An Interview with David Henry Hwang on Writing for Showtime's "The Affair"

November 22, 2016

This November, Playwriting Concentration Head David Henry Hwang’s television writing talents will be showcased with the release of season three of The Affair. As a writer and producer for the show, Hwang is part of the six person writing team who collaboratively developed the storylines for season three. He was also on set as the primary script writer for one of the show's episodes.

Hwang is one of many critically acclaimed playwrights who work in other dramatic forms, including film, opera, and television. This diversity of media is reflected in the playwriting curriculum at Columbia University, which offers courses in television writing, film writing, and musical theater. We spoke with Hwang about the challenges and opportunities of working on The Affair and what the “golden age of television” means for playwrights today.
What have been some of the challenges and opportunities in adding TV to your dramatic writing arsenal?
I had never done episodic writing before, and when I was coming up as a writer episodic wasn’t something you really wanted to do. Partly because you only had broadcast network in those days, so if you were going to do a TV show it meant that committing to doing a whole 22 episode season, which really meant that you’re whole life would be consumed by that show. Also, TV was generally much less interesting in those days than it is now.
I don’t know that I would have decided to staff on a show except that, like most people, I’ve been trying to create my own show. Also the creator and showrunner of The Affair, Sarah Treem, is one of my best friends and is a playwright who was my former mentee. I had mentored Sarah through her first production at Playwrights Horizons and we became really close. Since I was working to develop my own show she said, “Why don’t you come work on my show and you can learn about TV?” Which turned out to be a great thing. I’ve learned a ton and it’s also been a great experience in terms of having somebody who was basically a student become my boss. I’m proud of her.
Are there things in your writing or your approach to writing that you change for TV?
I feel like most of the time when I work in different forms the primary question becomes, “Who is the decider? Who is in charge?” In the case of television, it’s the showrunner. So before I started working on The Affair, I asked Sarah, “Is this going to affect our relationship?” And she said, “Only if you hate me for re-writing you.” So I think essentially that laid out the parameters for me.
Like any project you take on, you just have to decide: if those are the rules, can I live with those rules? So one of the things I change going into writing a TV show is that I realize that I have to be flexible, that things I want to do might not be how the show goes, and that some of my stuff is going to get rewritten. I’m okay with that.
What do you see as the relationship between the TV writing community and the playwriting world?
At the moment there’s an incredible overlap between TV writing and playwriting. Almost every playwright I can think of who is under 40 who has had productions and has had some success is working in television. There’s a huge need for writers. There are 300 scripted shows on the air right now and they all need writers, and playwrights have become the preferred place to look for potential TV writers. So the overlap is very great at the moment.
Has that influenced how we write plays?
I hope it doesn’t influence how we write plays. I think one of the reasons that playwrights are considered appealing is because we have individual voices. To the extent that we try to shoehorn our plays or change our style of writing in order to be more acceptable to television and attractive to television, I actually think that’s counter-productive.
Last year I had a playwright and television writer Bathsheba Doran come speak to the third years, and she said something that’s really stuck in my head. She said that if you write TV, because it’s written so fast, you can fool yourself into thinking you can write a play that fast. But you can’t. So that’s another example of this idea that I hope the opportunities in TV do not change the way we write as playwrights.
Has this experience informed how you see television writing as part of the Columbia playwriting curriculum?
The only impact that writing for television has had on my thinking about the playwriting program here is that I’ve been interested in how we create simulated writer’s rooms in the curriculum. I think it’s useful to have a class where students come out having written a pilot and it’s useful to have other classes where students get the experience of being in a writer’s room on someone else’s show, because the latter is what’s more likely to happen. I think it’s really useful for students to come out of the program with some comfort in understanding what’s going to happen if they get one of these jobs.
Is there anything in particular you’re excited about in Season 3? *Spoiler alert!*

I did have an incident about a year ago where I got stabbed in the neck, and a neck stabbing is a central plot device in season 3, so I got to kinda work some of that out and be on set the day we did the stabbing. That was sort of fun. There was some question about whether that was gonna be cathartic or traumatic, but I was fine with it.