In 2017, Susan Soon He Stanton landed her first TV-writing job, as a staff writer on Season One of HBO’s Succession, with a play called Today Is My Birthday. Unlike many show-runners, Jesse Armstrong, the creator of Succession—the comedy-drama about the Roy dynasty, a Redstone- and Murdoch-inspired family running a large media conglomerate, whose Season Three premieres Sunday—was open to reading a play as a TV-writing sample.
Stanton grew up in Hawaii—in Aiea, a town on the island of Oahu with a population of less than 10,000. “It affects your perception of the world when you’re in such an insular place that’s so isolated,” Stanton tells me over coffee, near her home in South Brooklyn. “I’m very interested in the way people communicate—try to communicate. There’s something about that need to connect with another human being.”
Stanton’s interest in playwriting long pre-dates her interest in television. When Stanton was young, a teacher at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth promised his students that if they wrote a play he would stage it. So she wrote one.
Stanton would later use that play to get into the dramatic-writing program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Since the mid-2000s, she’s written a play a year. At Yale, where she started an M.F.A. program in 2007, an annual play was expected. But before graduate school, when she worked at a restaurant, a yearly play meant scribbling in a notebook during the lull between breakfast and lunch.
By 2017, when Stanton landed in the Succession writers’ room, in Brixton, London, she had already staged nearly a dozen plays across America. But she was totally new to the TV writers’ room. “Writing a play is by yourself,” Stanton says. “You get feedback, but it’s yours. In writers’ rooms, you’re trying to help the show-runner realize a vision.”
But Stanton realized that a writers’ room is like a playwriting workshop. The writers would discuss novels, biographies, and articles they had all read—Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment dominated the conversation around Season Two—and “just throw out ideas.”
This is how Stanton came up with an enduring tension for the first episode of Season Two. “Jesse [Armstrong] always asked us, ‘What are things rich people can’t avoid?,’” she says. One day, Stanton yelled out, “A bad smell that you can’t find!” (Cue the possum in the chimney that disrupts the family’s decadent lobster dinner—and triggers the patriarch’s rage.)
On set, Stanton found that producing a play wasn’t dissimilar to producing a TV show. Playwrights “bank a lot of hours sitting in rehearsals,” she says, so they’re “comfortable talking with actors.” She knew how to give pre-production prop and costume notes—although the HBO budget for both was much, much bigger than on any play she’d worked on.
There’s an even bigger difference: reach. “I never thought it would become what it is now, because it always felt like such a niche show,” Stanton says. “Season One, people liked it. But they also said, ‘We hate [the Roy family].’” Now Succession isn’t just a show; it’s the show, one so beloved it has compelled some reviewers to declare it “the only good show on TV.”
Since she started writing for Succession, Stanton has been “genre hopping” across writers’ rooms, including for the upcoming BBC and Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. (Stanton likens Succession to “red wine and dark chocolate,” while Conversations with Friends is “some very delicate rosewater flavor.”)
Stanton stills holds herself to the one-play-a-year rule. With a successful TV-writing career, “now when I write plays,” she says, “it feels like a choice.”
Succession’s third season premieres October 17 on HBO
Jensen Davis is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL