For the past three years, Ron Fitzgerald has written about a pot-dealing mother in Showtime's hit series "Weeds." After wrapping up the show's fifth season in July, he moved over to NBC to write dramatic storylines about small town Texas football for the critically acclaimed "Friday Night Lights."
Writing for two popular, incredibly different shows presents some challenges for Fitzgerald. With "FNL," he often sits in a room full of writers in Los Angeles and goes over each script's details. Sometimes dialog is already in place and he moves the story along, filling in the gaps, asking questions. Other times he writes the scene line-for-line from loose notes. Either way, he must keep in mind the fate of each character from episode to episode and, beyond that, the big-picture, fleshed-out season as a whole.
That's his life in Los Angeles.
But Fitzgerald spends a considerable amount of time in Missoula, too, where he focuses mostly on writing plays. Before he was offered the job with "FNL," Fitzgerald committed to writing a 50-minute play about Edgar Allen Poe for the Montana Repertory Theatre's educational outreach program; The Poe Project debuts Sept. 11. He also managed to squeeze in his regular appearance at the Rep's Colony—a summer workshop for playwrights from across the country—between writing stints for the two series.
"It's insane," he says, laughing. "I thought I would be on hiatus right now and I'd have three months to luxuriate in Poe. Thank God I've been thinking about if for a while, but it's still coming down to the wire. I go to work at 'Friday Night Lights,' I come home, I type up 10 pages of Poe, I zap it off and they go rehearse it. It's just crazy."
Fitzgerald first came to Missoula in 1997 for the Rep's second Colony at the suggestion of his teacher, famed playwright/screenwriter Marsha Norman. At the time, Fitzgerald was attending Julliard.
"She said, 'There's this group of people you really have to meet and they're going to respond to you and you're going to love them and it's going to be awesome,'" he recalls. "And she was totally right."
Fitzgerald has attended the Colony almost every year since '97, first as a student and then as a mentor. And as he's become more and more successful as a writer, he's now considered a featured draw for the gathering.
One might think that working full time in the big time would relegate other projects—Missoula theater projects, for instance—to the back burner. But Fitzgerald doesn't think in those terms. While writing for top television programs pays the bills and, he admits, is enjoyable enough to not feel like a job, theater's still in his blood. Plus, his connections to Missoula have continued to lead him back here.
He started working with Greg Johnson, the Rep's artistic director, on the company's educational outreach tour in 2000 when he acted in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. His next project was to adapt Mark Twain's The Diaries of Adam & Eve, which toured twice for the program. Last season, he directed Harold Pinter's Dumbwaiter.
For The Poe Project—directed by Deb Voss and starring graduates Cody Hyslop, Teralyn Tanner and Gary Warchola—Fitzgerald decided to bypass the idea of having someone on stage pretending to be Poe, reading his works in a lecture-like or biographical manner. Too boring, he says. Instead, Fitzgerald created a scenario where Poe is plagued by voices in his head—Auguste Dupin and the raven—and through that scenario we get to understand the inner workings of the seminal writer's mind.
"Greg and Montana Rep are such big believers in outreach and I am too," Fitzgerald says. "It's a time to take it to the streets and show people that theater doesn't have to be a bunch of people with sticks up their asses saying things you can't understand. Good theater should be closer to seeing a band that you like live than like watching eight hours of PBS on the birth of a cow."
Fitzgerald admits The Poe Project is a wacky show and, he says, it's hard enough that non-theatergoers find theater people crazy already. He's hoping that the project will still suck people in even if it comes from chaotic origins.
"But, you know, that's also the nature of theater," he says. "What gets me out of bed in the morning and gets me through the first eight cups of coffee is the belief that we know what we're doing and it is going to work out."
And, of course, Fitzgerald's had experience with things working out. The thrill of finding himself as a writer of two top television series hasn't worn off. He's still pinching himself. He loves the irreverence of "Weeds" and the realistic drama of "Friday Night Lights"—though he jokes that moving from cable's "Weeds" to network's "Friday Night Lights" cut his vocabulary in half when characters couldn't say "fuck"
"I'm still amazed," he says. "Maybe the jaded thing is coming. Maybe it's just down the road for me where I'll be like, 'Oh, pfft, who cares? Big deal.' But, right now, this is still a really big deal for me."
The Poe Project plays at the Masquer Theatre inside UM's PARTV Center Friday, Sept. 11, and Saturday, Sept. 12, at 7:30 PM nightly. $8.