Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Connecticut in a few different small towns, some more secluded than others. Then I moved to New York City to go to college at Fordham University, and recently returned to Connecticut to raise my kids.
Do you have any stories of your creativity coming out at a young age?
Most of my memories around growing up revolve being able to wander off and explore the wooded areas around where I lived. I just got to explore a lot, invent games, build forts, and just had the freedom to play. My imagination was always encouraged and that’s something that stays with you.
Is there anything in your early years that drew you into writing or even theatre specifically?
I didn’t get into playwriting until high school. I was mainly focused on acting, for the fun of it, until I realized that I could come up with my own lines. The concept of getting other people to say what I wanted kind of blew my mind – and I knew I wanted control over the story. As a creator, I was hooked.
Early on were there other writers or people who were influences for you?
My early writing was definitely more influenced by the comedic brilliance of Neil Simon and Mel Brooks. Most of my stuff was comedic until I stopped thinking everything was funny [laughs]. I had more fun when I was just writing comedies, and some days I try to write a comedy but it comes out more dramatic than I hoped.
“When writing, if I allow myself to discover, for the unconscious to make its way to the page, it’s always surprising, and exciting, and kind of fuels the rest of the process for me.”
How did your path of writing early in life lead to you wanting to do it professionally?
You know, I’m still kind of hoping for that moment [laughs]. But probably when I had my first play published and it started to get produced by people around the country that I had no connection to. It became bigger than my circle and I thought ‘oh, okay, this could be something.’ Of course the royalties and the bread on the table associated with those productions made an impact.
What do you love about writing? About theatre?
The unexpected nature of both. When writing, if I allow myself to discover, for the unconscious to make its way to the page, it’s always surprising, and exciting, and kind of fuels the rest of the process for me. It’s the same with putting the show on its feet. There’s always a certain point where the play takes on a life of its own. The director, producer, actors, designers come in, and you have to be open to that collaboration. You have to let them bring their own artistic ideas to it. It can be beautiful but it’s always scary because the play is your baby and you want to protect it. But you have to let go. And that’s when the unexpected happens.
What are the kind of stories that you’re drawn to?
Ones that have some sort of magic in them. I’m not as interested in replicating reality, even if the play is meant to be very realistic, or naturalistic, I think if you try to do that you’ll fail. So I think if you embrace whatever medium it is and realize that that’s not reality. I’m drawn to stories that go a bit farther down that road and find the magic.
Talk a little about your process writing a script.
Some writers start with character. I tend to start with story and plot and sort of flesh out the characters from there. I try to have it all mapped out before I start writing, but it’s important to also leave room for discovery. But generally I know the plot points I want to hit and where it’s going to end before I get started actually writing it.
What are some tips for adapting classic stories and finding a fresh approach?
You have to find your own, unique way in. Why are you specifically connecting to the piece? Figure out why are you drawn to particular scenes or characters and then focus in on that and bring out the parts that are most interesting to you which will inevitably be different than someone else’s.
What have you learned about developing characters that would help writers wanting to write more interesting, dimensional characters?
Each character needs to be speaking in their own voice. Obviously it’s going to be part of your voice too, but it’s vital that the dialogue is unique to each character. Sounds simple, but it’s skipped in favor of funny or interesting dialogue. Would that character say that line in that way? Or could that be any number of characters? Make it specific it’ll be that much more engaging for the audience to listen to. If you can get an audience to want to listen to the character then they will follow them wherever they go.
“My mantra is to focus on the page that’s in front of you. Just take that next step, then the next, then the next.”
About theme—is theme something you’re aware of while writing or do you think it emerges on its own?
I definitely think about theme a lot before I write a play—as it’s marinating. And I think it’s important to understand why you’re writing it and what you’re really exploring, what questions you’re asking through it. I think once you get down to the actual pen to paper you have to put that stuff out of your mind – out of the forefront of your mind, hopefully it’s still lingering somewhere.
How do you tackle the blank page? Any advice on how to get started?
It can be so easy to get overwhelmed by a new piece, especially if you’re looking at a longer work, and the enormity and complexity of it. You’re just going to totally be frozen. So my mantra is to focus on the page that’s in front of you. Just take that next step, then the next, then the next. The other key is to not worry about it coming out exactly the way it is in your head. There’s a quote that I have hung up on my board that is, ‘Perfection is the enemy of creation.’ If you’re always worried about it coming out perfectly or it being ready to be shown to other people then you’re never going to create so you have to abandon all of those expectations of yourself.
Do you have any examples of when the artistic or scenic design of a show you saw or wrote elevated the storytelling?
I saw a show recently and before the actors even came out, the set, lighting, and sound design already told us so much about where we were and what to expect. The design really told a whole story before it even started. I love a simple stage but I also love being immersed and transported by the theater.
What are some of your views on digital projections? How are they best used in theatre? (any examples?)
There’s no time when a projection is trying to be reality so in a way, I think it’s actually more theatrical than a traditionally built set. Projections are not trying to remake something or fool the audience, they’re just trying to set the scene and expand the world in an economical and theatrical way.
Talk about your journey into publishing and even licensing shows?
My first play was published with Playscripts back in 2005. As far as traditional publishers go, they were still a young upstart and doing a lot of innovative things that were shaking up the industry. I was eager to be part of the company and excited to work on behalf of new plays and playwrights. I worked there for almost nine years before starting my own company Stage Partners in 2015 to try to do some things differently again and have a little more control over what plays I thought weren’t represented. We pride ourselves on finding stories that aren’t making their way to the stage for whatever reason and try to fill that gap in an innovative and expedited way.
“Projections are not trying to remake something or fool the audience, they’re just trying to set the scene and expand the world in an economical and theatrical way.”
What are you looking for in new writers? Any tips or advice for those just getting started?
When writing plays for student actors, with the hopes of reaching a wider audience, it’s really important to put up the show with a school first. Getting a production at multiple schools is even better because you don’t want to get into the trap of having a piece that’s been written for a specific group that doesn’t translate to a wider audience of schools. So first and foremost, get the play performed — you’ll learn a ton– and then rewrite and see if there’s another group you can work with. Start local.
Where do you think [school] theatre is headed in the future?
Schools definitely seem more adventurous with the types of plays they’re selecting and are more interested than ever in doing new plays. So that’s really exciting for playwrights. There are of course limitations with what can be done because of administration and/or community standards, but I think that’s becoming more open as well. Teachers are looking to have their students explore and tackle complex issues through theatre. They’re looking to find more meaning in what they’re doing. More broadly there’s greater realization about how theatre can have a powerful and positive impact on a younger person as a whole. Theater can provide a safe, creative, collaborative space for young people at all levels and abilities – there’s nothing else like it.
Jason Pizzarello’s play Bethel Park Falls is part of Everyday Inferno Theatre Company’s 2018 season, directed by Christine Zagrobelny in NYC Central Park. Recently developed plays include After People Like You at Classic Stage, with director Anna Brenner; Providence Adrift with Meghan Finn at 3LD; Half Right, with director Michelle Bossy and the Fordham Alumni Company; All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Being a Zombie with director Damen Scranton at Irondale Ensemble; and When I Had Three Sisters with director Lila Neugebauer in the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. Other plays include: Once There Was a Boy(semi-finalist, Princess Grace Award; semi-finalist, O’Neill Playwrights Conference); InsideOut (Live Project at HERE Arts Center); and Saving the Greeks: One Tragedy at a Time (Push Productions at 14th St. Y Theater). Five of his short plays have been selected by the Actors Theatre of Louisville as Heideman Award finalists. Over thirty of his plays are published and have been produced in all 50 states and in 22 countries, including a Norwegian translation. His work has also been featured in “Actor’s Choice: Scenes for Teens,” “Actor’s Choice: Monologues for Women,” and “Random Acts of Comedy” (Playscripts). He is the co-founder of Stage Partners, a licensing house for new plays for young actors (www.yourstagepartners.com). He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two young daughters. www.jasonpizzarello.com
Jason is being interviewed by Mitch Stark, Founding Creative Director of Theatre Avenue, a studio that produces digital projection designs for theatre and ballet companies. If you’re interested in projections to help bring your next show to life on stage, check out Theatre Avenue’s collection.