writing for theater, they learn to cultivate their own voice and stand behind it. A lot of times when people start out writing for television, they learn to write in other people’s voices, and they don’t ever cultivate their own sense of themselves as an artist. So when they’re being asked to innovate, they get scared. I don’t want that on a writing staff, specifically because The Affair is going to be the kind of storytelling that needs to be ping-ponging back and forth all the time between two perspectives. Maybe it’s my personal bias, but I feel playwrights are very good at playing around in the minds of characters.

There are so many people who started in playwriting who I admire, who’ve become amazing television writers. People I went to school with like Rolin Jones [Low Winter Sun, Weeds, Friday Night Lights, United States of Tara] and Jami O’Brien [Hell on Wheels, Big Love] have done extraordinarily well in television.

So my goal is to hire five great writers whose work I respect. Most likely, I’ll end up hiring people who are older than me, who have had more experience. We’ll get together and break a story. Then what I hope to do is to send people off with episodes and let them take over, to the point where they write, they rewrite, they’re in casting, they’re on set, they’re in editing – and let them feel ownership of their own individual episodes. Because I personally believe that’s how you get the best work out of really creative people.

And the other thing I’ve been saying to agents when they call is that I want people who are really in touch with their souls, people who like to access their own sense of vulnerability and shame and desire and fear and to write from those emotional places because that’s where we’re going to be with the show. There’ll be plot twists as well, but the drama will be deeply character-based.

Do you have any personal writing rituals?

I don’t have any specific ones anymore, except silence and isolation. I did until I had a baby, and then that all went out the window. I did have to have a cup of coffee and I wanted my desk to be clear. But now I’m really tired at night, and my baby’s up in the morning so I have to actually learn to write like it’s a job. Now as soon as the nanny comes in the morning, I go down to my office and try not to get up from my desk until I have 10 pages written.

I can’t write very well in coffee shops or with other people in the room. I need to get into a bit of a zone, and other people take me out of it. I used to say to write plays you need silence and sadness, even for the comedies. I still believe in that advice.

Any other advice for new writers who might want to try following in your footsteps?

The best advice I ever got about writing is: Don’t start until you can’t not start. There’s a difference between when something is kind of living in your head as a good idea and when something is gnawing at your gut. Sometimes that can take years. We don’t have that luxury in TV. But in other forms of writing, you can wait those two years until the play you’ve been thinking about is burning to get out of you and you have to write it.

When I came out to LA, I’d get a lot of calls from people saying, “I really want to be a screenwriter. Can you tell me how you did it? Can you give me any help?” And I was like, “OK, sure, why don’t you send me something you’ve written?” And over and over again, they hadn’t written anything. They were like, “Well, I’ve got half of a spec script right now. I’m working on an original pilot, but it’s not done yet.” And I’m like, “You gotta write.”

Just keep developing your voice, rewrite, take jobs even if you think they’re beneath you, to get the experience. It’s a lifestyle, a life choice. There are so many easier ways to get rich or famous. You’ve got to want it desperately.

Kinney Littlefield is a New York-based entertainment journalist who has covered TV for The Associated Press. She is a former staff TV critic for The Orange County Register in Southern California.

SELECTED AWARDS & NOMINATIONS

  • Nominated for Writers Guild of America Award, Drama Series, House of Cards, 2014.
  • Nominated for Primetime Emmy, Outstanding Drama Series, House of Cards, 2013.
  • Won Writers Guild of America Award, New Series, In Treatment, 2009.
  • Nominated, Humanitas Prize, 30 Minute Category, In Treatment, 2008.

SELECTED CREDITS

  • Co-creator and executive producer of the new television series, The Affair, slated to premiere this fall on Showtime.
  • Playwright, When We Were Young and Unafraid, world premiere June 17 ( previews from May 22) at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
  • Writer/co-executive producer, the first season of House of Cards (online series, Netflix, 2013).
  • Playwright, The How and the Why, premiered McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., 2011.
  • Writer/producer, How to Make It in America (TV series, HBO, 2010).
  • Writer/co-producer/producer/supervising producer, In Treatment (TV series, HBO, 2008-2010).
  • Playwright, A Feminine Ending, premiered Playwrights Horizons, New York, 2007.

PLAYWRITING COMMISSIONS

  • Works commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, South Coast Repertory and Manhattan Theatre Club.

SARAH TREEM FILE

Sarah Treem was born in Boston and grew up in Concord, N.H., Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Avon, Conn., and Durham, N.C.  She received her B.A. (2002) and M.F.A. in playwriting (2005) from Yale University. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, political strategist Jay Carson, and their 1-year-old son Henry.

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