Playwriting vs. Television/Film: Is There Really a Difference?

Playwriting vs. Television/Film: Is There Really a Difference?

Playwriting vs Television Film Is there a Difference Laurel OllsteinPhoebe Lim of the UCLA Writers’ Program interviews Laurel Ollstein

What do Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs, The Social Network), and Sheila Callaghan (Shameless) have in common? They are among countless television and film writers who got their start in the theatre and who continue to work in both mediums. While newer writers tend to dismiss playwriting as an old art form, established writers know how it built the groundwork and foundation for many great storytellers.

If you want to know how playwriting can juice up your writing or why playwrights are treated like gods, read what instructor Laurel Ollstein has to say about her new class Take the Stage: A Workshop for Film and TV Writers Looking for an Edge.

Writers’ Program: What’s the main difference between playwriting and writing for television/film?

Laurel Ollstein: I think initially when you’re first creating a play, you’re freer to find a form that fits the story you’re trying to tell, rather than with television and film, where the form is often where it starts.  Also I’d say that play writing tends to focus more on language and deepening character, although this is changing. I think television, particularly, is expanding the idea of what a television series can be.

WP: Whether you’re writing for the screen or the stage, finding your voice as a writer and performer is especially important. What is one way that students can learn to identify their voice and trust that their truth will resonate with others?

LO: When I wrote my first play, it came from a tragic and unexpected loss in my life. I was in my early twenties and at the time, working as an actress and waitress. I wrote a play called Insomniac, about not sleeping, and the crazy thoughts and ghosts visiting me in my head every night to try and understand my father’s suicide. It was far from a realistic depiction of my situation.  I was working at a theatre in San Francisco that had readings of new plays. My play was given a slot, a director and a cast. We had a few rehearsals and put up a staged reading. Most of the people in the audience had no idea I was writing about my life. At the discussion after the performance, the first comment was from an older British gentlemen, who I did not know. When he stood up to speak I noticed he’d been crying. He said, (imagine this is in a nice British accent), “That was the most universal play about loss I have ever seen.”  Now I couldn’t have tried harder to NOT be universal. I wrote that play from my heart so specifically. And yet, this man, who could not have been more different than me, related to what I was saying so much so that he was crying.  It was an epiphany. The best writing lesson I ever learned. The way to write universally is to write as specifically as possible.

WP: What words of wisdom or advice do you have for students who are still on the fence about enrolling in your class?

LO: Agents will read a play as a writing sample. It’s a good thing to have in your arsenal. It really shows your voice as a writer. To write for the theatre is the best training for any writer. You find your own voice and tell the story the way you want to tell it. And then you can see and hear it happen even by getting actors together in your living room as a simple set.

Also, I must say, the class has a great time. We do a ton of fabulously freeing writing exercises. Writing for the theatre is a joy. Sometimes, when working in TV and film, one can forget the joy part. For the final class, I bring in some wonderful actors to do readings of your work. What could be better? And, there’s food.

WP: What is a common misconception about theatre that film and TV writers need to understand?

LO: It’s not that different. A good story is a good story. It’s not pretentious. It’s whatever you want it to be.

WP: You’re also currently teaching a class “Writing Yourself onto the Stage: The One-Person Show.” How are these two classes different from other screenwriting courses and why is playwriting essential for any TV/film writer?

LO: In the theatre, the playwright is God. Yes, it’s true. No one changes your words, people want you in rehearsals, and you’re honored. Your every word means something.  Theatre is a writers’ medium. It all starts with the text. In television and film it’s much more of a directors’ medium. Writers’ words can be changed by directors and actors and the story can change completely in post-production. In theatre there is no post, only present. And you might have many different productions of one play, with different casts and directors. That’s why theatre is a wonderful place to start and come back to as a writer. It all starts with the theatre.

Phoebe Lim is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Online) and Events at the UCLA Writers’ Program. Contact her at 310-825-0107 or


Ollstein Solo Show Class at UCLA Begins January 27

Writing Yourself onto the Stage: The One-Person Show

The solo show is theater at its best. The bare essentials–a good story and one performer. This course is for writers, actors, comics, and anyone who wants to create (or are in the process of creating) their own one-person show. Whether you are writing a solo show based on personal experience, a historical figure, or a gallery of characters around a central theme, this course gives you the tools to construct a show that utilizes all of your talents. For writers, the solo show presents the great challenge of peopling the stage with vivid characters while telling a compelling story. For actors and comics, the one-person show gives you more control over your career as well as a place for your own voice to be heard. In the style of Ruth Draper, Anna Deavere Smith, Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, and John Leguizamo, each student writes and presents monologues, combining the guidelines of each in-class assignment with his/her own experience.

For more information see the course listing at UCLA.


My friend Laurel Ollstein is teaching this class and you should take it if you are a writer, actor, comic. She’s truly wonderful!

Francesca Lia Block

Reading Through Directed by Laurel Ollstein at Miles Playhouse Santa Monica

Laurel Ollstein has done a brilliant job. Every moment is like a painting that tells a heartbreaking story. Don’t miss it!

Laurie Latham

This show is heartbreaking and heart warming at the same time. The best thing Virginia Avenue Project has done.

Jim Stewart

I’m blown away by last night’s show. Incredibly moving and brilliant on your part. Bravo!!

Anna M. Sauer

Don’t miss Reading Through directed by Laurel Ollstein.  A very special evening of theater and films based on experiences of four survivors of the Holocaust.

Written by Santa Monica High School students and performed by a cast of outstanding professional actors.

Presented by the Virginia Avenue Project and the
Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

General Admission at the door Suggested donation: $15 Arrive Early!

Friday, November 20, 2015 Preview at 8:00pm
Saturday, November 21, 2015 Opening at 8:00pm
Sunday, November 22, 2015 Matinee at 2:00pm

Miles Playhouse
1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica — Free Parking

The Miles offers free subterranean parking at 808 Wilshire (entrance on Lincoln, catty corner to the Miles), please tell the guard you are “going to the Miles”!

Performed by:
Nealla Gordon, David Lorell, Richard Lucas, Sherman Lee, Time Winters, Tracy Winters

Participating Survivor Mentors:
Eva Brettler, Betty Cohen, Harry Davids, Michele Rodri

Student writers and filmmakers:
David Alas, Stella Buzzi, Edward Cervantes, Olivia Chu, Victor Cruz Martinez, Asta Datt, Alisa Fakhrutdinova, Rhenzy Feliz, Maya Fiala, Jacqueline Forsyte, Citali Garcia, Jackson Gerard, Maile Goldstein, Pauline Gonzalez, Sacha Gorji, Brandon Hall, Sophie Hall, Jade Ipina, Rachel Lamell, Hannah Morley, Vrinda Moujan, Kiara Nguyen, Bethany Ramierz, Auryn Rothwell, Mahari-ra Sankofa, Maria Schneider, Nicola Scuric, Ali Seklawi, Nathan Shapiro, Hannah Shepos, Pablo Solano, Lena Tran, Lena Winner

Artwork by: Katie Merz

Go See Diary of a Teenage Girl

Diary_of_A_Teenage_Girl_Ollstein_CommentsIf you’re in NY or LA go see this movie this weekend. I am so proud of Mari Heller for telling this story so beautifully!

“Minnie Goetze, the 15-year-old heroine of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” is a would-be cartoonist who, despite her first name, is closer in lusty spirit and scratchy pen to Robert Crumb than to Walt Disney. When, partway through this gutsy, exhilarating movie, she draws her first cartoon, it’s of a bodacious female colossus striding across San Francisco. As this inky giant keeps on trucking, she evokes the 50-foot-woman of cult film fame, if one that has received a Crumb makeover, with thighs as mighty as giant sequoias and a bottom that rolls like a ship in a storm.”  Read more in the New York Times.

Check out Alice Tuan discussing Rachel Crothers

Check out this Look What She Did! interview with my collaborator and great friend, playwright Alice Tuan disccussing Rachel Crothers, an early feminist playwright and director.  I had such a great time directing Alice’s play HIT at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Ollsteins’ They Promised Her the Moon at F.A.B. Readings June 26

Ollstein_at_For_and_About_Women_Series2Announcing the F.A.B. Reading Series! Our first play is THEY PROMISED HER THE MOON by Laurel Ollstein, directed by Shannon Patterson

This is the true story of pilot Jerrie Cobb, the first American woman to almost make it to the moon. And the story of where she went instead.

SAVE THE DATE: Friday, June 26th, 8 pm @ TBG Studio Theatre

F.A.B. (“For, About, and By”) WOMEN is a new theater company under the Off-Broadway umbrella of The Barrow Group. We are 100 highly trained, professional, female writers, actors and directors, ranging in age from our 20′s to our 70′s (so far!) We inspire, mentor and use each other to fearlessly explore issues and ideas through performance. Together we are expanding our theatrical storytelling abilities, and creating intimate, powerful and thought-provoking pieces about what informs women of the 21st Century.

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