The Spotlight: Dahvi Waller on 'Unscreened' at the Lillian Theatre
Whenever Dahvi Waller, an award-winning television writer for her work on “Mad Men,” tells colleagues about her latest project — a one-act play called “Between Movements” now running at the Elephant Stages' Lillian Theatre — they get jealous. “They all want to do it," she says. "They’re, like, ‘That’s so cool. How did you get into that?’” When she heard about "Unscreened," a theater project in its second year designed to give film and television writers the chance to practice their craft in a different medium, she pitched a show to the producers. Four were chosen, including Waller’s, which turns on the relationship between a duty-bound usher and a late-arriving guest at a performance by the L.A. Philharmonic.
What’s the difference between writing a one-act play and an episode of television?
Writing a play is very freeing creatively. When you’re writing for a television show, you are supporting the creator of that show and trying to realize his or her vision. When you’re writing a play, the world’s your oyster.
Does that mean your process is different?
Absolutely. Television is very collaborative. You’re in a room with other writers and you’re all pitching ideas. When I went to work on this play, I was alone in my office. It’s a much more isolating process. Also, the scope of television can be quite large. The challenge of writing a play is writing something that’s not too ambitious for the stage or the time frame you have.
Is that a lot of pressure — nobody there to tell you that’s a bad idea?
So much pressure! But that’s where “Unscreened” is different. When I wrote my first play, I was literally on my own. The wonderful thing about “Unscreened” is that we workshop the plays. The whole point is to make something that is normally a solitary exercise and create more of a sense of collaboration and community.
You have a lot of fun in “Between Movements” with contemporary L.A. references, something you couldn’t do on “Desperate Housewives” or “Mad Men.”
Particularly “Desperate Housewives” because it’s in syndication, and it’s in this Anytown, USA — we could not make any pop-culture references, any jokes. So I had fun with things like Yogurtland. This wouldn’t play in Missouri. I wanted to write a play that was very “of Los Angeles,” very specific to the city. To sit in the audience and hear people laughing at certain Los Angeles references, like Dudamel’s hair, you can feel that everyone has seen Dudamel’s hair on the banners.
I’m used to watching an episode I’ve written on television alone in my house. I can curl up into a ball and cringe. I don’t know how the audience is reacting. I can imagine that everyone is hysterically laughing and totally moved and go to sleep with that knowledge. There’s no escaping that reaction when you’re sitting in the audience. It’s terrifying to have that kind of immediate response.
Last year's “Unscreened” one-acts have gone on to become fuller projects, including films. Will “Between Movements” have a second movement?
Usually the journey, the pilgrimage to Mecca, is the playwright living in the Village and making no money — maybe has a couple of plays off-Broadway — coming out to L.A. to make money. There’s something very ironic [in] screenwriters and TV writers going in the opposite direction and writing plays, and then cycling back and making them into films. ... I don’t see this particular play turning into any kind of feature film. But I could see using some of the characters for a TV series.
— Jason Kehe
The Elephant Stages’ Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Sun.-Mon. Ends Feb. 27. $25. (800) 838-3006 or www.fireflyinc.com
Photo: Dahvi Waller. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times