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Interview

Not-So-Simple Sara

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Being an executive producer for a TV show is an exhausting undertaking. Just ask Sara Finney-Johnson, whose current UPN Monday-night hit, The Parkers, has enjoyed an impressive five-year run.

For those unclear on the role of an executive producer, it is similar to that of a CEO. Every aspect of a production comes to an executive producer's desk. The executive hires the writers, directors, and actors, guides the story process, and works with the budget, the studio, and the network. He or she has a lot of help in every category, but in the end, he or she is the one responsible for everything.

It's undeniable that the position can bring with it undue pressure to keep others happy, and, as a consequence, the executive's creative fervor may diminish. To prevent this from happening to her, Finney-Johnson rejuvenates herself by returning to a deep-rooted passion she found early in her career: playwriting. "I like the freedom," says Finney-Johnson. "I feel like I don't have any constraints. I don't have the network and company and the studio notes to deal with. I remember when I did my first play years ago, I was shocked because I'm so used to people changing my work in TV. So when I heard you couldn't change things unless the playwright wants it changed, I was like, 'I like this!' It gave me a chance to pretty much do it my way. And if two people show up or two thousand, it's still yours. I'm fulfilled by that."

After graduating from USC, Finney-Johnson got a job as an office P.A. at Norman Lear's Tandem Productions, which was responsible for TV classics such as Good Times, The Jeffersons, and All in the Family. "I didn't know anybody, and I really wanted to get into writing," she says. "I got that P.A. job by bugging this poor lady in human resources. Then, finally, I got a job as a writer's assistant on The Jeffersons, which was secretarial, but I was just happy to be there. I spent a couple of years there. They were about to wrap it up, and I was able to get two freelance scripts in. I got a writing partner, and eventually we both got on staff."

During her tenure with The Jeffersons, she met playwright and screenwriter Judi Ann Mason, who introduced her to the world of theatre. Recalls Finney-Johnson, "She said, 'Do you have any plays?' I said, 'You know, I've always wanted to do one. I'm going to.' That's how I wrote my first play, MENS. Judi had a good relationship with Ted Smith at the Cast Theatre, and she got them to produce it." The play was also produced at the Coronet Theatre, The Westwood Playhouse, and the Chicago Theatre, and it received an NAACP Image nomination. "After that, I started a playwrights group [The Los Angeles Black Playwrights] with Erwin Washington. I was really active probably the first five years of the group. Then my TV career started taking off. I didn't have as much time to deal with playwriting."

When Finney-Johnson talks about not having time, she knows of what she speaks. She and her former writing partner, Vida Spears, were busy writing an episode of Married With Children, writing for The Parent 'Hood, and writing and producing Family Matters when UPN picked up their idea for Moesha and The Parkers.

Despite Finney-Johnson's successful TV career, she has always found something in theatre that no other medium can match. It's why she decided to mount three of her one-act plays in a six-week run at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood: Simple Things, Mazel Tov and Black Eyed Peas, and Glow. "This project was a way for me to get back into it and just do a showcase, because I missed it," she says. "Also, I wanted people to see that I do more than comedy, you know? It was a great opportunity for me."

The casts include a couple of familiar faces: Mo'Nique Imes-Jackson from The Parkers and Estelle Harris, best known as George Costanza's cranky mother on Seinfield. Adleane Hunter and Tony Singletary direct. "A couple of the plays were written while I was in the playwright's group," says Finney-Johnson. "I never really finished them, never really polished it. I wanted to do something with Mo'Nique. She said she wanted to do MENS, but MENS was going to be harder to mount, more expensive. It's a musical. It was just too much, so this was a way to work with her. She had never done theatre before, and this was a good way to get her feet wet—in a small, intimate theatre."

Finney-Johnson's work at the Zephyr shows that she's adept at crafting drama. "I wanted to do stories that were diverse, but also I wanted to feel that people could relate to and have interest in them. I wanted to just sort of stretch that writing muscle a bit."

Does Finney-Johnson find sitcom work comparable to working onstage? "For me they're a little different," she says. "A sitcom is way faster than stage. I mean, [with theatre] we have a couple of weeks to rehearse, and in a sitcom you get two or three days, and that's it. You do a live stage presentation in front of an audience, but of course you can always yell, 'Cut!' and go back. You can't do that in theatre. That, to me, is the biggest difference. [With] theatre, you're just there in the moment, and you keep going, and it is something that I would always love to do and [that] I think you can always do. Like I said, I don't know what the response is going to be, but in TV it's not always up to you, no matter how hard you work or how talented you are. It's about, does so-and-so like it? Will they hire you? And there are so few jobs."

But while jobs are few and far between, Finney-Johnson is employing perhaps more African-American women than does any other TV executive. She is an avid proponent of leveling Hollywood's playing field. And she feels she will be able to look back on her career with a certain amount of pride. "I don't make a big deal about it, because I think that everyone could do something," she says. "I'm not saying people have to, because people should do what they feel. But I enjoy it. I like to see people grow and have an opportunity that I know are talented and who may otherwise not get the opportunity. Also, I do it because people helped me. People opened doors for me even when there weren't any jobs available. They gave me direction and encouragement. I was very fortunate [in] that. I just think I need to give back, in some small way, what was given to me."

She shares the following advice for writers just starting out: "Theatre is a good way to at least show your work because, like I said, TV and film is a whole different game. There are a couple of levels you have to get to, but all that's possible. But if you say you're a writer, then write. You never know when an opportunity will come knocking. You really have to work on your craft—whether you get it on its feet or not is a different story. But the point is, you need scripts to show people your work. It's even better if you can get it up somewhere, but just stay active." BSW

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