Jun 30, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 473: David Zellnik
Hometown: Cherry Hill, NJ
Current Town: Hell’s Kitchen, NYC
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am finishing the first draft of a new musical (music by my brother Joe) about a New York socialite dressmaker with a drinking problem in China in the 30s on a mission. I am vaguely superstitious about saying too much plot-wise, so I’ll just say: like our last musical YANK!, the new show follows very closely one person’s epic journey over the most important part of her life. Also I’m working on a play commissioned by Blue Coyote Theatre Company that involves a guy who may or may not be a thief, staying with a woman who may or may not be a witch. Also it involves the semi autonomous Russian ethnic enclave of Udmurtia.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person:
A: I sometimes think the writer I am is based on the actor I was. Just high school stuff through college, though I majored in Acting at NYU. What it gave me is (I hope) a healthy dread of ever giving an actor something stupid to say, something that’s complicated in the wrong way. It makes me want to make sure they have lines that feel delicious in their mouths. Other stuff from my childhood? As a 12-year-old I fell in love with the musical CATS. I’m not proud.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I love the collaborative nature of theatre, but sometimes it seems many artists and producers approach a new script as a series of problems to be fixed, rather than a text to be explored. No new play can survive too much of this (nor, might I suggest, could many classics). The problem isn’t bad suggestions, it’s good ones. Take too many good suggestions and the play eventually sucks. I don’t know why exactly this is so, but seems to be. More glibly, those sippy cups of alcoholic drinks at Broadway theatres are so damn annoying, when did they become universal? At Evita, some drunk guy behind me shook his icy Makers Mark the entire show. What happened to the social contract of theatre?
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: My heroes are people doing necessary and exhausting work out in the world...and the theatre artists who bring the wide broken world back into the theatre, people like Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, Athol Fugard, Lisa Kron; also those writers just drunk on words, who are rigorous with their craft like Sondheim, Stoppard, Pinter, Shakespeare; also those who sometimes sound goofy but are deeply soulful, like Oscar Hammerstein or William Finn.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: When the lights go down, every time – every time! – I still get so hopeful. Here is a room where anything could happen. So I guess: I get excited when something unexpected, real, or brave happens.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: The thing you think will be a hit? Don’t write that, it probably won’t be and if you want to write a hit, try writing TV or screenplays. On the other hand, the thing that makes you feel like “can I get away with writing this? Really?”... write that. I wanna see it. And don’t talk down to your characters.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Buy the YANK! original cast album… when it finally comes out.