Playwright Dana Aber on the Pivot from Actor to Writer
While preparing for the post-pandemic festival run of her second full-length soloshow FINAL BLOW, playwright Dana Aber spoke with Gabriella Rose Balsam about swiveling from actor to writer (and back again).
Playwright Dana Aber, as interviewed by Gabriella Rose Balsam
GRB: You have an BFA from Syracuse University. How did your education there influence you to become an educator?
DA: My mother is a teacher, my father is a minister, and there are many educators within the generations of my family, so I think I’ve got it in the blood. I believe in education, emotional and social education as well as academic. One of the things passed on to me from the good teachers I’ve had is the importance of empathy. Empathy can get trained out of people, but it’s essential for the retention of open-mindedness and mental pliability. People learn when they feel safe, when their curiosity is encouraged, when their anxieties are acknowledged. Much of my writing aims to extend and percolate that kind of empathy.
GRB: You started out as a performer, then evolved into a writer. How did that happen?
DA: I definitely started out as a performer—but I’m a story-teller straight from the cradle. I will likely remain a performer for the rest of my days, but now performing isn’t my sole method of storytelling. It has taken time to be able to feel ‘ready’ to write my stories down. I suppose the burden of carrying them around inside became too great. And so we evolve!
In undergrad, they teach that musicals exist because at times the emotion within a character is so great it must burst forth into song. Within me, that happens with words. Emotions within me become agitated, riled up, staticky under my skin, until I must sit down and write the words to articulate them—often a set of lines that is maybe-a-poem. I write it all out quickly and with little editing in the moment, just a big tidal wave of words that pushes forth its own structure onto the page. Once that insistent emotion is on the page, I’ll put it away. Close the laptop, go do the dishes, or head to sleep. The following morning, I’ll open it up and read it and realize, ‘huh. That is a poem, actually. It isn’t terrible.’ Maybe I’ll tweak a word here or there in that initial first read-through, but usually my first instincts are the best ones and so I leave the hardcore editing for later. Because, unlike musicals exploding into song to further a plot, I don’t always know what the things I create are FOR. The purpose for them becomes clear afterwards. It might be days later, I’ll realize that what I wrote on the subway is actually a song. Or I’m in a conversation with someone, and I’ll mention that I just started the beginning of a new soloshow—aha! that’s what that thing I was scribbling away last night is all about…. I may not know what the written piece is, or how it’ll be used, but I trust that it has to be written and hopefully won’t be terrible. Once it exists on paper, I continue to explore and develop it, following that initial explosion and see where it leads me. Very different-sounding from my process of being an actor, but in truth it’s probably more alike than it’s not. Strong first instincts are my thing.
GRB: You do a lot of developmental readings as a performer. How does that help you as a writer?
DA: I’ve always been passionate about the development of new work, new musicals specifically. For nearly a decade I have been lucky to be hired as professional actor for NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Programs’ grad thesis presentations, which are full 90 minute musicals or compact 20-minute 1-acts. I have been ‘in the room’ countless times, absorbing how the grad-student writers navigated the development from page to stage. It was critical to witness how the development of their work benefitted by having pro-level actors as the first-pass interpreters, the new inflections imbued from the actors’ mouths, how lyrical phrases were shaped or scooped. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to understand when an actor was ‘filling in the blanks’ for material that hadn’t quite been fleshed out well on the page. Often, the grad students would return the next day with new pages addressing the thin patch of writing, further developing or tightening the line that the actor had (graciously) filled in using their performer-instinct. The writer and the actor are co-developing the text, in the moment, and the play is better for it. That symbiotic relationship is one of the most rewarding things about being a hired actor for new works in development.
Participating in the developmental stage of new works as a performer helped form the backbone of my writing process. Follow your instincts and get something on paper, anything really. Remember that the first draft, be it poem, essay, or shortform, is not too precious to change (or scrap). Let others help you see where you might have glided over a thin part in the text: for me this means sharing the work with a trusted colleague. And most concretely, trust the actor with your words because the work will surely benefit. But of course that part gets complicated in my process—since I’ve currently been focusing on solo performance work, this means I have to trust myself—the actor—to interpret… myself. To thine own self be true, doubled back again. And since I often handle much of the producing side, trust-yourself-yourself squared. Actually I think being in the room for developmental readings also helped me separate those different ‘roles’ within myself: the Writer, the Performer, the Editor, the Producer, all those different selves co-exist and stay out of each other’s way. Each creative-self trusts the others in the room to do their end of the work, the same way lyricists wait while an actor chews on a tricky patter lyric or a director holds off on making a cut while the composer frets over a new rhythm. All the creatives that live in my head are essential and support each other. Trust yourself, to the Nth-power!
GRB: Your pre-pandemic solo show, Baggage at the Door, has been the biggest showcase for your writing yet. How did you come up with the idea for the show?
DA: All of my writing germinates from personal experience, but Baggage at the Door is the most directly autobiographical. It’s a story I lived through, I survived, and I worked really hard to recover from. I truly did have, as is referenced in Baggage At the Door, multiple consecutive years of Januaries where I survived near-death experiences: a rare tropical illness, an assault by a lover while overseas, a sting from a poisonous fish, being struck by the A train in my own subway station.
During that period of my life, I was the queen of “I’m fine”; it can be easy to cover up all the bad things with a smile. But the reality was that those hidden traumas deepened and compounded, becoming fault-line scars within that held me back - from contentedness, joy, and healing. The hard work of recovery ultimately led me to that itchy feeling writing process I spoke of earlier, when the pressure or need to put feelings to paper resulted in a group of essays and poems. And again, it became clear that they were the bones of something bigger, a story, and I knew that there was music there, too. But - and this is important - the specifics of what I went through weren't the heart of the story's message, the story wasn't about me, it was about finding a way to move through surviving to learning to reclaim my hope.
And so it became critically important for me to tell the story of Baggage at the Door. I worked hard with my dramaturg to make sure that the story is told in a way that feels “safe” for me, the performer, and also creates a safe-space for the audience. I feel a surprising sense of accomplishment when after each performance folks come up and share with me their own traumas, or tell me how my story resonates with them personally, or ask when I’ll be performing it again so that they can bring someone from their life who would benefit from seeing it. Once a man with tears in his eyes told me that I ‘told his mother’s story’—he assured me that his mother didn’t survive a poisonous fish sting, but, again, the personal specifics aren’t important. What’s important is the story of Baggage the Door allows people to feel heard/seen, no matter their own damage or where they are in their own healing process. It’s a message of hope, building community through shared experience and empathy.
GRB: During the pandemic, you were acting in, writing for, and producing a new web series, The Quarantined Waitress. What has that experience been like?
DA: That’s a good example of a strong initial instinct leading me to a creative product. The weekend before the shutdown, which was a time of sheer confusion and terror, I worked 3 shifts at my café job. As a server, I had to manage my own anxieties as well as my patrons’…and deal with however their anxieties were being expressed: over-preparedness, privilege, and self-absorption, with a side of aioli. Yikes. I had to vent my frustration over the absurdism I fielded while waiting on those patrons, so I set up my husband’s green screen, threw on a wig, and started filming. Each character is rooted in a real-life interaction I had over that weekend, some of it pulled verbatim. And while I play ‘myself’ as the Quarantined Waitress, I borrowed some of my coworkers expressions and mannerisms.
It was a product of the quarantime most definitely, and totally therapeutic. There was a steep learning curve with the post-production editing, audio voice manipulation, and greenscreen staging—it was the first time I ever wrote scenes for two people, and the first time I ever acted opposite myself. Talk about trust! It was also the first time that I tried sketch comedy. It’s been a big hit with the Service Industry community, of course. But when I got recalled back to work with the pandemic was still raging on, serving the rude and privileged in the middle of the concrete street, wasn’t so funny anymore. So I “tabled” it. When the City reopened indoor dining, I found a new restaurant job at a fun margarita place in Midtown….so I may trot out a few new characters that haven’t had screen time yet. There’s plenty more absurdism to share. Pass the aioli!
GRB: For your new solo show, FINAL BLOW, are you utilizing the technical skills that you developed during the Quarantined Waitress filming?
DA: Ha! Not a one. It’s really interesting to me, actually, that FINAL BLOW has zero technical requirements. Instead, it relies on one of the other skills highlighted in Quarantined Waitress: mimicry. In FINAL BLOW, I slip in and out of characters through the whole piece, borrowing physicalizations and behaviors from people in my life—then sliding back into my own body to narrate. The director, Ria T. DiLullo, was surprised when I told them that I haven’t really utilized that skill in my theatre work before. I mean, I DO, but usually borrowing a posture or expression to build a new character, a fictional character, from scratch. But because FINAL BLOW is autobiographical, the characters are pulled from my memory. In that way, FINAL BLOW has been my biggest writing challenge, flexing that muscle that I’ve generally only used to tell stories to my family at home. Now I’m sharing those stories, embodying those stories, for my ‘extended’ family onstage. So in a way, performing FINAL BLOW really feels like coming home.
See FINAL BLOW in one of 3 performances as part of the New York Theater Festival’s Winterfest at the Teatro LATEA, 107 Suffolk Street. Wednesday Nov. 10 at 4pm, Friday Nov. 12 at 630pm, and Sunday Nov. 14 at 1pm. FINAL BLOW is paired with another show for a run-ime of 90 minutes. Audience members should be masked at all times in the theatre and prepared to show proof of vaccination and photo ID before admittance. Tickets are $25-35 and available through this link: https://newyorktheaterfestival.com/final-blow/
Dana Aber is a 20+ year veteran of the professional stage. She writes poems, essays, lyrics, and plays. FINAL BLOW is her 2nd full-length soloshow. Her autobiographical 1-woman musical, Baggage at the Door, travels her healing process from trauma-induced PTSD. Baggage at the Door was a finalist in NYC’s ONEFest, and earned Dana a month-long artist residency with Elsewhere Studios in Colorado in 2018. Baggage at the Door looks forward to its regional premiere in Virginia. Dana is currently in collaboration with her brother, Broadway’s Drew Aber (he/him) on a Save/Reload, a soloshow for him, about identity exploration through video games. www.DanaAber.com
Gabriella Rose Balsam is a playwright, bookwriter, and lyricist, with additional experience in writing fiction and theatre criticism/journalism. In the theatre, she has worked with WP Theater, Eisenberg/Beans Casting, Theatre Exile, and the Academy of Vocal Arts. Her theatrical journalism/criticism has been published by NPX, 10glo, and The Sappho Project. She received a Bachelor's Degree in Advertising-copywriting concentration with a certificate (minor) in Writing from Temple University and a Masters in Fine Arts from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in Musical Theatre Writing (Wordsperson). Additionally, her theatrical work has been presented at Dixon Place and elsewhere. She is a proud member of the StateraArts New York community, the Broadway Women’s Alliance, Maestra, and the Dramatists’ Guild. Excerpts of her plays are available online on the New Play Exchange. Her plays include Free, You Never Said Anything, and What Am I, (Or, The Lost Souls Of Philip Island). Her musicals include La Voisin: A Feminist AF Musical, Dancing Around: Mental Health in Words, Music, & Movement (both with music by Brandy Hoang Collier & Deniz Demirkurt), The Untitled Rebirth Project (with music by Brandy Hoang Collier), and The Lily House (with music by Simon Lee). www.gabriellarosebalsam.com
This interview was initially intended for publication on a theatre website blog which was never released due to the pandemic.