“Thirtysomething.” “Pretty Little Liars.” “Saving Grace.” “Judging Amy.” These are just a few of the television credits Joseph Dougherty has to his name.
In fact, he landed an Emmy for his work with the first series on that list, an ABC drama about former so-called rebels who eventually reach middle age and aren’t quite sure what to do about it.
These days, Dougherty is turning his attention to theater, where his “Chester Bailey” will embark on its second run in production. After earning the bulk of his fame on the small screen, the playwright sounded thrilled to be headed back to the black box as part of this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival.
We caught up with him via phone while spending time at his home in California before heading back east to take in the production of his latest work. “They never even asked for it back!” he exclaimed while referring to his Emmy win at the beginning of our conversation. “And that’s pretty great.”
Is there a medium that you prefer over the others — television, theater, movies?
No, because each one has its own particular and unique attractions. Theater has such a different rehearsal structure. There’s a lot more exploration and a lot more depth that you can find in a piece. Television, because it’s done on so many deadlines, you do need a lean-on-the-craft, guerrilla approach to acting and directing. It better be on the script and it better be able to hold the weight. I started as a playwright, which gave me my first major television job, and I stayed in television because there was a lot to learn. Very recently, I realized I’ve been on a (television) show longer than I’ve ever been on a single show, so I thought it was time to see if what I learned in television drama was going to help me write for the stage, and it has in some unexpected ways.
What are some of those unexpected ways?
It has a lot to do with discipline and the ability to experiment. If something’s not working, you know it’s not working and you step away from it. You find another way to go in there. I usually come back to the word “craft,” which isn’t necessarily art, but it supports the art. You also need shorthand on a television set, because the clock is always running. I think basically it’s craft and an appreciation that deadlines have value. That’s what I’ve been able to bring over in stage writing.
Is there anything out there that you are still working toward, looking to accomplish?
Yes and “Chester Bailey” and the Contemporary American Theater Festival are part of my not-so-secret agenda right now. I really would like to come back to the theater with several plays that I’ve been writing over the last couple years and see them go out into the country and have other productions. It’s really the only kind of immortality a writer can expect, to have a play out there, being done by different people in different situations for different audiences. If it sounds altruistic, that’s good; if it sounds egotistical, I’m stuck with it. But the idea that these plays could have a life beyond my personal involvement is very exciting.
Have you been to Shepherdstown?
This is my first time and basically after 10 minutes, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get them to ask me back.
Are you familiar with any of the other productions?
I’ve now been to readings of all the other plays. I also know some of the other work from some of the other playwrights. What’s fantastic about it is that they are all different theatrical experiences. None of us feel like we are in competition with each other and none of us are stepping on anyone else’s territorial toes, in terms of the stories we are telling or how we are telling them.
Was there something that inspired the story of “Chester Bailey” for you?
As I start to look over my shoulder at what I’ve done, I seem to have an affection for shaggy dog stories. I’ve told this so many times, I’m wondering if it’s actually true anymore: My wife showed me a news blip a very long time ago about a lawsuit that was going on about somebody who had suffered through some catastrophic injuries in an accident and there was a trial going on. Really, the throwaway line was, “the victim was in denial of their injuries.” So I wondered what that meant and what that would be like. That just kind of stuck in my head for a while — and here’s the part where writers sound very weird — but you get to a point where you just sit down with a pad and a pen and the characters show up and start telling you a story and you write it down. That’s really how “Chester” started.
Being an Emmy winner, are there any current television shows that you enjoy watching?
I’ve stayed away from it because I’ve been doing it. For a while, I was watching this “Dr. Who,” but at the moment, no. One of the problems is that there’s so much television right now. I believe there’s something like 700 scripted series. For me right now, it’s more about finding my place in that horizon than examining other things. I’m also not the best judge of these things. I’m the guy who read the pilot for “Game Of Thrones,” and said, “No one’s going to watch this; this is crazy!”
Do you think the abundance of television right now is a good thing or a bad thing? At the end of the day, do you think there might be a problem of over saturation?
In terms of over-saturation, that usually takes care of itself after a time. There’s usually a shakeout. Is it a bad thing that there’s so many people watching good storytelling? No, it’s a good thing that people are watching a lot of storytelling. The thing that’s not happening, and the thing that I think is a loss is that television is not a communal experience. You don’t sit in a room with a hundred-some-odd strangers and react to something that’s happening right in front of you, right now. And I think that’s as important as the quality of what you’re watching.
If you were to sell “Chester Bailey” in five words, why should this be the one play people see when they come to the festival?
Well, I’m not going to take away anything from the other plays in the festival, and I’m not going to be able to do it in five words (laughs). “Chester Bailey” is not like any other play at the festival; they’re all different. I think what you’ll experience is a very intense and human story about connection and how we protect ourselves from … oh, this is just awful (laughs)! I sound like the Reader’s Digest! I’m very proud of it. I think it succeeds on many levels. It’s a two-person play. It is heartbreaking and it is heartwarming, and that’s exactly what I wanted it to be.