This week, Write On! speaks with award-winning playwright and screenwriter Jamie Pachino. Her plays have been commissioned, published and honored with over 2 dozen awards, as well as produced and developed with such theatres as Steppenwolf, Long Wharf, Hartford Stage, American Conservatory Theatre, San Jose Rep, Pasadena Playhouse, and the Women’s Playwright Conference in Athens, Greece. Pachino has written features for DreamWorks, Disney, Walden Media, and Vanguard Films, and teleplays for Lifetime Television and the Hallmark Hall of Fame. She has served on the faculty of Northwestern University and Columbia College in Chicago, and currently teaches at the University of California, Irvine.
Why and how did you first start writing?
I always wrote through high school and college, but never took myself seriously. I studied to be an actress and was very committed to it. After college, I was working a day job as a receptionist for a law firm in Chicago, and the guy who ran the mailroom bet me I couldn’t write a play from a word we randomly picked out of the dictionary. That word was “mandrake” (an excellent word to start a play from!. Somehow I finished it, and it was produced. I kept acting for a few more years, but continued to do more and more writing, until I came to realize that writing was what I was supposed to be doing. The irony is both my college acting teacher and my father always told me I was going to be a writer.
How does being a playwright differ from writing screenplays and teleplays? Do you have a favorite medium?
On a technical level, there’s less structure involved in playwrighting, fewer “rules” and longer scenes. Words are the premium there, not pictures, so for me, a lot of the work I had to do as a writer moving from theatre to film was to think more visually, to do less verbally and dialogically, and get in and out of scenes quicker. I also think audiences are more patient in the theatre, more willing to go with you and see where you will take them. Ideas can drive a whole evening, language is delicious, and it can all take place in one room. You don’t get much of that on film. As for a favorite—I love both equally as an audience member, but as a writer, the theatre experience can’t be beat.
How do you feel about Movies of the Week (MOWs)? Why do they get such a mixed response?
I stumbled into MOWs several years ago somewhat by accident, and ultimately came to realize that I was really suited for it. At the top of their game, MOWs can be exceptionally issue oriented, emotionally intricate pieces of writing, that more often than not feature women in leads. That honestly can’t be said of the feature world these days, so that has a real appeal for me. I also think they may get slighted as “women’s movies” or perhaps a little too drippy (and certainly many are), but I also think that’s changing, overall. What’s interesting is that many “name” actresses, especially some of a certain age, are turning to television movies as an opportunity to play roles they may not be offered in features anymore. And for me, I long ago realized I’m a “full length” writer. (I wasn’t really meant for the 30 minute comedy. I’m funny, but not in the 3-jokes-a-page way).
How do you approach the blank page?
It’s funny, but I always know how to start. It’s the middle that’s always challenging for me. Often, I don’t begin until I know what the beginning and end look like (which may change in the course of the writing), but that framework helps me start the engine and have a destination in sight. If the question is more: “What do you do in the middle with a blank page?”—The answer is simply: Power-through. There’s no way to get to Fade Out without powering-through the rough patches. Just keep writing. Even when it’s bad, as long as it’s down, there’s hope.
What is your favorite part about being a writer?
I love being in a theatre rehearsal room, particularly with a great group of actors and a great director or set of designers. There’s nothing better than that collaborative spirit, with everyone feeding the play, putting their ego aside simply to make the work the best it can be. It’s thrilling. And addictive. It’s why I can’t leave the theatre behind, no matter what the financial payoff is of working in TV or film. As a corollary to this, I actually enjoy getting notes from producers (which puts me in a small company of writers, I know). For me, it’s all about making the work bulletproof. If someone has a better idea, or can clarify where I’ve gone wrong, hats off. Notes always manage to crystallize the work for me—make me strengthen my own position, or see it from another point of view.
The greatest challenge?
I think the hardest part for me is that sometimes the best writer doesn’t always win. I’ve seen it with friends, and I’ve been through it myself. Those moments when you didn’t get a job for reasons that have nothing to do with your talent, or you got kicked-off a project because someone’s “name” means more to the project than yours, but they’re not any better (and sometimes worse) than you, or getting rewritten and then seeing the final product as less than it could have been (with your name still on it). I’ve been through a few heartbreakers, and watched other writers I truly respect have their work utterly tampered with beyond recognition. That’s hard.
Any advice for writers?
Craft-wise, the only way to find out how good you can be is to keep doing it. You ALWAYS get better, with every new script, every new draft. On the other side, know the business. Learn as much as you can about what gets made, who’s making it, what they’re looking for. Be savvy about the work you do. And last—always be a professional. I often tell my students the story about a girl I went to college with, who was the most talented person I’d ever seen. Right after graduation, she landed a lead with every single theatre in Chicago… ONCE. After people worked with her one time, no one wanted to hire her again. It got around very quickly, and she had to leave town. It’s a verrrrry small business. Be a class act.
What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I knew I was supposed to be a writer earlier than I figured it out. I don’t regret the time I spent as an actress—I had a blast, I worked constantly, and I know that the work I did on new plays and in collaboration with other writers served my writing better than anything. But I found such a home doing this, I only wish I known it sooner.