From Page to Stage: Frank Lessons
For emerging playwright Allison Zajac-Batell, it’s been a hard-won journey bringing scripts to life, from the page to the stage.
Zajac-Batell was Trained in theatre performance at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School in St. Pete and Bennington College in Vermont. Today she lives in Brooklyn, where her short play World Without End was awarded production in the New York New Works Theatre Festival in 2016. Despite the momentum she’s gained since she switching from acting to writing in 2013, she says misses the carefree days of fretting over the aimlessness of her script copy. While in a workshop giving feedback to a woman who was transitioning from a corporate job to writing, yet unsure of how to combine her vignettes of two women talking at a table, Allison realized it wasn’t that long ago that she was in the same place.
“I would almost give anything to be back in that place,” she said, “because that’s the fun part. Now that I’ve been writing for a while, I’m worried about structure and story and plot and character development. The writing gets stiffer – it’s like getting older – it’s like aging.”
She moved to New York City in 2008 to pursue her acting career, attending a conservatory and going to castings. However, things changed when she began working with LAByrinth Theater Company co-led by the late Philip Seymour-Hoffman. In 2013 she suddenly switched to playwriting with an unprecedented intensity of focus for her after a letter was read aloud to a group of LAByrinth crew on retreat in upstate New York. It written to them from the hospital bed of a LAByrinth member named Ed who had just died.
“The letter was basically a call to make your own work and to never wait for anyone to say yes to yes,” she said. “That inspired me. I wrote poems in my room that night and started writing and this guy who was at dinner that night said ‘write about what keeps you up at night.’ So I did. I started writing about what was keeping me up at night. I think I started wanting to write but not believing that I could.”
Here is Ed’s letter:
“Life guarantees you nothing. This career assures you of nothing.
You are all upstate right now because you have a passion to create, a passion for art, a passion for the theater in whatever title you choose to call yourself.
I am 45 years old. I spent 20 years of my acting career waiting for others to choose me, to empower me with a job by saying ‘you are cast’. Waiting around in the mire of the massive downtime of this profession, playing with myself, smoking pot, trying to get laid and trying to not be depressed. WAITING for something to happen. WAITING and listening to people tell me it’s only a matter of time. Working hard when i was cast, but ultimately WAITING for my break to come to me.
The past 5 years -thanks to the LAByrinth- I stopped WAITING. I have spent those years on FUCKING FIRE. Creating and producing AND acting non-stop. There has only been a break in the action when I CHOSE for there to be. I have produced 6 feature films, overseen or produced 8 shorts, produced two massive theater festivals TENN 99 and NYNY and performed in endless readings and acted in numerous movies. Why?
Because I stopped ‘waiting for work’ to come to me. I went at it like a lioness goes after a gazelle. Like Michael Jordan went after loose balls. I have never woken up a day in the past 5 years without an artistic reason to be alive.
You all have the power to create right now. You can make a film with your freaking iPhone. You can produce a play with spirit and determination. You can get 10 people together and forego 500$ headshots and mailings for one year and have 5 thousand dollars to PRODUCE a play.
The money will follow if your heart, soul, and persistence arrive first.
Kickstart it, indiegogo it, play in the fucking subway with a violin case open if you have to, rehearse in your apartment, cobble together what you need…MAKE IT HAPPEN. PRODUCE.
There is an abundance of shit content pouring out in the world today. We need you to balance it by pouring out art and meaningful content. You are the future.
but don’t wait. never wait. Create.” -Ed Vassallo
“There’s a lot more that goes into getting a play off the page to the stage than just write it, read it and get a director,” Allison said. “Writing is born from this seed and you’re super excited and you’ve worked tirelessly on it because you’re completely obsessed with it and you’re like, “I don’t even know where this is going, I don’t care, I just love this part.” It’s getting the story out and you work day and night,” she said. “But the amount of time it takes to get that tiny seed of inspiration to a full, living, breathing thing is so long that by the time you’re in the last leg of that journey you hate it, you’re bored with it and you want do something else. I don’t know how novelists write one book for 8 years. I’m so bored with these characters, this story – it’s like any relationship I’m in – the love will fizzle out, the spark will die. That just will happen, so I think the trick to actually go from the page to the stage is finding ways to make yourself fall in love with the play and the project over and over and over.”
The actual work of production is very unglamorous.
“It’s like dealing with people’s egos – you’ve got directors, producers, actors, everyone and their mom and no one will ever be available at the same time,” she said. “Everyone will be late every time, things will fall through, you’ll have to raise money and lose money and you’ll spend way more money than you ever thought you’d spend. The goal is that you want people who never heard of you, who don’t know who you are, trying to get a ticket to your show. But, in reality, it’s people you do know, friends and family. You’re forcing them to go to the show and they’re all busy. You can’t even get those people out, how are you going to get people who never heard of you to get out to see your show. That’s called marketing and that’s a whole other fucking beast. No one will ever care about your shit as much as you do. That’s the bottom line. So be prepared if you’re a playwright, be prepared to have to do all of the hard work yourself. People will sign on and say, ‘Yes, I’m going to do this,’ but they don’t want to. Your job is to care about it.”