About the Author:
With nine seasons on hit medical sitcom Scrubs and Golden Globe nominated indie flick Garden State under his belt, Zach Braff is hardly an unknown in the entertainment world. Less well known is Braff’s history as a stage actor: After a tiny role in the Public Theater's 1998 Macbeth, he played a blond Sebastian (opposite Julia Stiles) in the 2002 Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night. In the summer of 2010, he starred in Paul Weitz's dark comedy Trust at Second Stage Theatre. It was obviously a good experience, because Braff has returned to the off-Broadway company to premiere his first play, All New People. Below, Braff reflects on blending broad humor with extreme drama and transitioning from the editing room to the rehearsal room.
Writing a play has been a lifelong dream of mine. My father did community theater when I was a kid and I would go see him in all the local plays; everything from The Prisoner of Second Avenue to Hello, Dolly! When other kids were going to see sports, he was bringing me in to New York to see Broadway shows. That’s what got me interested in being an actor, in being involved behind the scenes or in front of the camera and on either side of the proscenium: my father’s passion for theater.
In a roundabout way, he also helped inspire All New People. I went down to Long Beach Island to rent my father a beach house for his birthday—as you might have heard, I’m partial to New Jersey, as I grew up there and I love it—and with beach houses, you go down in winter and check them out. I’d never been to this beach community in winter. It was snow-covered, with what looked like thousands of houses all standing empty. It was so spooky and fascinating and beautiful, and a really great setting for a play. I had the idea for this comedy about four strangers coming together running around in my head, and it just clicked that this was where I wanted to set it, this desolate beach house in the dead of winter. And that became All New People.
I like comedy with drama bubbling underneath. My TV show Scrubs was an extreme example of this; we could do broad, broad comedy, then go around a corner and deal with death. I was amazed that [Scrubs creator] Bill Lawrence could do that in a 20 minute episode, and I love that style of entertainment. Everyone has things they’re keeping down and they often keep it down with humor, and as this play progresses the drama is like boiling water—it has to gurgle to the top. It helps that I have four great actors, Justin Bartha, Anna Camp, Krysten Ritter and David Wilson Barnes, who are wonderful at playing that. There are very funny moments, and also some very dramatic moments, and they ride those waves so well.
I fell in love with Second Stage Theatre last year when I acted there in Paul Weitz’s play Trust. The M.O. of Carole Rothman, who runs it, is to workshop and develop new plays and discover and nurture new playwrights, and I really was honored that she chose my play. Not since high school, when I was on the lighting crew, have I been completely behind-the-scenes in the theater, and it’s definitely a challenge, because I’m not directing either. This involves a lot more communication. One of the benefits of playing the lead in your stuff is that all the arguing about how the lead character should be goes on in your own head. Now I have to figure out what I want it to be, interpret that in a clear way to [director] Peter [DuBois], and then let Peter interpret it to the actors That’s all new territory for me.
Also tricky is the fact that I’m a very solitary writer, and theater is a very public creative process. When you make a movie you collect all the images you can. On Scrubs we’d shoot ten punch lines and then head to the editing room to see which one worked best. The editing room is a very private spot where you can hide in the dark with your editor and a cup of coffee and figure it out. With a new play you’re figuring things out in the rehearsal room in front of the whole company, and in a way that’s a lot more pressure because you don’t always know the answers. Someone will say, “Well, don’t you think it should be this?” and you say, “Can I go in a dark room and get in the fetal position, figure it out and get back to you?”
That is one of the challenging things that people in theater know: the rehearsal process and preview period is your editing room. It’s a challenge, but it’s also the fun part. It’s fun to say, “That joke is ok, but I bet we can beat it.” Then we try something new, and the new line gets a big laugh or maybe it doesn’t, but that’s the joy of it—all that little sandpapering and learning as we go.