Sitting around the upstairs rehearsal room at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre are playwright Jason Sherman, director Jamie Robinson and, over in the corner, the company’s marketing man. The playwright is talking about his new play, Copy That. “It’s a look at how a TV show is put together,” says Sherman, who spent years in television during a long break from theatre. “There are pressures put on the writing staff, but also on producers. Everyone has it coming at them all the time.”
When it’s mentioned that the news release describes Copy That as a “caustic look at the entertainment industry,” Robinson laughs while Sherman shoots a bemused glance toward the marketing man. “I guess I’d say it’s caustic and affectionate,” says the playwright, whose own sojourn into television had its ups and downs. “But, yeah, I don’t think this play will qualify as a love letter to television.”
Copy That opens at the Tarragon on Nov. 13. It is Sherman’s first newly written play since he returned to theatre. (Last year’s The Message, Sherman’s bio-drama about Marshall McLuhan, was a reworked version of a play previously written but never staged.) As Tarragon’s resident playwright in the 1990s, the Montreal-born Sherman created works including Three in the Back, Two in the Head, which received the Governor General’s Award for Drama. While he was away from theatre, Sherman won three Canadian Screenwriting Awards. Now he’s back as Tarragon’s playwright-in-residence, drawing, in the case of Copy That, on his experiences in the writing rooms of Canadian network television.
“It’s not easy," Sherman says. “It can be rancorous, and every writer in the room knows that they are just one perceived bad script away from being replaced.”
Director Robinson has experience in television as an actor. “Theatre isn’t as easy and digestible as television normally is," he explains. "We’re not going to end one season and promise you the next one.”
Copy That concerns four writers struggling to get their new cop show approved for production. The comedy turns heavy when the team’s lone black writer is mistreated by an actual cop. In response, he decides to write about the incident for the fictional TV show.
With his play, Sherman was thinking broadly about how television shows serve the state. Specifically, Copy That focuses on the messages of police dramas. “There’s an increasing militarization of urban police forces, and these TV shows tend to support that militarization," the playwright says. “This is a story about storytelling, and whose stories get to be told.”
Only those with memories as long as their beards would remember the 1950s police drama Naked City, which ended its episodes with a narrator intoning, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” There may well have been eight million stories in the city, but when it comes to police dramas, usually only one of them – virtuous cops keeping the city safe – are ever told.
Currently, the long-running reality show Cops spotlights the heroics of American men and women in blue while serving as a marketing tool for law enforcement. It’s all set to an unambiguous reggae soundtrack choice: “Bad boy, bad boy, whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”
With Copy That, the playwright and the director hope to draw attention to the choices and compromises made at the writers’ level and at the network level. “This is a comedy, it’s not a polemic,” says Sherman. “But the black writer learns it isn’t easy in a mainstream network TV show to be critical of some of the fundamental issues about policing.”
Adds Robinson, “We want audiences to question what they see on television. Because it’s not as real as it’s made out to be."
Sounds caustic. A marketing man is redeemed.
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