By Tim Realbuto
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Writing terrifies me. I never wanted a career in writing. I grew up as a child actor, starting in community theatre when I was just five years old. By the time I was twelve, I had been on Nickelodeon and HBO. I had been directed by Woody Allen and acted opposite Kevin Kline by the time I was sixteen. I went to college and got my degree in Acting. Acting was, in fact, what defined me as a person. Writing was only something I did in my spare time during periods of extreme inspiration. I wrote two terrible screenplays that never saw the light of day (and never will) and started countless novels. The quality never bothered me because it was all just for fun. I was an actor and I wanted nothing else.
After college, a couple of years went by with nothing but failed auditions and a couple of small roles in things nobody saw. I was getting itchy. I needed to be creative, but didn’t have an outlet to do it. So, when my best friend Matthew Martin suggested I help him write the book to a musical, I jumped at the chance. After a couple of months, I began writing songs with him as well. Before I knew it, we were co-collaborators on a full scale, massive sized musical called Ghostlight. That musical opened at the Signature Theatre in 2011 as part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival with a cast that included Tony Award winner Daisy Eagan, Rachel York, and Tony Award nominee Michael Hayden. The show sold-out in a matter of days and even had to be extended. All of a sudden, people knew who I was. I was asked to do interviews and talk on panels. Matt and I were profiled in the New York Times. There was something unbelievably exciting about sitting back and seeing something you’ve created come to life. After so many years of failure, I was finally being noticed… as a writer.
For some time, I was okay with this. Ghostlight was, and is, something I’m very much in love with. Writing was a hobby that became a profession and I accepted it. I threw out my headshots and stopped auditioning. I stopped all of my acting training cold turkey and decided that if I ever won a Tony, it would be for writing and I would have to be okay with that. And I was. Honest.
However, after a couple of years that old itch began to come back. That stupid bug I thought I had killed presented itself once again. I missed being on the stage desperately, and something had to change. I got new headshots, called up my old agent and told her that I wanted to audition again. I’ll admit that at first I was a little rusty, but then that old feeling came back and I got the hang out it… but New York saw me as a writer. Apparently, I was no longer an actor in the eyes of the people who mattered. I decided to take matters into my own hands and get back into vocal shape. I did some concerts, which were wonderfully creative and fun, but didn’t get me noticed for any roles and didn’t actually fulfill this (sick) inner need to act. What is it about artists? What’s wrong with us? Why is this career that hurts you most of the time such a drug?
Then something happened. A friend of mine told me about a new festival that was looking to produce one-act plays. I looked at the rules online. All I had to do to enter was send them seven pages of the script. Funnily enough, there was a script on my computer that I had started a year earlier. I loved the concept, but either laziness or life got in the way and I never finished it. I dug through some old files and found the (very) unfinished script. How many pages had I written the year before? Seven. Exactly seven. “It’s a sign” I thought, and I sent in those seven pages three days after the deadline, never expecting to hear back.
But one week later, I did hear back. “Congratulations” read the e-mail “Your first performance is in a month.” I guess they figured that every playwright who entered had actually finished their script. Oh, crap. I have to write a play now. And now getting back to my first little secret. Writing terrifies me. The thought of writer’s block crippling your once exuberant brain can only be described as numbing. Even now as I stare at the blinking curser on my computer screen, that unwelcome feeling enters the pit of my stomach. What if I have absolutely nothing to say? Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Luckily, it turns out that I did have something to say. Those seven pages turned into an hour and a half long play within a week. The play Yes is about the relationship between an acting teacher and his student, something I know a lot about. Inspired by a couple of acting teachers I’ve had in the past (who shall remain nameless) and the genius of Edward Albee (my idol), words flowed out of me faster than I could type them. Within a week, I had written something dark and exciting, truthful and scary, provocative and dangerous. Was it too much? Was I being too negative about this career I love so much? Only time would tell. I decided that the lead role of Patrick Ness was too good to pass up, so I declared that I would be playing him myself. Maybe I was being selfish, but the roles weren’t being offered to me, so why not create one for myself? “Alright, maybe I’ll just play the role this one time. If I ever do this play again, I’ll hire a more established actor” I told myself, with the blatant tone of a very poorly told lie. Now I just had to find the perfect actor to play the younger character. I held three days of auditions and hired 21 year-old Joe Blute, who is, by far, the greatest scene partner anyone could ever ask for. When we started rehearsals, it turned out that yes (pun intended), the play did work!
In the two years since Yes first premiered at that festival, words have been changed, deleted, added, and an epilogue was created… but I’m still playing Patrick Ness. The show has played three NYC engagements as well as the Detroit Fringe Festival. Reviews have been so positive that a director approached us about turning the play into a film, which we’re going to do in the spring. Now, we’re in the middle of an extended run Off-Broadway at Manhattan Repertory Theatre. Going on stage and playing this role in a play that I truly believe in is scary and thrilling… but most of all, fulfilling. That stupid theatrical bug that eats away at my stomach has been cured for now. And it all started with seven pages.
** for more on Tim: http://www.timrealbutoofficial.com