October 2023 | Samuel Baum AB '98

Join us for an in-person event with Samuel here! Limited spots available; reserve tickets by Tuesday, October 3rd.

by Laura Frustaci

Samuel Baum AB '98 is a playwright, screenwriter, and producer. He is thrilled to be collaborating with Geffen Playhouse on the West Coast premiere of his play, THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY, directed by Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak. The play was originally produced at Hartford Stage, where it received four Critics Circle Awards, an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation. As a screenwriter, Baum was nominated for a WGA Award for the Emmy-nominated HBO Film THE WIZARD OF LIES, starring Robert DeNiro. Previously, Baum created and executive produced the Fox television drama LIE TO ME, which ran for three seasons. He also co-created and executive produced the ABC series THE EVIDENCE, as well as television pilots for Amazon, Netflix, Showtime, and CBS. He is currently an executive producer of the NBC series THE IRRATIONAL, inspired by the work of behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely. Originally from New York, Baum is a graduate of Harvard College.

Samuel Baum (AB ‘98)’s newest play THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY is having its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse this season (join us for an evening at the theater to see the show and a meet and greet with Sam here!) Despite what his long repertoire in television and film might cause you to believe, Sam actually has a history in the theatre, so we talked with him about returning to his theatrical roots with this play.

“As an undergraduate at Harvard, I was very fortunate to study playwriting with Adrienne Kennedy in a seminar class. She taught us to really go for it, as she does in her own work,” Sam recounts. He then went on to write a screenplay for his senior thesis, which received, in his words, “the lowest grade in the history of the university, ‘Not Worthy of Honors’.” He laughs. “The first line of evaluation read ‘This work constitutes utter failure’,” Sam muses, “and about a year later the screenplay got optioned as a feature!” It just goes to show, don’t give up on your script.

Sam graduated and moved back to New York City, working as a playwright and a theatre actor. He attended the Williamstown Theatre Festival at age 24, a rite of passage for any young actor. “That summer I met this young up-and-coming director Darko Tresnjak,” Sam recalls, “who is now directing THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY at the Geffen.” Another serendipitous moment in Sam’s career, and a reminder that bonds you made twenty years ago can remain crucial to future work.

“In my twenties, I was writing plays in New York and having readings, and then another Harvard graduate, Jeff Sagansky, read one of my plays, and suggested I create television shows,” Sam smiles. “I didn’t know anything about television and had never contemplated that, but I went to Los Angeles for a week of meetings. And I got a job. And then I ended up staying and continuing with television writing for a long time. I was so excited to be a working writer, I followed the opportunities. It just happened that I had more opportunities in television.”

Sam credits his television career partially to his theatrical background. “The great thing about starting in theatre is that any ability to earn a living by telling stories just seems like an absolute miracle to you,” Sam laughs. “If your definition of success is that a couple hundred people per night see your work, and suddenly you move to LA, and not only can you earn a living but also millions of people are seeing your work?” That’s a huge jump for any creative, and one that provided Sam with an alternate perspective from what his theatre background had taught him. Ultimately, though, theatre and playwriting continued to be important to him, even as he found commercial success in television and film. “The thrill of getting to sit among a live audience watching a play of yours in real time is the most exhilarating experience.”

Glad to be returning to his theatrical roots with THE ENGAGEMENT PARTY, Sam is looking forward to a continued exploration of secrets and lies in this piece of work, which is a common thread through some of his screenwriting, particularly LIE TO ME and THE WIZARD OF LIES. “Lies are the lifeblood of drama,” Sam says. “At the heart of any lie is some piece of us we're terrified of sharing. It creates a set of immediate stakes.”

Immediate stakes for the eight characters of the play, five of whom are Harvard graduates, keep tensions running high onstage. The 80-minute performance takes place over the course of a single evening, so keeping the action lively and the dialogue sharp throughout the show was crucial for Sam. Darko was the man for the job partially because of his background in musicals. Having won the Tony for directing A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, Darko has a sense of timing, rhythm, and precision that are absolutely key in making the play run smoothly.

After this endeavor at the Geffen, there’s lots in store for Sam. He’s teamed up with Dahvi Waller (creator of FX’s MRS AMERICA) on a gripping WWII thriller based on a true story. Sam also has an ongoing streaming series in the works  an imposter story that’s half propulsive thriller, half psychological drama. And he's developing a half hour comedy focused on society's absurd misconceptions about disability. Finally, in partnership with another Harvard grad Mark Goffman (KSG '94) as Executive Producer, Sam developed and Executive Produced the new NBC series THE IRRATIONAL, starring Jesse L. Martin (RENT), about a behavioral scientist loosely inspired by Dan Ariely. It's streaming now on Peacock.

So, with all of that work in the pipeline, what advice does Sam have to offer aspiring multi-hyphenate creatives? Plenty! “Ignore the marketplace and write what you care deeply about. Find a story that cuts deep with you, and stay with it.” He laughs: “Oh, and whatever it is, it’s twenty minutes too long.”

Sam expounds on the first piece of advice, saying, “It’s not just that the story will be better because you care, but if and when it’s successful, you will be asked to tell more stories like that. So it’s really best to break in with the kind of storytelling that you would be thrilled to repeat. I’ve seen people break in with a piece in a genre they don’t particularly care about, they’re asked to do the same, and then they’re trapped.”

And Sam’s last piece of advice is one that any writer can never hear too frequently: “It sounds simple, but if you’re a writer you have to make time to write and rewrite. There’s so much noise to distract you from doing what you need to do. Finish the script.” And he notes that if you're a fairly new writer, it’s much more important to have one incredibly polished script rather than jumping from project to project. “You should be writing,” Sam says, “until you feel it really cannot be improved any more.”

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