Who’s Here on the East End: Jon Robin Baitz

It is hard to pin down East Ender Jon Robin Baitz. He is a playwright, screenwriter, and television producer, but can perhaps best be described generally as a “thinker.” Baitz (called Robbie by his friends) is known best for his dramatic works, having authored a number of plays such as The Substance of Fire, A Fair Country, Ten Unknowns, Mizlansky/Zilinsky, Three Hotels and The Paris Letter. He created the ABC drama Brothers and Sisters and wrote an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s critically acclaimed series The West Wing. He also adapted screenplays for The Substance of Fire and People I Know, which starred Al Pacino.

All of this work has drawn him a great deal of praise—he is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Drama Desk winner, Humanitas winner, a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellow. Most recently, Baitz’s play Other Desert Cities, directed by Joe Mantello and starring the likes of Stacy Keach, Rachel Griffiths, and Stockard Channing, just finished a successful run on Broadway, garnering five Tony Award nominations. According to The New York Times, the only problem with Baitz’s “gorgeously acted,” “seriously satisfying” play is that you “probably need to see it five times.”

The stories he creates stem from a diversity of life experience, beginning with his childhood. In his early years Baitz called many places home. His father, an executive for the Carnation Company (a producer of widely-used evaporated milk products), brought him and his mother along over the course of various relocations. He was born in Los Angeles, then moved to Brazil for three years, and then to Durban, South Africa for seven, where he spent the majority of his teenage years. There he was faced with the reality of the apartheid system and, much to his discomfort, saw his parents become “integrated with white imperialist culture.” He just couldn’t get used to “cricket and corporal punishment.” When he was 18, he came full circle to LA to finish up his last year of high school along with the children of the rich and famous. Nowadays, Baitz spends the majority of his time at his house in Watermill. “I’m out here all the time,” he says. “I try to stay out here as much as I can. It’s a great escape from everything.”

As a burgeoning writer, many of his themes came from a feeling of displacement he had in the strange world of Beverly Hills High. He described himself as a “freak” amongst the other kids his age, and rejected many of the things that defined being a typical adolescent in this wealthy world. But it wasn’t until Baitz created his first television drama, “Brothers & Sisters,” that he gained recognition among a wider cultural circle (one that does not frequent off-Broadway productions). He had envisioned the show as an “allegory of the family as a country” and an “entertaining meditation on class and position in America.” In an interesting inversion, Baitz positioned the family under a matriarchy, after the men had “ruined everything they touched for generation after generation.”

Unfortunately, much of this recognition was due to how he left the show after disputes with network executives. The problem came down to artistic integrity. The goal of every playwright, particularly those writing on the “fringe,” is to create some truth with their characters. The goal of a television series (and thereby television writers) is not truth, but appeal. In the end this could never have been Baitz’s goal.

The executives at ABC, as with most networks, were concerned primarily with ratings, and sought to take the show in a direction that Baitz refused to go. As a result, he was fired from the show after one season, and made his views on the whole debacle known to the public in a series of essays titled “Leaving Los Angeles” published on The Huffington Post (for which Baitz is a contributing blogger). All of this happened over the course of the Writers Guild of America strike in 2008. The strike seemed to influence how Baitz perceived the executives of these networks. He wrote in one of his essays “Think about the ugly pragmatism of a group of executives who wanted (the strike) to go on long enough to punish and to write-off the deals they’d made.” Although the show went on to have four more seasons after Baitz left, it noticeably veered away from some of the subject matter that defined its first season.

The bright side of the story is that after Baitz left Hollywood for good, he found success on Broadway. While he was recovering from his traumatic breakup with his TV creation, he spent roughly a year “in silence” out on his two-acre Watermill retreat, trying to come to terms with what had happened to him. In solitude he regained his strength and figured out how to write again. “I really like Sag Harbor,” says Baitz, “So much history, and such a nice community. It is worlds away from LA.” Like many who love Sag Harbor, he is interested in keeping it’s history alive and is actively involved in a group resisting the development of the Sag Harbor cinema into various brand name stores. “I love the look of the cinema,” he said, “It can’t turn into a payless shoes or something.”

Even after being fired from the show in dramatic fashion, the original intent of “Brothers and Sisters” was still on his mind, and from that he wrote Other Desert Cities, which in many ways was his revenge after his television disaster. After a season at Lincoln Center, his play hit Broadway at the Booth Theatre, where it ran from November until June of this year.

For Baitz, teaching was one of the main things that helped him recover from his dramatic departure from LA. “It gave me a sense of usefulness,” he said. “It felt good to be of service.”  According to Baitz, “Teaching is a way of reexamining old definitions of theatricality, and of narrative, of exploring which conventions to defy, and how and why, and sharing with writers who have as much to give as I do.” It has also been one of the defining features of Baitz’s time out on the East End. Last year Baitz was the artist in residence at the New School, and now he is a faculty member of the Master of Fine Arts program at Stony Brook Southampton. Just last week he finished up his summer workshop on playwriting. According to Steve Hamilton, Director of the summer playwriting workshops, “Robbie is held in the highest regard among his peers for his intellect and his deep moral sensibilities.” Of all the places Baitz has been in his life, it is great that he now calls the East End home.

 

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