Whatäó»s it like for a writer to bring their script to life? æ
For emerging playwright Allison Zajac-Batell, itäó»s been a hard-won journey from the page to the stage. And as an audience member, I hope youäó»ll gain from this article, the next time youäó»re sitting in the theatre, extra appreciation for the backend of this timeless vocation that has endured since man gained a sense of time.
Trained in theatre performance at PCCA at Gibbs High School in St. Pete and Bennington College in Vermont, ætoday she lives in Brooklyn, where her short play World Without End was awarded production in the NY New Works Festival in 2016. Despite her momentum since she switched 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 take up writing yet unsure of how to combine her vignettes of two women talking at a table, Allison realized it wasnäó»t that long ago that she was in the same place. æ
äóìI would almost give anything to be back in that place,äó she said, äóìcause thatäó»s the fun part. Now that Iäó»ve been writing for awhile, Iäó»m worried about structure and story and plot and character development. The writing gets stiffer – itäó»s like getting older – itäó»s like aging.äó
She moved to NYC in 2008 to pursue her acting career, attending a conservatory and going to castings. But things changed when she began working with LAByrinth Theater Company co-led by the late Philip Seymour-Hoffman. In 2013, having been a casual æwriter her whole life anyway, she suddenly switched to playwriting with an unprecedented intensity of focus after a letter was read aloud to a group of LAByrinth crew on retreat in upstate NY, written to them from the hospital bed of a LAByrinth member named Ed who had just died.
äóìThe letter was basically a call to make your own work and to never wait for anyone to say yes to yes,äó she said. äóìThat inspired me. I wrote poems in my room that night and started writing and this guy who was at dinner that night – he said äóÖwrite about what keeps you up at night.äó» 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 could. It seemed like acting was more what I knew how to do and Iäó»d been doing it for so, so long.äó
Here is Edäó»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
Allison is currently writing a pilot for a TV show about two couples set in Florida called Homestead. She plans on getting a crew together, coming down to Florida sometime in 2017 and self-producing it to pitch it and get it into festivals.
äóìItäó»s kinda of like a new americana, like north meets the south,äó she said. äóìThe south but not the south. Florida is the south but not so south. A little left of south. A little south of south. Right?äó
äóìThereäó»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,äó Allison said. äóìWriting is born from this seed and youäó»re super excited and you worked tirelessly on it cause youäó»re completely obsessed with it and youäó»re like, äóìI donäó»t even know where this is going, I donäó»t care, I just love this part.äó» Itäó»s getting the story out and you work day and night,äó she said. äóìBut the amount of time, the reality sets in, time, the reality factor, the time it takes to get that tiny seed of inspiration to a full living breathing thing is so long that by the time youäó»re in the last leg of that journey you hate it, youäó»re bored with it and you wanna do something else. I donäó»t know how novelists write one book for 8 years. Iäó»m like Iäó»m so bored with these characters, this story – itäó»s like any relationship Iäó»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.äó
The actual work of production is very unglamorous.
äóìItäó»s like dealing with peopleäó»s egos – youäó»ve got directors, producers, actors, everyone and their mom and no one will ever be available at the same time,äó she said. äóìEveryone will be late every time, things will fall through, youäó»ll have to raise money and lose money and youäó»ll spend way more money than you ever thought youäó»d spend. You realize the script sucks midway through production. You struggle to promote the fucking thing so people know itäó»s happening. You canäó»t lose money on it, you have to sell tickets. The goal is you want people who never heard of you who donäó»t know who you are TRYING to get a ticket to your show but, in reality, itäó»s like people you do know, friends and family, youäó»re forcing them to go to the show. And theyäó»re all busy. You canäó»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. Thatäó»s called marketing and thatäó»s a whole other fucking beast. No one will ever care about your shit as much as you do. Thatäó»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, äóÖYes, Iäó»m going to do this,äó» but they donäó»t want to. I mean, they do, they may be excited about it for a minute, but as soon as you ask them to do anything, they just canäó»t. Your job is to care about it.äó
People may not talk about actorsäó» salaries but they certainly wonder. Artists need to find a way to make a steady living if they are to be in good shape to refine their craft every day, and itäó»s important to talk about so donors know where their money goes and thespians know what theyäó»re getting into – never make the artist feel bad because he or she wants to get paid for their work.
äóìItäó»s a lot of hard work and in order to do it, you have to find way to fall in love with it over and over again or youäó»re going to quit, äó Zajac-Batell said. äóìThereäó»s no money in theatre, thatäó»s the other thing. Thatäó»s another thing that should be acknowledged. Thereäó»s no money in it, even at the highest level..äó
Like, every theatre company is calling people for help? I asked.
äóìI saw this play called Good People, you should read it, itäó»s fucking amazing, starring Frances McDormand – sheäó»s the shit,äó she said. äóìIäó»m working at Manhattan Theatre Club and I see one of her paychecks on the front desk and I was like, äóÖOh wow.äó» And it was just open, sitting there. I looked at the number and it was 785 dollars. And thatäó»s how much she was making after taxes for a week of shows, was 800 bucks, which is not a lot. Thatäó»s because itäó»s not-for-profit theatre, but thatäó»s the only theatre I think is good. Then you have commercial theatre where they pay movie stars $30,000/$40,000 per show.äó
She said an article came out recently wherein Michael Kors donated 1.5M to the Roundabout Theater Companyäó»s Sondheim Theatre äóìto support the development and production of musicals on RTC stages.äó She thought the people who bring the art to life on the stage should get a share of the money – that the administration would finally get to fulfill a desire to pay the artists better wages for all the work.
äóìBut no,äó she said. äóìIt all went to renovating a new patrons lounge and lobby and better restrooms in the theatre for the rich people who are paid subscribers to go to this theatre. So youäó»re going to donate over a million dollars to New York theatre – it was a crazy article to read – we were like äóÖwhat the fuck?!äó»äó